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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

China Treats AIDS With Police

XIONGQIAO, China -- Xiong Jinglun was lying in bed on the night of the raid, resting his frail, AIDS-weakened body when the shouting outside jarred him awake. The 51-year-old farmer struggled to his feet and shuffled out of his shack to investigate, but someone had cut off the electricity in the village, and it was difficult to see in the pitch dark.

Suddenly, several men wearing riot gear and military fatigues surrounded him, struck his head with a nightstick and knocked him to the ground, he recalled. Xiong begged them to stop hitting him, crying out that he was an old man, that he had AIDS. But he heard one of the assailants shout: "Beat them! Beat them even if they have AIDS!"

A few days earlier, residents of this AIDS-stricken Chinese village had staged a protest demanding better medical care, rolling two government vehicles into a ditch to vent their frustration. Now, local authorities here in central Henan province, about 680 kilometers northwest of Shanghai, were answering their appeal for help. But instead of doctors, they sent the police.

More than 500 officers, local officials and hired thugs stormed the muddy hamlet of 600 residents on the night of June 21, shouting threats, smashing windows and randomly pummeling people who got in their way, witnesses said. Police jailed 18 villagers and injured more than a dozen others, including an 8-year-old boy who tried to defend his sick mother.

"They beat me because I stepped outside," Xiong said, coughing and pointing out scars and bruises on his head, arms and legs. Like many villagers, he said he was afraid the police would return. But he agreed to an interview, saying, "I'm going to die anyway."

The desperation of residents in Xiongqiao and the local government's blunt response has complicated China's bid for $100 million in aid from the UN Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. AIDS activists have demanded human rights guarantees from the government as a condition for any funding. The incident also highlights the political challenge that AIDS presents to China's ruling Communist Party, which has presided over two decades of strong economic growth but still struggles to deliver such complex public services as health care and often ignores or punishes those who complain.

The leadership is reluctant to allow an open discussion about AIDS in part because it fears it would be blamed for the epidemic. Hundreds of thousands of poor farmers like Xiong contracted the virus by selling blood in the early 1990s at state hospitals and private clinics run by local officials and their friends.

In Xiongqiao, a dirt-poor village where naked children play amid fields of corn and sesame, villagers said they often sold blood several times a month. At least 100 of the 600 residents have contracted the AIDS virus, and many others have been unwilling to be tested. People began showing symptoms a few years ago, and almost everyone has a relative who has died.

The residents of Xiongqiao said that despite complaints about their problems, nothing happened and people continued to die. Rumors began circulating that local officials had received more than $6,000 to build a clinic in the village but had opted not to do so.

Then, in mid-June, police arrested an HIV-positive woman who pretended to be a healthy relative and went in for an AIDS test so her family could obtain more benefits.

The arrest upset many villagers, who felt the fraud was justified because local officials were not doing enough to help them. Angry and desperate, more than 100 people set out for the township government to demand the woman's release and appeal for better medical care, an AIDS clinic and tax relief.

Some of the protesters had been drinking, and the crowd clashed with local officials on the way, roughing up one official and pushing two government vehicles into a ditch, participants said.

The next day, the villagers traveled to the county government and again presented their grievances.

After several days without a response, five villagers went to the provincial capital, Zhengzhou. But officials there would not see them and instead contacted local authorities, who had the men arrested. Police beat them, tied them up and hauled them back to a local jail, said Xiong Changmin, 31, one of the representatives.

That night, police launched the raid on Xiongqiao. A senior county police official, who asked to be identified only by his surname, Jia, confirmed that about 500 men participated in the raid and that they arrested 13 villagers. He said those detained had attacked a local official. But asked whether his men beat up people in Xiongqiao, he replied, "I'm not clear about that."

The incident has prompted outrage among both Chinese and foreign AIDS activists, who have urged the Global Fund to withhold funding from China unless it enacts laws to protect AIDS activists and allow independent monitoring of how UN aid is spent. Activists said the Xiongqiao raid demonstrated that without safeguards, the money is likely to be misused.

"If you give China money, then you should require they add these human rights protections," said Wan Yanhai, an AIDS activist detained briefly last year for distributing a government AIDS report.

"If you don't stand with the AIDS activists and empower them, these funds may be corrupted. They may be used to hire thugs to beat people with AIDS."