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How I Discovered the HIV Epidemic and What Happened to Me Afterwards

By Wang Shuping, published: September 27, 2012


It isn’t new. It’s the story of how tens of thousands ofimpoverishedvillagers and hospital patients were infected with HIV through contaminated blood in mid 1990s in Henan province, China. Entire villages and families were wiped out and many lives wrecked. And two decades later, the pain continues and has been documented here by retired Professor of literature and documentary maker Ai Xiaoming (艾晓明) in 2006. Recently I came across the account of Dr. Wang Shuping (王淑平), the very medical professional who first discovered the epidemic, alerted health authorities, and struggled in vain to stop the epidemic that would go on to infect approximately 300,000 people, mostly the rural poor, according to Zhang Ke (张可), a Chinese AIDS researcher and activist. Dr. Wang eventually left China for the US. And, in time, some of the most vocal AIDS doctors/activists, such as Dr. Gao Yaojie (高耀洁) and Dr. Wan Yanhai (万延海), were all pushed out of China. In September 15, Professor Chen Binzhong (陈秉中), former director of China Health Education Institute, wrote his third open letter to Chinese leaders, laying out a long list of officials, including two members of the Party’s Standing Committee of the Politburo Li Changchun (李长春) and Li Keqiang (李克强), who have engaged in covering up the epidemic and persecuting whistle blowers and activists.  Dr. Wang’s account, simple and unadorned, is gripping nevertheless, not only because so much was at stake, but also because it offers a glimpse of Chinese officials in action. Even for a Chinese like myself who grew up in China and knows its impulses and vice inside out, it is still shocking, and painful, to observe the incredible smallness and barbarism of its “public servants” to whose hands the interest of the people was entrusted. If you wish, you can reach Dr. Wang by emailing her (, and the Chinese original first appeared in, an overseas advocacy website. With Dr. Wang’s permission, we offer you a translation of her account. – The Editors   


I am Wang Shuping, one of the people mentioned in Dr. Chen Binzhong’s three letters. As a doctor who witnessed the earliest stage of the hepatitis C and HIV epidemics, I would like to leave an account of how I discovered the HIV epidemic among paid blood donors in the 1990s and what happened afterwards.

In mid 1980s, I was a doctor and researcher of hepatitis, diagnosing and treating hepatitis patients but also studying the spread of hepatitis in the population. My colleagues and I published our findings in a paper titled A Study on Post-transfusion Hepatitis B in Chinese Journal of Virology (S1, 1991). At the end of 1991, I was assigned to work at the station of plasma collection by the Epidemic Prevention Center in Zhoukou Administrative District (周口地区).

After working there for a period of time, I suspected that Hepatitis C was wide-spread among donors. At the time, the station only screened donors for Hepatitis B antigen, not for Hepatitis C antigen. With my specialized training in clinical medicine and epidemics, I tested 64 serum samples collected from current donors, in collaboration with the Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine. The test results confirmed my suspicion with 34% of the samples tested positive for hepatitis C antibody. At the same time I had already learned that, long before 1991, there had been hepatitis C epidemic in Gu’an, Hebei province (河北固安), and Zhenjiang, Jiangsu province (江苏镇江).

Based on my knowledge of epidemics and clinical experience, I concluded that the station of plasma collection where I worked was seriously contaminated. I began to inspect the operation procedures of the station and found that there were serious cross contaminations in blood-drawing, centrifugation and plasma separation. I warned the station leaders to protect the donors and to clean up cross-contamination. But he told me that “This will increase cost.” Prompted by my sense of responsibility as a doctor, I reported the hepatitis C epidemic among donors to the Ministry of Health in July 1992, recommending hepatitis C antibody screening at stations of plasma collection.

As a result of my reporting, Dr. Yang Dongming (杨东明) from the Ministry visited Zhoukou to learn about the contamination in our station. She said she had already visited some stations elsewhere and found many of them contaminated. In February 17, 1993, the Ministry of Health issued the standard for collecting blood from healthy persons. Among other things, it requires hepatitis C screening for all donors. This policy was effective from July 1, 1993.

Because of my whistle-blowing, I was kicked out by the station leaders. Plasma collection was for-profit, and my actions impeded the business. To solve the conflict, section chief Shen of the District Bureau of Health discussed with Party secretary Song of the Epidemic Prevention Center, assigning me temporarily to work in the Office of Medical Affairs in the Health Bureau. There, I was very fortunate to work with section chief Shen, Bureau Chief Wang and a few other colleagues to inspect 17 Stations of Plasma Collection in Zhoukou District at the end of 1993.

