A commenter pointed me to an article by Xiang Dong, senior producer with BBC World Service. It’s an important story because right now it seems to many that China has finally wised up about AIDS and is being open and responsible on the issue. But is it true?
I had hoped that China had learned some lessons after the outbreak of Sars, but reporting on or talking about HIV and Aids in China remains both difficult and dangerous. The situation is still very sensitive and journalists – whether foreign or local – asking questions are routinely prevented from reaching the areas where people are dying.
Even the outspoken Aids activist Dr Gao Yaojie was concerned. When I telephoned her in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, where hundreds of thousands of people contracted HIV through selling their blood, she told me that her telephone was bugged and that she was being watched to try to stop her revealing the true picture of the HIV/Aids epidemic. I know that many other journalists have been harassed, detained and even expelled from the province.
So much for the new transparency on AIDS.
The article focuses on Xiang’s attempt to interview AIDS victims in a village in Henan province. The level of government harassment against any “outsider” who tries to reach these people is intense, and the locals who assist them are arrested. But the saddest part of the story is how the victims are still treated as second-class citizens, and how any attempt to improve their lives is challenged by local officials:
The following evening we began the 11-hour train journey to Henan. On board, my guide introduced me to two other volunteers and explained that he was setting up an orphanage for children whose parents had died from Aids. He told me of the difficulties he faces in dealing with the local authorities. Local schools won’t accept any of the children so he has been forced to set up the orphanage in a local mosque.
In the wake of World AIDS Day and all the noise China has made regarding its new openness on AIDS, it’s time to see the hype translated into action. Most of the efforts to stop AIDS must ocur at the local level. If this example is systemic, then we’re still pretty close to square one.
Related post: The indescribable tragedy of AIDS in China
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.