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Belatedly, China confronts AIDS

The student with shaggy hair hanging low over his eyes, his head pulled turtle-like into a leather jacket, was plainly embarrassed by his ignorance.

Not until three months ago, when he got back the results of his blood test, had the 22-year-old art student at a Beijing university heard the term “HIV.” None of his friends knew how to use condoms or had any idea why they should.

“By the time they realized, it was too late,” said the student, who asked not to be named.

Belatedly, China is trying to get out the word about the AIDS virus and officials are doing it in the typically oversize way that befits the world’s most populous nation, deploying an army of volunteers.

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To mark World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, a banner of a giant red ribbon was draped from the huge National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, used in the Summer Olympics. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao were widely photographed with their arms around HIV-positive people. The state media have been filled with photographs and editorials about combating the discrimination and isolation felt by AIDS victims.

“Time to recognize that AIDS is a disease, not a shame,” extolled the official New China News Agency recently.

The publicity blitz is surprising for an authoritarian government that has resorted to cover-up and denial when it came to HIV and AIDS. Over the years, activists have been arrested and harassed for sharing information about acquired immune deficiency syndrome. One of the best known, Hu Jia, has been in prison for almost a year on charges of “subverting state power.”

The extent of ignorance about sexually transmitted diseases is staggering. A recent poll of 6,000 Chinese that included students, migrant workers and blue- and white-collar workers found that 48% thought the AIDS virus was transmitted by mosquitoes.

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Yet it is clear that AIDS awareness has come out of the closet here, with increasing resources devoted to the 700,000 or more Chinese who are HIV-positive.

Although China does not have the world’s largest HIV/AIDS problem -- the HIV infection rate is estimated at less than 0.1% -- the virus has been spreading fast enough among some populations that the government became alarmed. Migrant workers are particularly susceptible because they come from rural areas with little sexual education and often patronize prostitutes during years of separation from their families. Last month the Chinese government released a short educational film starring actor Wang Baoqiang and a migrant worker who is HIV-positive.

HIV is also spreading fast among intravenous drug users in western China, particularly Yunnan province bordering Myanmar, and in the Xinjiang region.

“It is very difficult to stop AIDS among drug users. The local governments don’t want us working with this population because they consider them criminals,” said Ju He, a Beijing-based AIDS activist.

At times when Ju’s group has tried to distribute clean needles to prevent drug users from spreading the virus among themselves, local police have stationed themselves across the street to arrest anyone who shows up.

During a conference Dec. 8-10 in Beijing of nongovernmental organizations, activists described the Chinese government’s handling of AIDS as “schizophrenic.”

When AIDS emerged in the 1980s, Chinese Communist propaganda stigmatized it as a disease of capitalists and foreigners. Tens of thousands of people were infected in rural China in the mid-1990s through reckless blood donation schemes in which people were given transfusions of contaminated blood.

Surviving victims and their children, many of them HIV-positive, are still agitating for compensation, and their efforts have often gotten them in legal trouble in a country where public protests are not permitted.

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“In China, the problem is not so much with the central government or the provincial government,” said Li Dan, a Beijing AIDS expert. “At the local level, there are officials who treat anybody involved with AIDS as a criminal or a troublemaker.”

The situation is better in Beijing than elsewhere in the country.

Volunteer groups give out condoms at bars and bathhouses. On World AIDS Day, the Chaoyang administrative district’s high school students heard special lectures and recited pledges to combat the disease.

“The Chinese government made some terrible mistakes in the past, but there has been a great, great deal of change,” said Xiao Dong, who runs a volunteer group in Beijing. “From my point of view, the Chinese government is now facing the historical problem of AIDS.”

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barbara.demick@latimes.com


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