We found that all 17 stations had been seriously cross-contaminated. For example, there were 20,000 donors at the time selling blood to the Epidemic Prevention Center in Taikang County (太康县), 45% of them were eliminated for being positive in hepatitis C antibody screening. There were 4 underground private blood stations that hadn’t been inspected, and their contamination status remained unknown.

The business of plasma collection had developed very fast in Zhoukou District. The number of collection stations increased from 1 to 17 between 1991 and 1993 in Taikang County alone. Most of these stations were run either by the local Epidemic Prevention Center or by the hospital, and they were for profit.

From the contamination situation I had seen in blood stations and from the scientific literature I had read, it was clear to me that there was a hepatitis C breakout in plasma collection stations in China. My own investigation found hepatitis C antibody positive rate to be as high as 84.3%. Being a doctor, I was very anxious. I talked to Huangpu Youfeng (黄浦友风), commissioner to Zhoukou District, and he immediately convened all the chiefs of the plasma collection stations and hospitals across the District. Around the same time, I had learned from the 1993 paper by Zheng Xiwen (郑锡文) that, “between 1992 and 1993, the HIV infection rate among drug users in Ruili municipality and its three counties [in Yunnan province] were 81.8%, 85.7%, 44.6% and 40.0% respectively.”

I knew that hepatitis C and HIV had the same routes of infection; if an HIV-infected drug user’s blood was mixed into the station, it would spread fast among donors just like hepatitis C virus. I didn’t want to sit in the office of the Health Bureau waiting for the arrival of an AIDS epidemic. I wanted to directly monitor it and prevent it. In 1994, I asked the Health Bureau to allow me to establish a clinical testing center. It was approved but with no government funding provided. The Bureau assigned another three people to work in the center. I raised money myself, essentially using my own savings to buy testing equipment, while the Bureau authorized us to exercise quality control on blood safety in hospitals and blood stations across the District.

In March 1995, I was sent by the Health Bureau to test a donor by the last name Guo in Taikang County. He had been tested HIV positive when he was giving blood in a blood station in Kunming, Yunnan province. Mr. Guo told me that, for the last two weeks or so since he returned from Kunming, he had sold blood in Tuocheng County (柘城), Huaiyang County (淮阳), and Taikang County. Our testing found him HIV positive. I recommended the leaders of the Office of Medical Affairs of the Department of Health, Henan province, to immediately test HIV antibody in all the blood stations across the province. But they said it would be too costly and couldn’t be done.

In order to prevent HIV spread among blood donors as early as possible, I bought test kits from three manufacturers using my own savings, and randomly collected 409 samples from current donors of these three stations. Testing each sample three times using one kit after another, I tested all the samples and found the HIV positive rate at 13%. I promptly reported this to Mr. Wei, the head of the Health Bureau. He said, “You and your colleagues did a great thing for the people; people will be grateful.” He also said he would quickly report this to the district Health Bureau and the provincial Department of Health.

Two weeks later I went to see him again. He was very impatient. When I asked him whether he had reported the HIV epidemic to higher authorities, he rejoined, “You don’t think your test results are wrong?” I said my results were correct, and I told him I was going to Beijing to make a final verification. He asked me to submit a written report, which I penned and gave to him shortly. On the third day I left for Beijing. I brought with me 55 HIV-positive samples, but at the Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine, the researchers told me that each sample would be charged RMB700 yuan. By then I had used up all my savings. I left in dejection.

It just so happened that, on my way out I ran into the president of the Academy Zeng Yi (曾毅) at the gate. He asked me what I was doing there, and I told him and asked him to help me with the final verification. Warmly he asked many questions; he was very alarmed when I told him about the HIV epidemic in Henan. He ordered his researchers to test my samples immediately. He instructed them to test 16 samples and that would be enough to determine. The test results came in the next day: 13 positive and 3 suspicious. Mr. Zeng said to me, “you have done an extraordinary thing; we must report this to the Ministry of Health immediately.”

That very evening, I received a call from Director Zhao of my District Health Bureau. He asked me when I was going to return. You caused an earthquake for our District, he said over the phone. The next evening, as soon as I arrived home, one of the directors of the provincial Department of Health called, praising the good work I had done and telling me I could continue on my work. I was very happy to be recognized by that director.

