Chinese authorities have pulled the plug on the website of an AIDS advocacy group after it published an open letter about the trade in blood plasma and its role in spreading the virus.
The website of the Beijing-based Aizhixing Research Foundation, at www.aizhi.net, had received several requests to remove the letter, written last December by a former senior official in China's health ministry.
The letter, penned by Chen Bingzhong, a former head of the China Health Education Research Institute, hits out at top officials for covering up the link between HIV transmission and blood transfusions in poverty stricken rural Henan province.
"It is not possible to visit this website," read a notice at the site's URL on Wednesday. "Apologies for the inconvenience!"
U.S.-based AIDS activist Wan Yanhai, who founded the group, said the site had been closed by the Beijing municipal news department.
"We got a letter from the Beijing news office," Wan said. "There were several asking us to remove that article, but we didn't answer them."
Wan said the group had received a call from the office informing them of the website closure on Monday.
Rights lawyer Li Xiongbin, who is in charge of domestic affairs for the group, declined to comment.
"You need to get in touch with Wan Yanhai to get the real reason for this problem," Li said. "I won't be able to give you an interview."
Activists and doctors have long blamed China's AIDS epidemic on the practice of blood-selling in poverty-stricken rural areas.
Chen's letter called for propaganda czar Li Changchun and vice-premier Li Keqiang to face disciplinary action for covering up the extent of the blood-selling problem.
Chen, 78, who is suffering from terminal liver disease, wrote that the two Lis should be held responsible for forbidding news coverage of the problem.
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 in an interview with RFA in December.
"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 made the letter public at considerable risk to himself, and 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."
'A continuing scandal'
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—say that infections through tainted blood transfusions at local hospitals and clinics are a continuing scandal in poorer regions of China.
Activists say police have repeatedly warned off members of the nongovernment Aizhixing AIDS advocacy group and civil rights lawyers over planned meetings with rural AIDS petitioners, many of whom were infected through this route and are trying to win redress.
Meanwhile, China has pledged to step up screening and public education for HIV/AIDS.
Measures will include free testing for HIV/AIDS and syphilis for expectant mothers, and intervention programs targeting drug addicts and people with sexually transmitted diseases.
Officials have also said that 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.
According to the health ministry, 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 Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.