A Guest Post from Asia Catalyst on HIV and AIDS

The following is a guest post by Meg Davis, an anthropologist and the founder of Asia Catalyst.

China’s annual “two sessions” wrapped up this week, and Chinese lawmakers finally considered proposals to establish a national compensation fund for thousands of victims of the world’s largest HIV blood disaster.

Back in 2002, Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote in the New York Times that in Henan, “poverty begat AIDS, but AIDS has begotten previously unimaginable poverty.” For thousands who received tainted blood transfusions while local authorities covered up the epidemic, the compensation fund would be a life-changer.

While government officials maintain only 65,100 people contracted HIV through blood sales and transfusions, AIDS activists have long argued the true number is much higher. A new bilingual report by Asia Catalyst and Korekata AIDS Law Center finds that few of the thousands affected have been able to get compensation.

UNSAFE BLOOD COLLECTION

In the 1990s, state-sponsored, for-profit blood-collection centers used unsafe practices to spread HIV to thousands of people in Henan and other central provinces. Health officials who believed that foreign blood was tainted but that rural Chinese blood was “pure” promoted blood-sales as “glorious” for cash-strapped farmers. “Now [they say] I’m a criminal [because I sold my blood],” said Niu, a man in Henan.*

Back then, selling blood was a big pyramid scheme. Everyone went, you took me or I took you, friends took friends. …[Y]ou had 50 kuai in your pocket and you could get your kid something to eat. …We didn’t know we were going to get sick. If we knew that, who would have done it?

Many of those affected by the epidemic have demanded compensation and an apology for their suffering from hospitals, local authorities, and the courts. However, probably because they fear a deluge of lawsuits from tens of thousands of victims, most courts refuse to try these cases. When local authorities feel directly threatened by demands for compensation, political pressure on lawyers and courts leads to cases delayed, postponed or shut down.

A group of farmers in one province described how they were unable to find a lawyer even willing to represent them locally, and had to bring one in from another province. But that lawyer was run out of town by threats:

The government went through our provincial bar association to telephone our lawyer’s firm in the province where he lived, and told the firm to revoke his license. The blood center expert who came with our lawyer pleaded with him to go home that night.

Telling the luckless plaintiffs “Only you can solve your problems,” the lawyer fled town in the midst of a rainstorm, escorted by a protective group of the people he had failed to help.

Denied their right to sue, blood disaster victims try petitioning. Some have gotten small payouts, but many, including a group turned away from the Ministry of Health on World AIDS Day in 2011, have gotten threats, intimidation, and detention in “black jails.”

UNEVEN PAYOUTS

The report also examines cases where victims have gotten compensation, and finds that amounts have varied. In places like Heilongjiang where the number of people affected is relatively low, compensation has been high, ranging up to 400,000 CNY [~$63,492]. But in Henan and other areas where the disaster hit hardest, payments have been as low as 40,000 CNY [$6,394]. When the money is spent, often victims go back to petitioning and protesting again.

The uneven payouts have created more resentment. Fan, a blood disaster victim in Hubei, said,

Let me tell you, if you look around online, you’ll see that people who got hepatitis B, here in Hubei, they got paid 200,000 CNY [about US$31,750]. We got both hepatitis C AND AIDS, but we only got a couple ten thousand. So I asked the government, I said, if you kill one person you get the death sentence, but if you kill two people you’re not guilty? The more people you kill, the lighter the penalty. What kind of logic is that?

LEARNING FROM THE WORLD’S MISTAKES

Almost every country in the world has faced an HIV blood disaster early in the epidemic. AIDS denialism, the stigma surrounding the epidemic, and ignorance of how the virus was transmitted all contributed to the transmission of HIV through blood supplies. In many countries, the blood disasters affected a few dozen or a few hundred people. In Japan, France and Germany, victims numbered in the thousands. China’s blood disaster affected more individuals than in all other countries combined.

Some countries, such as Japan and France, reacted within a few years with investigations, compensation for the victims, and criminal penalties for officials responsible for the disaster. Others reacted more slowly and less decisively. But no country has taken as long to respond as China, where the blood disaster dragged on for years, while local officials fumbled in a failed effort to cover up the scope of the disaster.

The report calls for an independent investigation in order to obtain a reliable estimate of the number of people infected through the blood disaster. It makes detailed recommendations for a national compensation fund, and calls for a government apology.