The next morning the District Health Bureau notified me to attend a meeting, because leaders from the provincial Department of Health asked for a briefing on the situation. However, as I walked into the meeting room, a director of the Bureau shouted at me, “Stay out of here!”  Saddened, I went home. The next day they asked me to attend a meeting held at the guesthouse where the leaders of the provincial Department of Health were staying. A Bureau director demanded me to cross out a sentence from the report a colleague of mine wrote: “We first reported the epidemic to the director of the Health Bureau, and then we went Beijing for verification.” I declined his demand; he then crossed out that name by himself.

The leaders from the provincial Department of Health asked me, “How come you could discover AIDS while others didn’t?” I understood very well that they wanted me to keep it secret, because exposing the epidemic would botch their job evaluation as officials. Dismayed, I said, “I hope you don’t upbraid me for now. You should go visiting the 17 stations of plasma collection that are collecting blood as we speak. In these 17 stations, there are at least 500 people who are being infected by hepatitis C and HIV every day.” According to newspaper reports at the time, Henan province alone had almost 400 stations of plasma collection, and most of the blood used in hospitals came from these stations. It was impossible to know how many hospital patients had been infected with hepatitis C and HIV. A police officer got hepatitis C from transfusion he received after being wounded in a chase. He and his family were deeply upset about it.

Following that, a retired leader of the Health Bureau came to my clinical testing center telling me, “You will be in trouble if you don’t close down the center.” The next day he came with a long baton and smashed the sign of the center with it. Then, he went into the rooms to smash the equipment. I tried to block him, and he hit me with his baton. Presently a lot of people crowded around us to watch. Some pulled him back. That way I got out of danger. I called the police station immediately, and when the officers came to get him, he cried and made a scene. He screamed, “Certain leaders sent me to beat her. Now that the police came, none of them is forthcoming!”

After being struck, I went to look for the new District commissioner to complain. She was not pleased with me at all. “You should be talking to your supervisors in the Bureau!” I knew that all of them were giving me the run-around; there was nowhere for me to find justice. I went home in tears.

In March 14, 1996, at the behest of senior leaders of the central government in Beijing, the chief of the Department of Public Security of Henan Province, with the cooperation of the head of the Department of Health, arrested leaders of blood stations that were currently in business. In April, all of the blood stations and stations of plasma collection across the country were closed down for “rectification.” When re-opened later, they all added HIV testing. I felt very gratified, because my work helped to protect the poor.

In July 1996, Henan held a provincial conference on AIDS prevention, and leaders of hospitals, Epidemic Prevention Centers and Health Bureaus at various levels attended the conference. Governor Zhang said in his speech that “someone reported the HIV epidemic directly to the central government, and that is not acceptable to us.” Following the plenary meeting on the first day, a group meeting of around 30 officials in charge of Medical Affairs was held on the second day. Zhang Maocai (张茂才), director of the Office of Epidemic Prevention, asked who was from Zhoukou. Two colleagues and I said we were. He asked forcefully, “I have asked your Health Bureau several times to close down that clinical testing center, has it been closed?” I was petrified. He went on, “That man in your district’s clinical testing center dared to report the HIV epidemic directly to the central government. Do you know how high the rate he reported is? 50%-60%! ” “He and that Zeng—what’s his name–Yi want to wreck the leadership of the Department of Health and the director of Epidemic Prevention.”

Representatives from Xinxiang District (新乡地区) and Nanyang District (南阳地区) countered him with their own numbers. “We also did testings, and the HIV infection rate among transfusion patients and blood donors is also as high as 50-60%, same as Zhoukou District,” they said. Director Zhang was very upset. “If this is exposed, all of the directors here will be thrown out!”

When it was my turn to speak, I told him that “I’m the ‘man’ from the clinical testing center in Zhoukou whom you just mentioned, but I am a woman.” I said I first reported it to the local Health Bureau before going for verification in Beijing. Presently several people surrounded me, coaxing and pushing me out of the meeting room. In the afternoon I went to the office of Liu Quanxi (刘全喜), one of the heads of the provincial Department of Health. I told him how Zhang Maocai accused me during the morning session. Before I finished speaking, he erupted in rage. “Out! Get out of here!” I left with tears running down my face. I was confused; I didn’t understand: How can a senior official be so rude and irrational? Why is he so afraid of the topic of AIDS?

