World AIDS Day: Has China's PM made strides in HIV prevention?

After covering up a major epidemic, China's Li Keqiang has made what some call a halfhearted pitch for awareness

Primary school students pose for the press at an event held before the World AIDS Day on Saturday in Anhui, China.
TPG/Getty Images

A decade after presiding over one of the greatest HIV/AIDS cover-up scandals in Chinese history, then-Vice Premier Li Keqiang attempted last year to redeem himself, pledging to revive efforts against rising infection rates in the People's Republic.

Twelve months on — and as World AIDS Day is marked Dec. 1 — the jury is still out over whether Li, who is now premier, has backed his words up with any action, or whether they were simply empty gestures uttered to placate a watching world.

Certainly last year, hopes appeared high for the former. In November 2012, ahead of the United Nations-declared holiday, Li promised to offer greater support to non-government organizations tackling HIV/AIDS in China.

It was a bold move by a politician tainted by a previous scandal, in which he orchestrated a cover-up of an HIV/AIDS epidemic in poor areas of the country.

But while some of China's authorities on sexual health tell Al Jazeera Li's promise of greater support represented a major breakthrough for HIV/AIDS activists, others question whether Li's efforts were an empty gesture to boost China's image among international public health authorities.

Lending weight to those still critical of China's response to HIV/AIDS, a leading awareness activist confirmed to Al Jazeera that dozens of activists had been arrested ahead of World AIDS Day, which Radio Free Asia reported Friday

HIV/AIDS awareness activist Hu Jia in 2007.

The arrests have led to claims that Beijing merely plays lip-service to tackling infection rates.

Noted HIV/AIDS awareness advocate Hu Jia told Al Jazeera that Chinese authorities only allow state-sanctioned awareness activities on World AIDS Day.

"Every year, around Dec. 1, the Communist Party(-led) administration appears very concerned (with HIV/AIDS issues). But the media has never reported all the demonstrations and petitions or the suffering of people with AIDS," Hu said. 

Hu added that the vice premier's gestures to spread awareness did little to address China's existing issues with HIV/AIDS.

It is all the more disappointing to some activists given the popularity of Li, and the impact that his committed support could have.

Li enjoys a strong political reputation in China for having ascended through the ranks of Communist Party leadership largely on his own merits, unlike so-called "princelings, the children of prominent officials," like President Xi Jinping, whose father was a leader of the Chinese revolution.

But some people in China's central Henan Province remember the dark spot on Li's career. During his time as the province's party chief, he oversaw the cover-up of an HIV/AIDS epidemic in impoverished areas, where people routinely sold their blood for money. Li infamously barred NGOs and medical practitioners from reaching victims to address the epidemic.

"It was because of Li's cover-up of the AIDS epidemic that a large number of patients did not receive attention and died," Hu said.

Hu was detained in December 2002, under the auspices of the Henan provincial government.

The activist said that Li's pledge last year to bolster support for NGOs did not amount to much, combating rising infection rates.

"Among the (NGOs Li met with), not one actually fights for people with HIV/AIDS," Hu said.

Hu said that just this week, Beijing police arrested a large number of demonstrators at a rally, where protesters decried a lack of services for HIV/AIDS sufferers. 

A slew of public health figures released on the occasion of World AIDS Day show that despite Li's efforts, there has been a steady rise of infections in many parts of China. 

Ahead of World AIDS Day, statistics on Beijing's own HIV "epidemic" surfaced from municipal health officials. The number of HIV infections from sex has skyrocketed by more than double (96.7 percent) since 2007. 

Analysts say relatively open dialogue on sexual issues is much more common in China's big cities like Beijing, where one can find countless sex shops and stores specializing in novelty condoms, than it is in more conservative parts of the country. 

Another set of figures released ahead of the U.N. holiday showed that in China's southern island province of Hainan, there were 293 new AIDS diagnoses in the first 10 months of the year alone.

The U.N.'s China delegation on AIDS, UNAIDS, reports that although overall prevalence of HIV relative to the sheer size of China's population remains low, there are "pockets of high infection among specific sub-populations and in some localities." The U.N. report used Ministry of Health figures, and there is some question as to whether the government has distorted the numbers, after on numerous occasions attempting to downplay local epidemics. 

But not everyone is dissmisive of Li's efforts to turn things around.

China's most widely recognized sex education and reproductive health advocate, Li Yinhe, told Al Jazeera that the premier's round of talks with HIV/AIDS NGOs last year represented a turning point in the government's relationship with HIV/AIDS advocates.

"I think the government's has changed ... In the past (the government) did not support (NGOs) because they conducted anti-government activities," she said.

"Li Keqiang is really great, keeping an open attitude and developing (these relationships with NGOs)," she added.

Li Yinhe, China's first female sociologist on sex, in 2010.
China Photos/Getty Images

Li Yinhe is a widely published author and former professor in China, who has, in the past, taken a less confrontational tone with the government in addressing the need for sex education and health facilities to combat sexually transmitted diseases.

She said Hu, whose activity for HIV/AIDS sufferers has essentially been outlawed since his first detention in 2002, "doesn't really know what he's talking about."

Pressed for reasons why she thought that of Hu, Li said, "I'm not very clear who he is. He must be a very young man."

Still, Li believes that by finally working together with the government, NGOs may be able to "more easily deal with this issue."  

But as Hu noted, there is some question as to how much China's government-sanctioned NGOs can do.

Asked about the Health Ministry's latest report on the spike in HIV/AIDS figures, one Beijing-based HIV/AIDS NGO was neither aware that the premier was reaching out to NGOs nor did they know infection rates had increased.

"I haven't seen this year's figures," said Xiao Dong, of the Chaoyang Chinese Aids Volunteer Group.

"New infections do not indicate that the epidemic is serious," he explained, "It's just like a population increase." 

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