HONG KONG—Chinese authorities launched a high-profile public relations exercise on World AIDS Day Monday, with the country's president and premier both visiting worst-hit Hunan province to shake hands with people living with HIV.
But activists were skeptical of government attempts to fight discrimination against people with the disease and called on local officials to stop persecuting HIV/AIDS patients who try to seek compensation or pursue complaints through legal channels.
"Every year, on Dec. 1, I ask whose government this really is?" said Wan Yanhai, who runs a non-government AIDS organization in Beijing.
We are being kicked around like a football."
Hunan AIDS activist Li Xige
"Every year, on Dec. 1, we hear so many cries of despair," Wan said.
Health authorities and the U.N. AIDS agency pledged Sunday to combat the stigmatization of people with the disease by unveiling a massive red ribbon, the symbol of AIDS awareness, at the Olympic Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing.
"Stigma and discrimination are major obstacles in an effective response to AIDS. We need to engage all sectors of society in China to combat these issues and work together to stop the disease," said Minister of Health Chen Zhu, according to a UNAIDS statement.
The HIV virus that causes AIDS gained a foothold in China largely due to unsanitary blood plasma-buying schemes and tainted transfusions in hospitals.
While health authorities say sex has overtaken drug use as the main cause of HIV infections in China, veteran activist and retired gynecologist Gao Yaojie has repeatedly said that infections through transfusions is a continuing scandal in poverty-stricken Hunan.
Gao, 81, launched her memoir titled Noble Souls in Hong Kong. The book details her experiences among those living with HIV in China.
"This book was forced out of me by the authorities in Hunan province," Gao said Monday. "Initially I had no plans to write a memoir or autobiography. But now, they have banned this book from publication on the mainland."
"My attitude now is that if they arrest me, I'll probably die. If they don't lock me up, then this is how I'm going to grind away at them," she said.
The health ministry said it would strengthen education on AIDS prevention and to fight discrimination, while also stepping up condom distribution and outreach to high-risk groups such as sex workers and men who have sex with men.
Stigma still strong
Activists said they weren't optimistic the move would produce results in a country where the topic of AIDS still remains politically very sensitive, and where those who seek compensation for infection through infected blood given to them by hospitals and clinics are routinely harassed by authorities.
Hunan AIDS activist Li Xige called on the local authorities in Hunan to allow people to register complaints with the courts.
"I think it would be better if the Hunan People's Court and the Hunan People's Government stopped interfering in the running of the judiciary," said Li, whose phone has been blocked to prevent her from talking to outsiders.
"They should allow the courts to accept the cases which are worthy of acceptance, and to pay compensation to those that deserve it. That is the work I hope to see the authorities undertake in the next year."
Li said she and a group of Hunan petitioners planned to visit the complaints office of the Supreme People's Court in Beijing on Monday to complain about the situation back home.
Beijing petition bid
"We have been many times to lodge petitions calling on the authorities to accept these cases. But each time the court tells us to go to the government, and then the government tells us to go back to the court," Li said.
"We are being kicked around like a football."
Lawyers and civil rights activists say people with AIDS are constantly denied treatment in hospitals in China and have died as a result. Without heavy external pressure, children with AIDS are also denied entry into schools.
Official estimates put the number of people living with HIV in China at about 700,000, with around 85,000 people with full-blown AIDS, according to UNAIDS.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Xin Yu. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.