In November, 1996, experts from the provincial Department of Health and a few leaders of the district Health Bureau, led by Zhang Maocai, came to our testing center to inspect. Zhang told us that our equipment didn’t meet the standard and we couldn’t continue our testing anymore. “I’m concerned with the health of the woman folk working here,” Zhang said, “I don’t want you to be infected.” I asked him to explain what he meant by saying, during the meeting, that our HIV testing aimed at getting the head of the provincial Department of Health and the director of Epidemic Prevention. I was angry. I said, “I don’t need your concern; if we were infected, it was just four of us and we are not afraid to die. Why don’t you care about those tens of thousands of AIDS victims?” I told him that he had perpetrated a crime for generations of Chinese! Enraged, he left my lab with his cohorts.

That evening, Mr. Zhang and the Party leaders of the district Health Bureau had a meeting and decided to close down the clinical testing center. As for me, I continued to go to countryside to work with patients. I received a few anonymous calls of threat. When the leaders at the Bureau learned that we were continuing our work at the center, they sent people and shut down our utilities. As a result, all of the blood samples from patients went bad. Next they changed our name from “Clinical Testing Center of Zhoukou District” to “Institute of the Prevention and Treatment of Chronic Diseases” and merged it with the Station of Epidemic Prevention of Zhoukou District. Bureau chief Wei notified me: “You don’t have to come to work anymore. Go home to take care of your husband.” During the year after the center was closed down, I didn’t receive any pay.

Fortunately for me, with the help of President Zeng Yi, I was able to work and study for four years at his side. In Beijing, I wrote three times to Zhang Wenkang (张文康), the Minister of Health, to tell him the story of my colleagues and me. But all my letters were re-directed to the Department of Health of Henan province or to the Health Bureau of Zhoukou District. The circumstances of my colleagues and me became even worse.

President Zeng had received a lot of pressure for keeping me, and I felt like a burden to him. I still needed a job, I was still young, and I had a lot of experience in preventing and treating contagious diseases. I had discovered an important HIV protective antibody during the many serological experiments I had conducted. I wanted to have a good environment where I could make use of my knowledge and talent. But that proved to be a mere dream. After searching online for six months, I found a job in hepatitis C research.

In 2001, I came to the United States to work. I have since been working over 10 hours every day. Hard as it is, I have learned a lot of new technologies and techniques. I am still hoping that, one day, I will be able to apply my experience and skills to serve the Chinese people.



Dream of Ding Village – Book Review

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke is the Man Asian Literary Prize nominated story of a small village in Henan as it is ravaged by the AIDS epidemic that spread through central China nearly a decade ago (and continues to devastate communities to this day). Even though it is a work of fiction, the author is a respected anthropologist who did a large amount of field work prior to writing this book. It is a tale of the gov’t’s failure to prevent/control the spread of the disease and inability to provide basic assistance to those afflicted. It is also an interesting view of how village life is portrayed in Chinese literature and the ways in which extended families operate in rural life.

The story focuses on the Ding Family, which at this point as been reduced to just a few members- Grandpa, one of the few likable characters, who struggles to right the wrongs of his blood-selling eldest son, Ding Hui; Ding Hui, a detestable man who sees nothing but opportunity in the midst of tragedy; and Ding Hui’s brother, who is infected with AIDS, but still wants to enjoy the life he has left. (you can read more about the story itself in these other reviews, but I think they include far too many spoilers).

Over the past five years I’ve had the opportunity to visit AIDS villages in Henan, Guangxi, and Hunan and felt a personal connection to this tale. In each place the story is roughly the same: the disease begins to spread, the local gov’t denies it, and then when a large number of villagers are on the verge of death, the old leader is tossed out and a new one is brought in. Aid to the families is minimal, and those infected are ostracized from the community. Furthermore, the disease destroys the family structures that make village life work, and will take generations to repair.

In a small town near Ningming, Guangxi I met a man whose family had forced him to live in a tent outside of their home out of fear of his disease. In Henan, I met grandparents struggling to raise orphaned grandchildren in their crumbling houses, the generation responsible for income had died a few years earlier. The gov’t officials wouldn’t let us eat in that village, out of some irrational concern that we would get AIDS from the interaction. In Hunan, I met with activists trying to educate the public about the disease, but found themselves limited in what could or couldn’t be said due to China being a “traditional” country. For me, the story of AIDS in China is a sad tale of denial, misinformation and needless suffering; Yan Lianke captures it very well in this novel.

