China's AIDS epidemic has been largely fueled by rural blood-selling in poverty-stricken areas, and two of the country's leaders should be held to account, according to a retired senior health official.
Chen Bingzhong, 78, a former head of the China Health Education Research Institute, published an open letter to President Hu Jintao online ahead of World AIDS Day calling for disciplinary action against propaganda czar Li Changchun and vice-premier Li Keqiang.
The two Lis, Chen says, should be held responsible for covering up the true extent of the blood-selling problem, which played a major role in spreading HIV in rural communities.
They should also be brought to account for harassing and suppressing AIDS experts Gao Yaojie and Wan Yanhai when they tried to speak out about the issue, he said in the letter, which was first sent to the ruling Communist Party of China's Commission for Discipline Inspection in June.
"This whole affair began around 17 years ago, so there are lot of things which I know quite a lot about, and I have accumulated a lot of documentation," Chen said.
"I think that this is an extremely serious issue. If, as a senior official, you cover up the extent of an epidemic, and don't report it, then you aren't competent for high office, and you should be held accountable. I think that this is what should happen."
Chen, who made the letter public at considerable risk to himself, said he fully expects retaliatory measures against him from the government.
"I don't think the authorities will like it at all," he said. "But I don't care about any of that. I am already seriously ill."
Chen Bingzhong is suffering from terminal liver cancer.
Official accounts of China's HIV/AIDS epidemic typically focus on sex as the fastest-growing transmission route, singling out rising rates of infection among homosexual men.
But veteran activists Gao Yaojie and Wan Yanhai—now both exiled in the United States—have repeatedly said that infections through tainted blood transfusions are a continuing scandal in Hunan province and other poorer regions of the country.
"If I don't speak out now, and take this to the grave with me, then what sort of person would I be?" Chen said.
Former AIDS activist Wan Yanhai said Chen's letter was timely.
"This is something that someone needed to say, especially because Gao Yaojie and I have both left China now," Wan said.
"We need more people in the domain of medicine and public health to speak out," he added.
"Here we have a veteran retired official, and he will have a heavy influence in the medical world."
Meanwhile, in Beijing, petitioner Sun Ya was camped outside the gates of the health ministry in freezing temperatures ahead of World AIDS Day.
He said the authorities had so far ignored his attempts to win redress for botched transfusions and for greater help for their victims.
"There has been no response," Sun said. "It's exactly the same as before."
"We are still being persecuted, neglected, and lied to," he said.
Beijing-based rights activist Jiang Tianyong said police had warned off members of the nongovernment Aizhixing AIDS advocacy group and civil rights lawyers who wanted to hold a meeting with AIDS petitioners.
"They came under a lot of police pressure ahead of the event," Jiang said. "The police forbade a lot of those who were planning to attend from taking part."
He said the meeting had aimed to enable journalists to meet with some of the petitioners on their attempts to win redress over HIV-tainted blood transfusions.
China pledged on Monday to step up screening and public education for HIV/AIDS.
Measures would include free testing for HIV/AIDS and syphilis for expectant mothers, and intervention programs targeting drug addicts and people with sexually transmitted diseases, official media reported.
Crackdown stepped up
The authorities also pledged to step up crackdowns on drug trafficking and prostitution, including "forced rehabilitation, community correction, and medical treatment," the Xinhua news agency said.
Basic state medical insurance would also include a greater choice of HIV/AIDS medicines, as well as promoting traditional Chinese medicine treatments for HIV/AIDS patients.
Officials said public awareness of HIV/AIDS needs boosting, especially among middle school and college students and among employers, who still routinely discriminate against those living with HIV.
They said sexual transmission has now overtaken drug use as the main cause of the spread of the virus in China's southwest, where AIDS has killed up to 11,609 people in the past two decades.
Government figures show that around 740,000 people are living with HIV/AIDS in China, although the true figure may be far higher.
Reported AIDS deaths in China rose by nearly 20,000 to 68,315 at the end of October, compared with figures released in October 2009.
Reported by Xin Yu, Qiao Long and Ding Xiao for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Gei Lai See for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.