For millions of Chinese citizens who still think of HIV/AIDS as a moral disease that stigmatizes those burdened with it, a national compensation fund and a public apology may also go a long way towards creating greater understanding about the epidemic, how it is transmitted and that it can be prevented. With a compensation policy, China has an opportunity to do tangible good on a longstanding social problem.

*All names were changed to protect interviewees against repercussions.

Examining the PSB’s 2011 Kidnapping Report

Recently, the PSB released a report on its nationwide anti-kidnapping activities in 2011 which contains some impressive statistics. You can find an English AFP piece on the report here, or read the full report in Chinese.

The report is, unsurprisingly, triumphant and self-congratulatory, and there are some things to celebrate. Chief among them is the claim that the PSB rescued 8,660 kidnapped children ((This number does include children who were trafficked into China from other countries, mostly Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam)) and 15,458 trafficked women over 2011. That’s great, although with media reporting on this subject controlled we more or less have to take them at their word as there’s no way to independently confirm those numbers. Still, even one child rescued is good news.

That said, as someone who has spent the last year talking to the parents of kidnapped children, it is difficult to read the report without getting angry. It states, for example, that the disappearances of children are uniformly treated as criminal cases, and that these cases are to be “swiftly developed and investigated” with the same urgency the PSB might use in pursuing a murder case. But in actuality, everything we’ve heard from parents indicates that this is not how things work in practice. In every case we’ve looked into, police initially tell parents to look for their children themselves, assuming the child has run away or is visiting friends, and telling parents they won’t take the case until the child has been missing 24 hours ((This is not a legal regulation, but it does seem to be the de facto practice at many local police stations.)). When they do take the case, investigations are slow and remarkably lazy. In the 2011 disappearance of Lei Xiaoxia (one of the subjects of our film), it took police months to request surveillance footage from the school where Lei went missing — by which time it was already deleted — and nearly a year after her disappearance, the police still haven’t interviewed any potential witnesses.

Interestingly, the 24 hour window after a child’s disappearance is something that is explicitly addressed in the PSB report, which calls it ‘a golden window of opportunity’ and mandates police to begin their investigations as soon as a disappearance is reported. Clearly, though, the national PSB has some discipline issues lower in the ranks, because many local police stations are not actually doing this.

Another lauded accomplishment is the DNA database, which allows parents to get free DNA tests so that if their child is ever discovered as the result of an anti-kidnapping operation, they can be quickly and unequivocally identified as the parents. This is very much a good thing, but again, the execution has been spotty at best. In the case of one of our subjects — coincidentally, Lei Xiaoxia’s parents — police demanded they pay for the test themselves, and wouldn’t back down until the parent of another kidnapped child who was more familiar with the law called them and asked why they were trying to charge money for a service that was meant to be free. This sort of situation is not uncommon, and the availability of the DNA database also needs to be more widely publicized, as some parents aren’t aware that they have the right to a free DNA test.

Another positive development has been the official anti-trafficking Weibo, which became an avenue for tips collection. The account collected 2,000 tips on trafficking cases in 2011. This is not to be confused with Yu Jianrong’s “rescue street children” campaign, which was quickly marginalized in early 2011 thanks in part to condemnations on the opinion pages of Chinese papers like the Global Times.

Analyzing the Numbers

Of course, the report doesn’t mention how many kidnapping cases remain unsolved. If there were 8,660 children returned home in 2011 ((Note that the kids may have been kidnapped years or decades ago, their cases were solved in 2011 but they were kidnapped and sold at different times)), what percentage of the total number of kidnapping cases is that? Going by the official government numbers, which put kidnappings of children at around 10,000 per year, that would make the child-returned-home rate about eighty percent. Going by the the US’s estimates in its human rights report, which pegs yearly child kidnappings at around 20,000, the solve rate is about forty percent.

Previously, I had been inclined to believe the US government estimates rather than higher independent estimates, which run up to 70,000 children kidnapped per year, but looking at the evidence we have — since there are no public statistics about this issue — it becomes very difficult to believe that only 20,000 children are kidnapped per year.

Now, obviously the numbers we have are very small, but the cases we’ve looked at do offer a good spread across victim demographics, old vs. new cases, and case types, so they may give us a decent sample of “average” missing child cases, although they are limited geographically to mostly eastern central China. Of the eight parent groups we’ve interviewed directly since March 2011, to date none of the families has seen their child returned. Of their larger social circle of dozens of parents of missing children, one child has been returned over the past year. Very conservatively estimating that loose social group to contain at least twenty sets of parents, that puts the solve rate at more like 5%.