As critical as Dream of Ding Village is of the gov’t’s initial indifference to the disease, it is also a strong reminder of another crucial factor in the epidemic – poverty and the desire to get rich quick. In the novel villagers are disgusted when the local cadres come encouraging them to sell their blood, but they change their minds when they hear that they can earn an extra 80RMB (~$10 at the time) each month. Other scams to cheat villagers are often over amounts that will seem trivial to western readers and readers in China’s urban areas (my co-workers were), but to the characters in the story they seem like small fortunes. There has been a sixty year pattern in China of officials jumping from scheme to scheme to transform their village/county/province from a poor backwater, to a moderately wealthy place in just a few years. This has had disastrous consequences time and again for the villagers, but rarely effect those who initiated the policies.

At times the writing suffers from being overly descriptive and heavy handed with imagery, but from my experience, this seems to be a cultural difference in story telling as poetic Chinese is often far more adjective heavy than English. Some of the villagers in the story are also treated as simple-minded bumpkins, which is an unfortunately common trope in Chinese stories and movies. These flaws however did not keep me from enjoying (if that word can be used) this book.

If you have an interest in China’s AIDS epidemic or rural life, then I would recommend reading Dream of Ding Village. If you have an aversion to foul language though, this book may be grating for you. The F-word in English is much harsher than it is in Chinese, and in translation creates a rather coarse cast of characters.

An Account of My Recent Disappearance

By Xu Zhiyong

Dr. Xu Zhiyong is a lecturer of law at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, and one of the founders of Open Constitution Initiative (公盟) that offers legal assistance to petitioners and rights defenders, and has been repeatedly harassed, shut down and persecuted. In 2010 it changed its name to simply “Citizen”. Just weeks ago in May 29, Dr. Xu posted a blog post titled China’s New Civil Movement to renew his call for a “new civic movement are a free China with democracy and the rule of law, a civil society of justice and happiness, and a new national spirit of freedom, fairness and love.” The post has since been deleted by the authorities, and he himself was taken away by security police to answer questions. With Dr. Xu’s permission, Yaxue translated his account of the recent disappearance.

Xu Zhiyong

Going downstairs around ten o’clock in the morning of June 7th, I was met by seven men. Two of them were security officers from Security for Cultural Institutions, Beijing Public Security Bureau, others I had never met before. Lieutenant Cao walked up to me, said he needed to talk to me, and proposed that we find a place to have a question-and-answer session with a written record (笔录).

With me in it, their car drove towards north in the direction of Changping (昌平, an outlaying district of Beijing). A few minutes later, they took out a black cloth and covered my head with it, telling me that they wanted me to rest. Knowing that many of my friends had gone through this before me, I did nothing to resist. No use to resist anyway.

Having traveled for about half an hour, first on highway and then over a bumpy road, we arrived and got out of the car. Intuitively I tried to remove the black cover over my head when a man huffed, “Don’t!” and two men seized me by the arms.

We got into a room, as I sensed, and I was pressed down into what seemed to me like the corner of a sofa. I was stripped of my belt, my shoe laces and everything I had with me. People were shuffling in and out of the room. One voice said to me, “For now, think what you have done lately. Think hard! We’ll ask you questions in the afternoon!” I sat still and said nothing.

Many friends of mine, such as Tang Jitian (唐吉田), Teng Biao (滕彪), Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵), Li Fangping (李方平) and Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), had gone through this before [all of them rights lawyers–Yaxue]. I waited for insults, fists and feet that could rain on me at any moment now. I waited.

About one hour passed when a man came in and asked me whether I had done my thinking. I said nothing. Someone came over and removed the cloth over my eyes. Now I saw I had been sitting at the corner of a bed in a hotel room.

Lieutenant Cao came in. He said this wasn’t a big matter, and all he wanted was to ask me about the activities of Citizen and keep a written record of the inquiry. I said, “You don’t have to employ such method to just have a talk, and, to protest against the use of the black hood and illegal detention, I will not answer any questions.” I asked them for their understanding.

For most of the time thereafter, there would be silence except for brief exchanges here and there. Two of them are worth mentioning.

At one point when I was going to the bathroom, a thirty-something man by the last name Wen (温), who had probably also guarded Teng Biao before, insisted on keeping the door open and watching me. I said, when I came out, “You don’t have to be so keen on me.” He said, “I’m not keen on you; people like you must be guarded with extra care.” I said, “‘People like me’… Do you know what you are doing?” He said, “I don’t care what I am doing.”

Then there was another man by the last name Zhao (赵) who was in his 50s and rather straightforward. He was convinced that “people like me” believe China is up to no good at all while foreign countries are flawless. He was sure I don’t watch CCTV’s Evening News, and I said I often do. Then he said, “Since the West is so great in your eyes, why don’t you go there?” Upon this I raised my voice, “This is my country, my own motherland! Of course I will stay here! And I have a responsibility to make her better! At least I would not allow that –ism of the West to destroy my country!” He asked me what “-ism of the West” I was talking about, and I replied, “Didn’t your Communism come from the West?”

