Reporters Beaten, Activists Detained; Is Henan a Rogue Province?

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Last week Belgian TV reporter Tom Van de Weghe was in the province of Henan with a crew attempting to report on the situation of the hundreds of thousands of HIV sufferers (and the many orphaned children of victims) who contracted the disease while donating blood or receiving transfusions in the late 1990s and early 2000s. (See past reports on this blog, or rather you could if the archive existed. Try this Associated Press summing up up the absurd response by the Henan authorities to Van de Weghe’s complaints; or this also by the AP on AIDS activist Lixige’s precarious situation). The central government years ago reversed course on AIDs (it had been stonewalling until then) and creditably tries to publicize the issue and lift the stigma that still clings onto sufferers; both President Hu jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, for example, very publicly visited HIV patients in hospitals in recent days to mark world AIDs day on December 1. But Henan officials remain mired in the dark ages and respond brutally to attempts to document the continued suffering of victims in their province. Van de Weghe found this out the hard way when thugs identified by local villagers as hired by the police beat him up as he was trying to report. (Chinese reporters and activists were reportedly also beaten that day by the same group). They also stole his phone and some 1800 renminbi in cash. As the AP story above reports, Henan officials now say that it wasn’t actually police but AIDS patients who attacked him because they were angry about the way they were going to be portrayed (huh?). Oh and by the way, he wasn’t beaten or robbed, just jostled. (here’s a link the the excellent China Media Project’s full translation of this particular whopper). This is apparently a tactic learned at the school that believes blaming the victim is the best strategy. 

About a year and a half ago I visited the brave AIDS campaigner, Doctor Gao Yaojie in the Henan capital, Zhengzhou. She was more or less under house arrest (at 83 a clear threat) and depressed to the point that her friends were worried about suicide, something she mentioned in our talks, never a good sign. Anyway, she told me a story about how officials from her home province always follow her to Beijing when she can get out of her tiny apartment, once attempting to drag her back home when she was on the way to accept an award in the U.S. They arrived soon after she had received a visit in her hotel room from no less a personage than the Deputy Minister of Health, but that cut no ice with the boys from Henan. The same idiotic disconnect between the central government and seemingly rogue Henan officials was on display again this week when Henan native and AIDS campaigner (herself HIV positive; here’s a link to the Amnesty report on her case) Lixige was nabbed and forcibly returned home after participating in a ceremony in the Bird’s Nest organized by the Ministry of Health to mark world AIDS day. (See the link above for more detail).

The relationship between the provinces and Beijing is one of the most complex and difficult to fathom in China. Usually however, the central government can use it undoubted muscle in situations where it deems it politically necessary. As the President of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China said in a statement, the attack on Van de Weghe is a outrageous (even by Henan standards), a “disgrace to Henan and China”. The fate of Li and other similar cases recently (including the forcible deporting from the province of Christian Science Monitor reporter Peter Ford, who was working on a story about Christianity in Henan; details in FCCC link above) just confirms how far off the reservation Henan seems to have drifted. But is it enough for Beijing to even slap a few wrists? Despite the fact it must be personally infuriating for Hu and Wen to see such a public repudiation of their attempts to do the right things on AIDS, I don’t think so. Some temporary bad publicity aside, there’s no real upside to using up its political capital on this one. Now if it involved money or some sort of threat to Beijing’s authority, that would be a different matter…..

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