WASHINGTON—A former student activist who set up a civil organization in the northwestern Chinese city of Urumqi to spread awareness of HIV/AIDS has described how the ruling Chinese Communist Party destroyed a grassroots group that tried to address the burgeoning epidemic in the region.
Chang Kun, a former student in the legal studies department of the Xinjiang Normal University, was kicked out of university after his Snow Lotus HIV/AIDS Education Institute, appplied for and won a grant from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.
The group had been promoting peer HIV/AIDS education in schools and universities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, which is home to 10 percent of people living with HIV in China, but only to one percent of the overall population.
Earlier in the year, Snow Lotus had also become involved in a highly publicized debate around a number of high-school students who were denied admission because they were carriers of Hepatitis B.
Chang said he first became involved in social activism because he believed the AIDS issue was most important.
"I raised the issue of AIDS because I thought that it was very important, though a lot of people... didn't like this," Chang said.
"But after I began Snow Lotus, it went really well, until of course the organization got shut down."
Most people in Xinjiang with HIV are intravenous drug users, with as much as 89 percent of this group believed to be infected with the virus. There is also increasing prevalence among sex workers and men who have sex with men.
"There are two main ways that AIDS is spread [here]," Chang said. "One is through the injection of drugs with needles, because people tend to share needles, which infects everyone with AIDS."
"Another is very sad, because many men are infecting their wives because they have this sexually transmitted disease and they don't let them know."
He said part of the problem was that Uyghurs, the Turkic-speaking, Muslim minority who call Xinjiang home, seemed to lack awareness of the dangers posed by HIV.
Student activism spreads
"The government needs to take real action, not just act like they are," Chang said. "Also, Uyghurs don't care about it that much."
When Chang started the organization, which drew hundreds of student volunteers to help with its AIDS prevention message, all he had was two tables, a computer, and a few notebooks.
China's government, while it espouses a move toward greater market freedoms, still retains a strong distrust of civil society groups. It views with skepticism any social force that operates independently of its officials, especially if their work touches on areas of grievance or disgruntlement with the government
Before Chang's Snow Lotus, there was no other student group working in the field of AIDS prevention. Soon, copycat groups were springing up in universities across China.
"Our mission was to get more people involved in preventing AIDS and taking more notice of it," Chang said. "But it became difficult because we didn't have many of the necessities needed. I tried my hardest though, and at the end we were able to get a small office, barely."
Hepatitis B controversy
But Chang's thriving organization foundered, just as things appeared to be taking off.
"Police always came to us saying we couldn't gather anymore and that now it was against the law for us to take action on the basis of our beliefs," he said.
The authorities continued to keep Snow Lotus under surveillance for many months, watching as the group attracted large numbers of supporters and mobilized students in unprecedented numbers for a public health campaign.
But Chang said the final straw was the group's campaigning on behalf of a group of 19 mostly Uyghur children with Hepatitis B from junior high schools in the region.
"They threatened to arrest us as well. Then, on April 18, many officers came to my school looking for me. They made me sign many papers. The papers were mainly about how they could take my computer and my materials. I was very upset and almost cried," Chang added.
Chang said an Internet-based signature campaign targeting the government for its discrimination made the incident into an issue for national debate, and high-profile celebrities began campaigning against the government.
Eventually, the government had its way.
"People even sent letters complaining to the government that their actions were incorrect. They mainly complained about student rights and how the government reacted to these situations," Chang said. "The Urumqi Education Department held a press conference to justify their actions. They covered up a lot of information to make it look like nothing."
"They pretty much took away my goal, and my dream of helping my community."
Original reporting by Jellil for RFA's Uyghur and Mandarin services. Uyghur service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.