In the evening they gave me a carry-out meal. I said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t eat during illegal detention.” This is a decision I made a year ago. If no room is left for me to do things to improve the society, I can at least protest against illegal detention with hunger strike—that’s the least I can do.

Last June when I was taken to a hotel in a hot-spring resort because of a relatively large-scale petition for equal rights for education. The security police said to me, “We are taking you here to have a good time and to relax. Now that you refuse to eat, we can’t have fun anymore.” They repeatedly said to me, “Take it easy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all go out and have fun? To wherever you want to go.” But for me, of course, there is no such “tourism.” I said to them, “When you are no longer in this profession, we could go and travel together, but illegal detention is what it is, and as a free citizen, I oppose it.”

Because of the wide attention I was receiving, I was treated humanely. But that was not the case with many, many anonymous people in China who suffered horrendous brutality. One day in March, 2009, a 16-year-old high school student from Henan province (河南) was beaten so badly that he sustained concussions in a black jail in a youth guesthouse near Tao Ran Pavilion Park in Beijing (陶然亭公园). During Mid-Autumn Festival of the same year, petitioner Li Shulian (李淑莲) from Shandong province died in a basement black jail in Longkou (龙口), and her relatives were tracked down by police for demanding justice. In a black jail in Beijing maintained by the municipal government of Xiangfan, Hubei (湖北襄樊), an old man became ill during the Two Meetings in March, 2012, was not allowed to see doctors, and died ten days later. When his family demanded compensation, they too were detained. These are cases I have witnessed myself. There have been many religious believers who have been detained illegally for years on end, some of them tortured to death. Over the last ten years or so, so many Chinese have died in all sorts of black jails as a result of torture; what I was going through was nothing.

I didn’t sleep well that night. Guards who took turns to watch me chatted. Some snorted later on. At 8 o’clock in the morning, Lieutenant Cao woke me up, telling me his boss was coming over to speak to me. Now I understood the black-hood strategy. It was a ritual leading up to this talk with the boss. I was to be intimidated first, a “mild” boss would then come forth. Stockholm syndrome is a common psychological phenomenon in which one captor plays rough while the other plays nice. You would have the induced illusion that the mild man is nice and you would want to pour out to him. It’s a common tactic of the police, and of dictators in general.

Minutes later Deputy Captain Hao (郝) came in. We met once two years ago. He said, “This time all we want is to have a good communication.” I said, “Sure, but to do that, there is no need to use something as ridiculous as a black hood.”

With three of his subordinates present, he started the “talk”. He said that it was a very serious matter that Citizen was organizing, and I could be charged according to Article 105. “This time it won’t be ‘tax evasion,’” he said. So on and so forth. [Article 105 is “Inciting subversion of state power.” As director of Citizen, Dr. Xu was arrested with “tax evasion” charges in August, 2009. The case was withdrawn ten days later after much protest from intellectuals and activists.]

I said, “All of our efforts are to protect the liberty and human rights of each and every Chinese, including everyone here, and I hope we understand and respect each other’s position and role. No one will be able to reverse the historical tide, so don’t over do it.” I gave the example of Wang Lijun (王立军), but he cut me short. “Wait here for our deliberation,” he said and left the room.

I felt I had made a mistake. During a Haidian District People’s Representatives Meeting [Dr. Xu had been a two-term district people’s representative until earlier this year when the university he works for warned the students not to vote for him.], an elder once reminded me to pay attention to the way I delivered my criticism and that I should give “face” to others. So I said to Lieutenant Cao that I had been too straightforward and I would like to have a few words with Captain Hao again to explain myself.

Half an hour later, Captain Hao returned. He said he wasn’t upset. I said “I am glad you were not.” We went off, just the two of us, to the courtyard to chat. We talked about equal rights for education, about corruption, and whatnot. All in all, he continued to warn me that I was courting danger; I must restrain myself and be more cooperative with them. I thanked him for reminding me that, but I said I didn’t mean to create trouble for them. The country needed change, I said, and I was willing to pay a price for the freedom of the people. I said, “You may not believe me, but for me, life is very simple, which is to use wisdom bestowed on humans to make the society better.”