Now, those sample sizes are too small to be scientific, and even if they were larger, they’re biased by location and also by selection — we only know about the cases of parents who want their cases publicized and have been in touch with other parents; some parents of missing children may choose to stay quiet and put their trust in the police rather than trying to look for themselves. It would probably be inaccurate to try to extrapolate much from the anecdotal data I’ve presented above — although we’re trying to figure out a way we might conduct a more exhaustive survey somehow — it does make the Chinese government figure of 10,000 children kidnapped per year look preposterously low, and even the US government figure seems to perhaps be an underestimation. If you assume that the solve rate really is 86% like Chinese government statistics would suggest, there would be only a 0.001% chance of us picking eight sets of parents and none of them having their children rescued ((although there are selection issues here in that they all agreed to speak with us, which not every parent would)). Could we really be that unlucky?

Anyway, we’re looking into how we might be able to analyze this sort of thing more systematically and scientifically for our film, but without trustworthy public statistics, it is very difficult. Anecdotal data is troublesome to work with, but if nothing else, I’m quite sure that the Public Security Bureau has not earned the triumphant tone of its yearly anti-kidnapping report. Although many of its policies sound good in theory, they don’t seem to be being put into practice, and one wonders, if the public security bureau can’t manage its own officers, why the hell should anyone trust it with finding their children?

The Wukan Elections on Social Media

Just in case you’re out of the loop: villagers in Wukan hit the polls today. Although there are elections in villages all over China, this one is especially significant given what led up to it and the extent to which it has got people elsewhere in China thinking about democracy.

For on the ground information, you should look to Tom Lasseter and Louisa Lim, who are actually in Wukan and have been tweeting updates and photos all day. As I’m not in Wukan, I thought I’d take a look at what’s on Weibo instead. (Sure it’s lazy and overdone, but Weibo will probably be dead soon, so I’ve got to strike while the iron is still hot).

With regards to censorship, searches for the “Wukan” are no longer blocked, but it does appear that Sina is at least downplaying the interest in the elections by keeping it off of the trending topics list. As of Saturday evening at around 8:00, Wukan posts were coming in at a rate of several (1-3 on average) per minute, significantly faster than some of the topics that were trending at the same time (average of less than 1 new post per minute). Now, this wasn’t exactly a scientific study or anything, but it does appear that from a posts-per-minute perspective, the Wukan elections should appear on the national trending topics list. That it doesn’t may be a result of the fact that the list is handpicked, not automatic.

But, like I said, searches for “Wukan” are still allowed and posts about the elections don’t seem to be getting deleted. The Chinese media is also covering and discussing the elections, so it’s clearly getting more play than it was back when the town was a rebel village under siege (no surprise there).

As you might expect, the Weibo messages from Wukan residents themselves today are mostly about the election, and from the accounts I’ve looked out there seems to be more-or-less universal satisfaction and pride. They’re sharing stories about old people voting for the first time and kindhearted volunteers helping keep the voting area clean. They’ve also been passing around this comparison photo made by a Beijing netizen that compares the scene today in Beijing (left), Wukan (center), and Hong Kong (right):

(The idea here is that the dog-and-pony-show “two meetings” in Beijing doesn’t compare favorably to the democracy in Wukan or the free criticism of political leaders in Hong Kong.)

Many others outside Wukan are also comparing the elections there to the CPPCC/NPC meetings in Beijing. In one popular post from earlier tonight, a netizen wrote, that the consciousness of the Chinese people is “reduced” by the CPPCC/NPC meetings but is “awakened” by the elections in Wukan.

Among intellectuals, there’s also the expected discussion and qualifying of this “victory” for Wukan’s system, as expressed (among other places) in this comment by a fairly popular independent scholar:

I’ve never been opposed to one-person-one-vote, what I’m opposed to is the worship of one-person-one-vote. It’s just the most shallow layer of democracy. If that’s all you have, and you don’t have any of the deeper layers that separate and restrict the powers [of government institutions] then there’s no way to prevent autocracy.

Most people seem to be happy for and/or jealous of Wukan, and many also see it as a sign of impending reforms or, for some, more sweeping changes:

Wukan is the beginning of Chinese democracy, a single spark can ignite a prairie fire.

We’ll see. As of now, I don’t believe they’re even finished counting the votes. But how things will look in a year is even less clear. Still, it’s hard not to feel good about what’s happening there right now, for me personally and, it appears, for an awful lot of Sina Weibo users, too.