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AIDS epidemics thrive when accurate information is in short supply. This is especially true in China, where the number of HIV cases has grown sharply since the first reported AIDS victim in 1985. Just over a month ago the People's Daily, the official Chinese Communist Party paper, acknowledged that AIDS appeared to be "sweeping the country," but those trying independently to educate the public still face government retribution.

Dr. Wan Yanhai, a former Chinese government health official fired for his independent AIDS activism, is the latest crusader to run into trouble. As head of Aizhi (AIDS) Action Project, he defied regulations restricting whole categories of information from appearing on the Internet, including one that limits news postings to official versions.

Instead, Wan told it like it was, using the Internet to inform as wide an audience as he could about AIDS, even posting a "secret" internal government document containing epidemiological data from Henan province on the project's Web site. The site,, was recently shut down by the university department that hosted it.

Then on Aug. 24 a cell phone call reportedly prompted Wan to leave his companions at a Beijing cafe. As he stepped outside, a car drove up, several men pulled him inside and immediately drove off. Now, Wan's family reports, he is being detained by state security on suspicion of "leaking state secrets."

But silencing the messenger will not undermine the importance of the message. AIDS has reached virtually every province in China. It is rural victims who have drawn the most attention. For decades, poor Chinese farmers have sold their blood to augment their incomes.

By 1985, the United States and Britain were screening blood for the presence of the AIDS virus. By 1987 the State Council, China's executive body had approved regulations on surveillance and control measures applicable to AIDS.

But at blood stations in China's rural areas, typically run by local health officials who profited from the sales, the regulations were never implemented. Instead, technicians extracted the plasma, pooled the remaining red blood cells and to encourage repeat sales, injected the now cross-contaminated blood back into the donors, thus spreading the AIDS virus.

In one village in Henan province alone, 65 percent of the population reportedly became infected. Experts estimate that nearly a million people in Henan are infected with HIV.

Recently the Chinese government has begun to take a strong public stance on the AIDS epidemic but has kept silent about the Henan blood scandal. Despite persistent reports of people with HIV living in rural areas, it took 13 years from the date that the State Council blood screening regulations were promulgated for the government finally to admit that blood pooling had deadly consequences for donors.

Today, although millions of Chinese citizens do not know how the disease is transmitted, officials are still making it clear they will remain the final arbiters of information flow within and outside China's borders.

Wan had been expected in Montreal in September to accept the first international Award for Action on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights, given by Human Rights Watch and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

Village cadres earlier banned Dr. Gao Yaojie, another activist who exposed the epidemic in Henan province, from working with the people whose illness she had identified. Official media lauded Gao, but Chinese provincial officials refused to grant her leave to travel to the United States to receive the Jonathan Mann Award for Health and Human Rights.

To combat China's growing AIDS crisis, the national government must compel local governments to report accurately on the epidemic and to stop harassing local activists. The government is not doing enough to assist families decimated by the disease, and must also protect sufferers and their families from discrimination.

Finally, it is urgent that the Chinese government lift controls on freedom of information regarding AIDS and disseminate information to the public.

When it wants to, China's leadership has no trouble getting its message to the public. Why not now?

Mickey Spiegel is Senior Researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

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