The new civil movement calls individual citizens to spread the principles of democracy and rule of law, to abide a civil code of actions, to reject privileges and corruption. And we advocate liberty, justice and love, which is the spirit of the new civic movement. Our mission is to end, from the root, the cycle of regime change through violence and give freedom back to each and every Chinese. This is the reason for which I lost my own freedom for the time being.

Lieutenant Cao motioned me to renew the interrogation session. I said, “I am sorry, but you have stepped way over the boundaries. I have a responsibility to reject the black hood treatment and illegal detention. I won’t answer any questions, nor will I sign anything. Your transcript will have nothing to do with me.” He asked me about the “Citizen” pins. I replied, “Ask no more.”

The “Citizen” pin Dr. Xu’s NGO Citizen has been distributing.

He wrote a few lines and left.

Another group of men came in. All in all I had seen 12 of them. I knew these newcomers; one of them was in poor health. I said, “What a fuss to have this many people dealing with me. Besides, it’s such a waste of taxpayers’ money.” Then we argued some more about equal rights for education.

3 o’clock passed in the afternoon, they began to gather their stuff and, finally, returned me my belt and shoe laces. Before getting into the car, Lieutenant Cao asked me, “Do you have things to do this afternoon?” “Of course I do,” I said. When he asked what things, I said “I’m a free citizen, and I am free to do whatever.”

He made a call. Then he said things seemed to have changed and he was taking me home.

So they took me home, but didn’t leave [and stayed outside Dr. Xu’s apartment building].

I know that, for some years to come, my freedom will be more and more restricted, but the free China I have dreamed of will be closer and closer. More and more people are emerging as new citizens, and with their actions, they are heralding a beautiful future for the Chinese people. I am grateful.

Citizen Xu Zhiyong

June 10, 2012

(The Original is widely circulated online. Here is a link:

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This post is continued from yesterday. The book Poor Economics is the source for these general ideas, I’m simply discussing how they would apply to China’s context.

Culture shifts, not culture shift

Cultures often create systems of reciprocity that create some kind of “fairness” within the family. However, as the authors point out, just because one part of a culture changes doesn’t mean the corresponding pieces change as well, and the system becomes unfair in a way that continues poverty.

One instance of this would be in family arrangements. Traditionally the grandparents help their children raise the next generation, and children also traditionally support their parents when they reach old age. While these two may seem to be connected, in modern China grandparents have been expected to take on a larger share of the responsibility for raising the future generation, while receiving less stable support from their children.

I would go so far as to say that it is almost common for grandparents to spend more time with the grandchildren then the parents do. Some of my younger co-workers only see their children a few days a week and the grandparents do the majority of the work. Yet, at the same time my co-workers feel less of a need to provide for their parents. In the countryside, it was common to see a grandparent in ragged clothes carrying a well fed and dressed infant.

When I visited Henan province a few years ago, I was shown a gov’t run home for the elderly. According to the project manager, only those who had no living children were able to apply for residency, elderly people whose children had abandoned them were told that they must sue their own children for support – an act that would cost too much face for most to consider.

Since local gov’ts have yet to tackle this problem in a meaningful way, China’s poor must rely on social organizations to fill in the gaping holes in the social security net. Some NGO’s are starting to work on homes for the elderly, but the need still far outweighs what is being provided.

Gov’ts resist anti-corruption efforts at the top – Activists should focus on the bottom

As we’ve seen before on this blog, the central gov’t creates programs that often do not mesh with what local gov’ts would like to do. This often results in the misuse of funds, denying the poor the benefits the central gov’t are trying to give.

Too often though, activists in China focus only on promoting transparency at progressively higher levels of the bureaucracy. While these higher levels are probably the source of massive waste and corruption, it is unlikely that these offices will come under public scrutiny anytime soon. Instead, activists should work on improving transparency at the village level. This will be met with less resistance from the top, and would start to unwind the culture of corruption.

As the authors point out, in countries like China, corruption becomes a fact of life, and people accept that virtually all gov’t employees take bribes in some form. However when villagers started to be given slightly greater oversight of their leaders at the local levels, they do manage to leverage that into a larger percentage of public funds making their way to projects that benefit the poor.

How the hukou system creates AIDS villages

For the past few days we’ve been looking at migrant workers, and issues surrounding the hukou system, including left behind children, and forgotten grandparents and wives.

In China’s medical system there are a number of drugs that treat chronic conditions (like TB and AIDs), that are given out to sick patients at little or no cost. While this in itself should be applauded, this program is unfortunately tied to one’s hukou and therefore restricts the person’s movement. If the person leaves their village, it will be incredibly difficult for them to receive their much needed medications.

