Beijing censors AIDS site after claim of cover-up

New York, March 17, 2011–Beijing information officials should allow Aizhi, the official website of the AIDS rights group Aizhixing Research Foundation, to resume operations, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Authorities ordered the site shut down on Tuesday after it had published an open letter from a retired senior official concerning news restrictions placed on a 20th-century public health scandal.

The municipal information office informed the website’s founder, Wan Yanhai, by e-mail that it had been closed for publishing forbidden news, according to international news reports. Wan, an AIDS activist now based in Washington, published the notice on the organization’s Google profile. Wan did not immediately respond to CPJ’s e-mail request for comment.

Propaganda officials had asked the website to remove an open letter from a former senior health official, Chen Bingzhong, which was first published in late 2010, according to a statement on the Google profile page. Chen accused Chinese Communist Party propaganda chief Li Changchun and Vice Premier Li Keqiang, both former party leaders of central Henan province, of covering up the link between the government-supported sale of blood for transfusions and an epidemic of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to The Associated Press. Aizhi administrators refused to comply with the requests because they were made without required legal documentation, their statement says.

 “The Chinese Communist Party’s shameful cover-up of a national health tragedy continues with this latest act of censorship,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. “Aizhixing’s website should be unblocked immediately so that Chen Bingzhong’s information and allegations can be read and judged by all.”

Commercial blood banks that sprang up in rural areas in China in the 1980s and 1990s, paid peasants for contributing blood, extracted the plasma, and then re-infused donors from the pooled blood samples. The scale of the epidemic is still unknown, although international news reports say more than 100,000 people contracted the virus through the process. Further infections occurred through hospital transfusions. Reporting on the epidemic was censored in the local press, foreign journalists were harassed for investigating, and Wan Yanhai and other activists were detained, according to CPJ research. The blood drive in Henan was organized and encouraged by the provincial health department, according to the UK Guardian newspaper.

Chen Bingzhong, the retired head of China’s health research agency, suffers from advanced liver cancer, according to international news reports. His letter, which he made available to Aizhixing after receiving no response through private channels, describes information he has amassed about the disaster, which he characterizes as “worse than the contaminated milk incident and the SARS crisis by far.”

Propaganda authorities were slow to allow reporting of chemical contamination of milk powder in 2008, in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. Coverage of government handling of the 2002 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak was heavily restricted, CPJ research shows, and two Southern Metropolis Daily journalists were jailed a month after their hard-hitting Guangzhou-based newspaper published a story about a previously undisclosed case of the deadly virus. Still, Chen says in the letter:

The contaminated milk problem was publicly dealt with. After pressure at home and abroad, SARS was also publicly dealt with. Only this, the far more severe Henan contaminated blood disaster, drags on without any of the relevant officials being held accountable for their errors and offenses. … If my reporting and facts are inconsistent, try me for libel; if they are correct, then publicly and justly put those two officials to trial.