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Last Updated: Monday, 12 July 2004, 13:23 GMT 14:23 UK
China finally faces up to Aids
Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
By Rupert Wingfield-Hayes
BBC correspondent in Beijing

Children in Shuang Miao
China's Aids epidemic has already created many orphans
When it comes to Aids, attitudes in China are finally changing.

There are to be no more lies and cover-ups. Frankness is the new watchword, and that comes right from the top.

The top in this case is China's Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

In a statement on the eve of Sunday's global Aids conference in Bangkok, Mr Wen's assessment of the situation in China was his frankest, and bleakest, yet.

This is the gist of what he had to say: China already has an Aids epidemic. The disease has broken out of the high risk groups and into the general population.

Worse still, the disease has taken hold in large areas of China's rural hinterland - the areas which are least equipped to deal with it.

Lastly, and most significantly, Mr Wen made a demand. Every official at every level of China's vast bureaucracy must, he said, make fighting Aids a top priority.

Wake-up call

This final demand is particularly significant, because when it comes to fighting Aids, Mr Wen's own officials are often his biggest problem.

China's vast government bureaucracy has a deeply entrenched culture of denial.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao
Mr Wen spoke of the Aids problem just before the Bangkok conference
In 1958, when Chairman Mao's disastrous "Great Leap Forward" caused the worst famine of the 20th Century, local officials all over China continued to report bumper harvests.

And so it is with Aids. Until last year the government refused to admit it even had an Aids problem.

Then the United Nations released a report predicting 10 million Aids infections in China by the end of the decade if the government did not change its attitude.

Finally Beijing woke up. Mr Wen has taken the lead, appearing on national television with Aids patients at a Beijing hospital, and making it clear that Aids is now a top priority.

Henan legacy

But a change in attitude in Beijing is meaningless, if officials at provincial and local levels continue to deny they have an Aids problem.

And that is exactly what is happening.

Less than an hour's flight from the gleaming skyscrapers of Beijing, people were being left to die in the most unspeakable conditions
Henan is one of China's poorest and most overpopulated provinces. It is also the epicentre of China's worst Aids epidemic.

Up to half a million poor peasants in Henan have become infected with HIV by selling their blood.

At one time, the government even encouraged them to do so, setting up special blood collection centres.

But the centres were appallingly run. Equipment was reused, un-sterilised, over and over again.

The result was disaster. In some villages, half the population is now infected with HIV - usually the poorest half.

I first went to Henan in 2003. What I found was beyond belief. Less than an hour's flight from the gleaming skyscrapers of Beijing, people were being left to die in the most unspeakable conditions.

There were no doctors, no medicines, not even the most basic help.

Villagers told me that local government officials knew what was going on, but that their top priority was to stop the outside world, and in particular their masters in Beijing, from finding out.

Chinese journalists and volunteers who tried to expose what was going on were arrested and intimidated.

I myself had to escape from one village at high speed with local plain-clothed police in hot pursuit.

Premier's battle

This spring I returned to Henan - hoping, expecting, something to have changed.

It had. This time the villagers had medicine. A box of anti-retroviral drugs had been dropped off at any house known to have an HIV sufferer.

But that was it. There was no doctor to check the patients, or to instruct them on how to use the drugs.

Some of the villagers were taking them, but most had stopped, put off by the powerful side effects.

40m people with HIV worldwide
30m in the developing world
Just 400,000 of those with HIV in poorer countries receive anti-Aids drugs

The rate of death in the villages had hardly skipped a beat.

And there was no change in the attitude of the local government either.

Police surveillance was even tighter - so tight in fact that I was forced to sneak in to the village in the middle of the night and leave before dawn.

"Why?" I asked a Chinese friend who is trying to help the Aids victims in Henan. "Why don't the officials help these people?"

"You don't understand," he said with a bitter smile. "In China the only person a government official fears is the person above him.

"And what he fears most is the person above him finding out that something has gone wrong.

"The officials here would rather let all these people die than have their superiors find out what's really going on."

This is what Prime Minister Wen is up against.

China's forgotten Aids victims
13 Nov 03 |  Asia-Pacific


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