Ticking Time Bomb

Why are Chinese officials still in denial about AIDS?



These country girls have eyes like hunters, says the cab driver, turning into an unlit lane of liquidambar trees in Kunming's Golden Star neighborhood. "They can easily spot the men wanting sex." The taxi pulls over, and a young woman sashays out from behind the trees. She's wearing a cherry-colored blouse, tight white slacks and a cloud of cloying perfume. Her name is Little Jade, and she behaves less like a predator than prey, glancing nervously up and down the lane for cops—and, with equal apprehension, at the taxi's passengers.

Finally, Little Jade slings herself into the taxi. But her legs are trembling from fear. And no matter how she tries to distract herself, by playing with her blue beaded necklace or with a stretchy piece of elastic hanging from the cab seat, Little Jade can't stop shaking. "I'm always a little scared," she says. "Sometimes, the men beat me up or they'll refuse to pay me after we have sex."

And AIDS? Little Jade, 21, refuses to be tested because if it turns out she is infected, the clinic would be obliged to tell the authorities. She would be detained because she traveled to Kunming, capital of China's Yunnan province, without the required work papers. Now she sells herself for $17 to men who pass along this lane like gray, restless shadows. She knows that AIDS can kill her, slowly and hideously. "If I get AIDS, I'll go far, far away," she vows. "I'd rather die than shame my mother and father with this. They think I'm a hairdresser."

If Little Jade hasn't already been exposed to the HIV virus, she probably will be soon. In China, according to some foreign health workers, the number of AIDS cases is increasing at a rate of 30% annually. Health authorities now concede that the official national figure of 20,098 HIV cases is a tiny fraction of the reality: around 600,000 cases. Following the usual pattern, the disease is spreading fastest among China's intravenous drug users and among an estimated 4 million to 10 million sex workers, most of whom don't insist their clients use condoms.

The projections are chilling. O.C. Lin, director of the Hong Kong AIDS Foundation, says if China acts swiftly to contain the epidemic it can slow the disease's spread to 1.5 million HIV-infected people by 2010. "That's the best scenario," says Lin. And even that puts an impossible burden on China's underfunded health services. "In the worst case," Lin continues, "China could have 15 million HIV cases by 2010."

Yunnan, bordering on the Golden Triangle, is the worst hit by AIDS—health workers say there are at least 50,000 victims—because of its large population of heroin shooters. Little Jade has only been hustling for two months, but it was long enough to pick up a heroin habit. She says her occasional boyfriend, a hospital orderly, helped her kick the addiction by locking her in a room for 15 agonizing days. However, the disease may already be laying siege to her immune system.

AIDS is also spreading into China's lifeblood through the country's vast, migrant population. Beijing economists estimate that more than 200 million rural laborers are drifting into the cities looking for jobs that simply aren't there. Little Jade worked as a waitress until she was fired for breaking too many dishes, and she couldn't find any other work in Kunming. With state-run factories closing down, young migrant women find prostitution their only option, especially in China's coastal boomtowns.

Beijing is reluctant to enforce AIDS awareness with the zeal it applied to the one-child policy or new capitalism. Officially, prostitution and drug addiction don't exist, so having officials go around to the brothels handing out condoms to the girls is unthinkable. But several AIDS-afflicted provinces are moving forcefully. In Yunnan, health authorities teamed up with MEdecins sans Frontieres and other foreign agencies to educate at-risk Chinese about AIDS. "We're hoping they pass the word on to others," says Liu Wei, director of the province's AIDS prevention center.

Little Jade leaves the taxi and wanders into the night. Her face hardens to resemble a painted opera mask as she readies for other customers. She says she needs to turn tricks "for a few more weeks" to save money to treat her boyfriend's heroin addiction. After all, he saved her. Then she'll stop. She recalls how one of her hooker friends fell ill—Little Jade is sure it was AIDS—and the women chipped in with $75 for medical treatment. But the private clinic her friend went to tipped off the authorities, and the woman was never seen again. Little Jade doesn't want that to happen to her. But it may already be too late.