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AIDS: China Opens Its Eyes

By Bruce Einhorn Last week, a global conference on HIV/AIDS grabbed headlines on the news of progress in fighting the virus, particularly in Africa, where the problem is most severe. But on the heels of those good tidings comes the prediction that the situation is worsening in other countries, especially China, India, and Indonesia. "Potentially, Asia [could] have a large epidemic," says Joep Lange, co-chairman of the International Conference on AIDS, which took place in Bangkok July 11-16 (see BW Online, 7/19/04, "It's Not All Gloom on the Aids Front").

The biggest worry is China. For years, the government has tried to downplay the significance of the AIDS problem in the world's biggest country. But that's finally starting to change, according to John Liu, an HIV/AIDS education activist who lives in the Chinese capital.

SARS LESSON. "The big news is that the period of denial is certainly over," says Liu, who is a consultant to CHAIN, the China HIV/AIDS Information Network, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) based in Beijing. Liu, an American, also runs the Environmental Education Media Project for China. In addition to its work on the environment and sustainable development, the EEMP has produced TV programming about HIV/AIDS for broadcast in China.

An aroused Beijing could make a big difference. The unwillingness of the Chinese government to acknowledge that the country faced a serious risk hindered activities for a long time, says Liu. "Earlier on, there were a lot of amateur efforts. Activists and NGOs were trying to do little things, but what's needed is a comprehensive, strategic national plan," he says. "Now [Chinese policymakers] are either there or getting there. Once they passed denial, then there is the possibility for all kinds of things."

Why has Beijing changed course? It could simply be that the hundreds of thousands of cases in China have at last caught the attention of the country's mandarins. But it could be that last year's SARS epidemic taught the Chinese leaders a valuable lesson about the perils of ignoring a public-health threat. Liu, for one, thinks so. "SARS had a very positive effect on the situation for HIV/AIDS," he says.

CATCHING UP. Thanks largely to inaction by local officials, who blithely assured Chinese and foreigners alike that SARS was no problem, it spread nationwide and almost caused an economic crisis. By the time President Hu Jintao took action and sacked the country's Health Minister and the capital's mayor for their incompetence, the damage had already been done. Thousands of people were infected, hundreds died, and business nearly ground to a halt. If the same scenario were to play out with HIV/AIDS, it could be disastrous.

Having come so late to the fight, the Chinese have a lot of ground to cover if they want to stop the virus from striking millions of people. As the government tries to devise an effective strategy, it has one potential advantage over every other developing country in Asia and Africa: the presence of almost every major multinational company. Elsewhere in Asia, multinationals are fewer in number, they've still played an important role in educating people with AIDS and treating those infected. "Some of them have been providing therapies before governments," points out Liu.

Such private-sector initiatives have been especially important in Africa, where too many governments have been hobbled by lack of resources. It has also made a difference elsewhere in Asia, says Simon Graham, regional project officer for the Thailand Business Coalition on AIDS, a Bangkok-based NGO that over the past decade has helped 1,300 companies teach employees about the virus. Among the companies taking the lead in Asia have been Nike (NKE), General Motors (GM), Sony (SNE), and Halliburton (HAL). "They are extremely supportive of their staff in education, awareness, and lowering discrimination," Graham says.

DISAPPOINTING RESPONSE. While in the past year Graham's group has branched out to work with counterparts around the region - including in Cambodia, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam - the response from companies in China so far has been disappointing. "China is much slower than Thailand or other Asian countries," says Graham. During a trip early this year to China, "we found a lot of companies are just waiting," he says.

Indeed, the multinationals are still wary, given the many years during which talking too loudly about AIDS was politically incorrect. They also have some reason to doubt Beijing's sincerity. Although the government is finally paying attention to the problem, it's still harassing some Chinese who speak out about HIV.

For instance, Amnesty International last week reported that "four people, all HIV-positive, have reportedly been detained in the city of Shangqiu in Henan province, after they tried to protest inadequate health-care and other services for those infected with HIV/AIDS in the city."

China has made progress in addressing its AIDS problem. But as long as the government continues to lock up people who speak out, many companies will probably think twice about becoming openly involved in the fight. And that's a shame, because they're a worthy ally. Einhorn covers technology from Hong Kong for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Online Asia column, only on BusinessWeek Online

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