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Justice tough to find for Chinese who got HIV/AIDS through tainted blood

Tian Xi is among 1 million Chinese infected by transfusions at government-run hospitals. One million more were infected donating blood. The government has yet to apologize or investigate the coverup.

November 27, 2010|By Barbara Demick

Reporting from Xincai, China — It was just a small bump on the head, the result of one boy pushing another against a desk. It was such an unremarkable occurrence in a third-grade classroom that it should have been forgotten a day later, buried in the recesses of childhood memory.

Who could have imagined that it would dictate the course of Tian Xi's life and of those around him?

After the incident, the 9-year-old was sent home from school to rest. That night he threw up, so his mother took him to Xincai People's Hospital No. 1, where a young doctor fresh out of medical school diagnosed a mild concussion and recommended a transfusion for a quicker recovery.

His parents collected their savings, the equivalent of six months' salary, to buy four bags of blood. They didn't want their son, a top student who they were sure would be the first in their family to attend a university, to miss too much school.

It was April 1996, and few people in this small city in Henan province had ever heard of HIV/AIDS.

Now 23 years old and weighing only 112 pounds — the result of the early stages of AIDS — Tian is confined to a detention center in Henan province. He is charged with storming uninvited into the offices of the director of the hospital where he was infected with human immunodeficiency virus and sweeping everything off the top of the desk with his arm. A fax machine, computer and water cooler were broken in the Aug. 2 incident. He is to be sentenced soon.

"He just wanted to sit down and talk about what happened to him because of a mistake made by the hospital," said his father, Tian Demin, 53, sitting on a squat metal stool in the single room where he and his wife live off a back alley — the rest of their house has been rented out to raise money for their ailing son.

The room, with tile flooring and a ceiling fan, looks less like a home than a law office stuffed with legal papers, medical reports and many dog-eared petitions that their son has written imploring various government officials for help.

Tian Xi is one of perhaps 1 million Chinese infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, as a result of blood transfusions at government-run hospitals. About 1 million more people were infected through the process of donating blood. Although the cases date back to the 1990s, the Chinese government has yet to offer an apology or investigate a massive coverup that allowed the disease to spread exponentially after it was well known that the blood supply was tainted.

Besides free retroviral drugs, victims have received almost no compensation. When they've tried to file lawsuits, courts have in most cases either rejected their claims or refused to accept the cases. As a result, victims usually petition officials — an archaic system dating back to imperial times in which the aggrieved would travel to the capital to implore the emperor for help.

"It's the worst way of handling things," says Li Xige, 42, a former post office employee from a nearby town in Henan province who received tainted blood during a caesarean section in 1995. The girl she gave birth to died at age 8. She and a younger daughter are sick with AIDS.

Li did get compensation eventually (she is prohibited from disclosing the amount), but only after repeated petitions to President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, a stint in prison, another under house arrest and suicide threats.

"If you don't fight, you'll get nothing," Li said. "It would be better for the government to come up with a plan for all us who are sick or who lost children."

China's handling of AIDS patients is a case study of a dysfunctional legal system in which victims have no other recourse but to take the fight for justice into their own hands — a lonely, embittered struggle that often puts them and their defenders on the wrong side of Chinese law.

If anything, the political space for AIDS activism has shrunk. Hu Jia, one the best-known AIDS activists, is serving a 3½-year sentence for "inciting subversion of state power." His wife announced this month that she was closing the charity he'd founded because of constant harassment by police and tax authorities. Several prominent AIDS activists have fled to the United States.

"Ten years ago, we still could research AIDS; now it is extremely difficult," said Wan Yanhai, a former public health official and head of a nongovernmental organization who fled in May and now lives in Washington. He believes the heightened sensitivity is because two out of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, Li Changchun and Li Keqiang, served as Communist Party secretaries in Henan province, the epicenter of the scandal.

"These are extremely powerful people who could be held responsible for the blood scandal," Wan said. "That's why so many of us have had to leave China."

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