More than 100 people from the central Chinese province of Henan who were infected with HIV via tainted blood transfusions clashed with police at the ministry of civil affairs in Beijing on Wednesday after traveling there to demand promised welfare benefits.
"There was a clash there this afternoon," said one AIDS patient surnamed Li who was part of the group. "Two police officers started beating us."
"This afternoon, we waited there for several hours," said a second petitioner, also surnamed Li. "Then there was a minor incident, and the police seemed to think we were there to cause trouble."
"They didn't know we were [AIDS] patients, and they got a little overheated," he said. "They roughed up one of the AIDS patients."
But he added: "After they realized we were AIDS patients, they stopped."
The renewed petitioning bid comes ahead of China's annual parliamentary meetings, which begin with the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on March 3 and continue with the National People's Congress (NPC) on March 5.
The second Mr. Li, said the petitioners had blocked the entrance to the ministry, but that officials had refused to come and meet with them.
"It was just the police and the security guards, and they stopped us from pushing past them."
"They sent an employee from the complaints office, but we didn't want to talk to him, because the complaints office never does anything, so we wanted to have nothing to do with him," the second Li said
Activists barred from traveling from Henan
Some activists who tried to join the petitioning trip to Beijing said they were detained by local authorities at the railway station before they could board the train.
Qin Yuejie, an activist from Henan's Linying county, said he was detained with around a dozen fellow petitioners at a railway station in the provincial capital Zhengzhou.
"There were officials from every village following us there," Qin said. "Five people managed to get away, and they're in Beijing now, while 11 were detained, and some are now under surveillance."
Meanwhile, activist Liu Ximei from Xincai county said she had been detained on a bus on the public highway along with 10 others while trying to make the trip to Beijing.
"I am in poor health and I don't go out much these days," Liu said. "But they were still keeping a very close eye on me."
"Sometimes the village secretary himself checks up on me.... They follow me wherever I go," she said.
Demanding promised benefits
Back in Beijing, a petitioner surnamed Zhu said the group was determined to receive benefits already promised to them in a government benefits package to address the AIDS epidemic linked to blood-selling and transfusions across some of China's poorest regions.
"Both the Hebei and the Hubei governments have implemented this rescue package for people with HIV, but AIDS patients in Henan have received no assistance at all, let alone compensation," Zhu said.
Under government measures announced in 2009, orphans whose parents have both died of AIDS should receive 600 yuan (U.S. $96) in subsidies every month, while single parent families with one parent lost to AIDS would get 200 yuan (U.S. $32) a month.
Zhu said that around 30 percent of Henan AIDS patients have now developed hepatitis C, and were calling on the health ministry to provide free treatment.
"Also, our monthly assistance should be 600 yuan a month, and the older orphans should have their school fees paid in full by the government," he said.
He said that even when people with HIV succeeded in graduating from community colleges, they found themselves barred from employment.
"They should be helping them to find work, but the Henan government has implemented none of these measures."
Many were infected by tainted blood transfusions linked to blood-selling schemes, or by mother-to-baby transmission following infection of a parent.
100,000 estimated infected in blood-selling schemes
Last August, hundreds of AIDS patients tore down the gates of the Henan provincial government buildings in a bid to get officials to take heed of their demands. Some saw their monthly payments increase to 200 yuan, but said they were entitled to 600 yuan.
Some AIDS patients have tried unsuccessfully to sue the local authorities for failing to deliver promised treatment packages and adequate compensation after they were infected via tainted blood supplies in local hospitals and clinics.
Activists estimate that at least 100,000 people in Henan alone have been infected with HIV during the blood-selling schemes run by local governments, which bought blood donations from impoverished rural residents, but also took a cut of the proceeds.
Collectors paid villagers to give their blood, pooled it without testing for HIV or any other infections, extracted the valuable plasma and then re-injected the blood back into those who sold it. Around 40,000 of them have now died of AIDS, leaving around 60,000 still living with HIV.
Retired gynecologist and former medical professor Gao Yaojie, currently living in the United States, says the majority of new HIV infections still come from a network of thousands of blood-selling and transfusion clinics which are still operating in poorer regions of the country.
Reported by Fang Yuan for RFA's Mandarin Service and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie