, BEIJING, Dec 1 – A retired senior Chinese health official on Wednesday called for two of the country\’s most powerful leaders to take responsibility for a huge 1990s blood-selling AIDS scandal.
Chen Bingzhong, 78, who has advanced liver cancer, wrote an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao saying that some involved in the scandal in Henan province were guilty of "gross negligence" and had still not been punished.
In the letter, published on the website of activist group Aizhixing, the former head of the government\’s Institute of Health Education pinpoints "two senior officials" who have since entered China\’s top nine-member leadership.
Speaking to AFP by telephone on Wednesday, World AIDS Day, Chen pointed the finger at Vice-Premier Li Keqiang — widely touted to succeed Premier Wen Jiabao — who was head of Henan in central China from 2002 to 2004.
He also named Li Changchun, the Communist Party\’s propaganda chief, who served in the same position from 1992 to 1998.
Both are now part of the party\’s politburo standing committee, the nation\’s highest and most powerful decision-making body, along with Hu and Wen.
"They have to take responsibility. They must apologise," Chen said.
In the 1990s, entire villages in Henan were devastated by HIV/AIDS.
Many people were infected after repeatedly selling their blood to collection stations that pooled it into a tub and then injected it back into them after taking the plasma.
The blood-selling scandal was initially covered up by local officials, some of whom were actively involved. But it eventually came to light after fierce campaigning by activists — including Aizhixing founder Wan Yanhai.
The government eventually revealed in 2001 that 30,000 to 50,000 people may have been infected with HIV through the scheme. Chen, though, said the number was closer to 100,000, adding at least 10,000 had died.
The Chinese government has since started talking more openly about HIV prevention and control, but the harassment of some independent campaigners and organisations still continues.
Wan fled to the United States this year with his family because he said he feared for his safety. Gao Yaojie, another AIDS activist who was based in Henan, left in 2009.
According to a state media report earlier this week, the number of HIV/AIDS sufferers in China now stands at nearly 370,400, compared with an official health ministry figure of 319,877 last year.
The report by China\’s state television also said the number of reported AIDS deaths in the nation had jumped by nearly 20,000 since the official estimate. The health ministry was not immediately available for comment.
In his letter, Chen compared Henan\’s blood incident with an HIV scandal in France in the 1980s that saw thousands transfused with blood contaminated by the virus that causes AIDS.
The incident caused huge concern and led to the prosecution of several officials including the then health minister.
"In comparison, Henan\’s blood scandal was much more serious than France\’s," Chen wrote in the letter.
"But not only were no investigations launched against those responsible, particularly the two officials who now occupy China\’s highest decision-making levels, but they were even entrusted with big responsibilities."
Chen told AFP he was scared about the potential consequences of his accusations in a country that tolerates very little criticism of its top leaders, but added it was his responsibility as a former health official.
"I\’m risking a lot, but if I don\’t disclose this, I will not have a peaceful conscience," he said.
"I\’m not going to live much longer, and if I bring this with me to my coffin, what a pity. I\’m doing this to plead for the victims, to speak on their behalf."