I believe that this policy was created with the intention of controlling the spread of diseases (which is a good intention), but that this has had some very troubling results. In the past this system was used to isolate sufferers of leprosy, today its effects can be seen in the AIDS villages of rural Henan.

If you have been following China-related news over the last decade, then this story is probably familiar, but it is one worth remembering.

In the mid-90’s local governments were desperate to increase their GDP’s, and many farmers were struggling to catch up with the urban areas that were leaving them behind. At this moment foreign drug companies hired Chinese companies to collect blood in rural areas for clinical testing. These Chinese companies (which should have been more closely monitored) reused the needles in order to save a few cents on each transaction, and spread AIDS through the countryside.

The local governments tried to cover up the epidemic, since they had been promoting blood sales as a means of getting ahead. They were also worried that businesses would not want to invest in a region afflicted with AIDS and that their agricultural sales would slump (they did). As the cover up continued, it seemed as if the gov’t’s plan was to simply wait for an entire generation to die.

Finally in the early 2000’s the story broke, and the National gov’t went to work providing medical care for villagers who tested positive for HIV. My church also applied pressure to the local gov’t to allow us to build new homes and replace their crumbling school. Despite great strides in reducing the stigma attached to AIDS, many villagers still refuse testing, since knowing that they are infected would limit any future job opportunities as well as crushing their family (AIDS orphans are often denied access to schools, even after tests show that they are not infected).

Because their hukou ties their medical treatment to this single village, their future is limited. The medical center consisted of little more than two cement rooms with a single locker of AIDS medications, and a couple of hardwood beds. Regulations required that doctors give the patient their dose daily, and it was not allowed for the doctors to give the patient a supply. Because these patients cannot survive without these pills, it is incredibly difficult for them to seek further treatment in a facility that would be better equipped.

This is an aspect of the hukou system that is not often discussed, and the way that China has in some ways institutionalized AIDS villages disgusts me. It was these people’s lack of mobility that caused them to suffer for so long unnoticed, and this system of tying treatment to locality makes it easier for these abuses to continue.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at the rationale of the Hukou system.

Forgotten wives and left behind grandparents

At a conference I attended a few months ago, a Chinese professor described rural villagers as “sacrificing their youth, for the sake of the cities”. It struck a chord with me as I pictured the rural villages I had grown familiar with during my bike rides down dirt roads in Guangxi.

Every village was full of children and grandparents, but was missing nearly everyone from 20-60 years old. It’s as if this entire group left to work in the cities, giving their best years to a develop a region where they cannot reap the full rewards of their work.

While the left behind children are a pressing topic of discussion, the other family members are no less effected by the social hole left by migrant workers.


Even though it is very common for wives to leave the countryside with their husbands to find work in the cities, there are hundreds of thousands left behind. While this group is rarely mentioned in discussions, because it is the smallest segment, this group is one of the most vulnerable. Rapists have been known to target the wives of migrant workers, as they are often socially isolated, and there is little chance that the crime will be reported.

These women are expected not only to tend to the farm work, but also have to raise their child, and help their husband’s parents in old age. In every relationship, they are expected to sacrifice for the good of the family. They also face the uncertainty that comes with being married to a person who now essentially lives in another world.

Migrant male workers in China are more likely to be alcoholics and visit prostitutes than those who live with their wives. This is so common globally that Muhammad Yunus built his Nobel prize winning micro-credit system around making small loans to women instead of men. This means though that women in China see fewer of the fruits of their husband’s labor.


Elderly Chinese are often left behind to look after their grandchildren, when in many cases they need help themselves. China’s rural areas have incredibly limited resources, such that services for the elderly are restricted to only those who have no living children. According to the elderly care facilities I visited in Henan, if the children are alive, but provide no support for their parents, the parents are supposed to sue them. This would be an incredible loss of face for the elderly parent, and rarely happens.

Rural hukou holders are also not included in pension systems that urban residents enjoy, and so they are required to work for their entire lives. This lack of stability in the later years of life is part of what is driving so many from the countryside. Elderly farmers have endured decades of hardship to support China’s economic growth, like the great famine and the cultural revolution, yet have received the fewest benefits of its rise.

Until the hukou system is abolished (or drastically revised) rural dwellers will continue to be denied their basic rights. These people have been asked to sacrifice for the nation time and again, while being legally reduced to second-class citizens. When Mao called for a peasant led revolution, they heeded his call, they haven’t forgotten this, but perhaps the party has.