I was supposed to be in China this week. A New York-based NGO called Asia Catalyst had organized a meeting on HIV and human rights. It was meant to bring together an emerging network of grassroots Chinese HIV advocates with experienced AIDS lawyers from around the world. Late last week, as Reuters reports, the Chinese government stepped in. The meeting was cancelled, the organizers told that “the combination of AIDS, law and foreigners was too sensitive.”
God knows it is flattering for any law professor to be thought of as a threat to social order, but the truth is, our meeting would have been good, not bad, for China. Virtually every country that has mounted a successful drive against HIV has depended in significant part on NGOs to provide services to gay people, drug users and sex workers -– people who are often inclined to duck and cover when government health officials come around with offers of help. Defending the rights of people with HIV is a crucial step towards creating the sort of social environment in which prevention and care reach those who need it. Independent legal advocacy organizations can productively push debate around politically sensitive policies (like de facto discrimination against homosexuals, or the criminalization of sex work), and challenge stigmatizing attitudes. They can monitor the public and private agencies funded to deliver health care and other services to people with HIV. NGOs also provide independent avenues of cooperation and communication with foreigners. And, just for the record, China is far from a disaster on the AIDS control front. More than most countries, its government has paid attention to the evidence and invested substantially in proven interventions like needle exchange. China’s response is not perfect, but it compares well with that of other countries similar stages of their epidemic development. (China’s HIV program is described in a Lancet article; there’s also a comment arguing that China is devoting too many resources to HIV in comparison with other, more prevalent health threats like smoking.)
Unfortunately, the Chinese government is not well-disposed to independent social action, particularly when it might be amplified through contact with foreigners. Some say it’s the Olympics – only nice news from China in the next 12 months, please. Others point to the report that there were something like 87,000 public protests in China in 2005 – enough to make any leadership cadre appreciate a little civil obedience. There’s the pessimistic view that the current leadership is Putinizing the nation, building up China’s military and getting tough on dissent on the home front. Whatever the causes, Chinese leaders are, as a group, ambivalent about civil society. Both NGOs and an independent legal system have the potential to help the Beijing regime deal with its terrible problems of corruption and social injustice – within the law. Many Chinese leaders recognize this, and there is support within the state for these developments. But in the case of our meeting, someone in the Public Security Bureau looked at the prospect of independent human rights lawyers networking with obstreperous global advocates – and blinked.