BEIJING – Chinese authorities have cracked down on groups fighting HIV and AIDS, threatening activists, closing their offices and ordering that a conference be canceled, a human rights organization and activists said Tuesday.
The government’s actions raise questions about whether it is really committed to fighting HIV and AIDS, New York-based Human Rights Watch said.
"These individuals and groups dedicated to addressing the enormous suffering wrought by China’s HIV/AIDS epidemic should not face police threats and harassment," Joe Amon, the group’s HIV/AIDS director, said in a statement. The activists, Amon said, deserve "praise and support, not intimidation tactics by state security forces.”
The reported crackdown comes amid a general tightening of political control in China in the run-up to a major meeting of the ruling Communist Party. The meeting, expected in October, is held once every five years and sets the political tone and direction for the country.
Officials did not immediately comment. The Guangdong Public Security Bureau said it was not authorized to discuss the matter, referring questions to the Ministry of Public Security. The public security bureau in Kaifeng said it did not know about the case.
Zhu Zhaowu, who leads a branch of activist group Dong Zhen in Henan province, said officials went to his office last Wednesday and gave him two days to clear out.
Zhu said agents with the Kaifeng city Commerce and Industry Bureau said his group "is an illegal organization conducting illegal activities.”
An officer also told Zhu to "watch your back after you move out, because Kaifeng can be unsafe," he said.
One of the group’s activity centers in Ruanjia village was forced to close last Thursday, Zhu added. Dong Zhen provides legal aid to HIV and AIDS patients.
The organization had planned to co-host a conference Aug. 2-3 in southern China’s Guangdong province with the New York-based Asia Catalyst group, said Dong Zhen director Li Dan. But the manager of the hotel where the conference was to be held said police contacted him and requested it be called off, Li said in a telephone interview.
"The Guangdong police didn’t contact us directly, however," he said. Li refused to provide specifics, saying "I’m under a lot of other pressure.”
The public security bureau in Guangdong had considered the conference’s topics "too sensitive," Human Rights Watch said.
There are an estimated 650,000 people living with HIV in China, according to the most recent government statistics from 2005. HIV gained a foothold in the country largely due to unsanitary blood plasma-buying schemes and tainted blood transfusions.
The U.N. has praised China’s work in combating HIV and AIDS, including top-level government commitment, proper funding, availability of antiretroviral drugs and outreach programs. However, the executive director of UNAIDS said last month that Beijing still must reach out to more patients in the vast country and overcome a lack of cooperation from some government officials.