BACKROUND: Heroin and AIDS were first only seen in Xinjiang, China in Western films beginning a decade ago. Marijuana and hashish have been common to the region for centuries. But drugs such as heroin and cocaine were introduced to Xinjiang only in the early 1990s from Southeast Asias Golden Triangle, which is thousands of miles away. AIDS silently crept into Xinjiang just one step behind the Golden Triangle drugs. Both Chinese and Western AIDS experts have confirmed that the cause of HIV infection in Xinjiang is largely the result of needle sharing among heroin users. Most of these HIV infected people in Xinjiang are Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim people numbering 7.5 to 10 million.
On 25 May, one month prior to the release of UN AIDS report, China's official Xinhua News Agency reported that Chinese AIDS experts had urged the Beijing government to take measures to control the spread of AIDS in Xinjiang and throughout China in order to avoid a future crisis. Chinese AIDS experts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences submitted a report to China's State Council and offered recommendations to prevent HIV infection among drug addicts, prostitutes, homosexuals, and those who are under the threat of AIDS.
According to Chinese AIDS experts, no one in Xinjiang tested positive for HIV until 1995. By the end of 1996, nearly one in four drug addicts out of a sample of 400 addicts tested positive. Nevertheless, China's state media, probably for fear of ethnic unrest, has been silent about the outbreak of AIDS among Xinjiangs Uyghurs. According to Dr. Chris Beyrer, an AIDS expert at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Xinjiang now has the second highest rate of HIV infection of any province in China, second only to Yunnan Province that borders on the Golden Triangle. The epidemic began in injection drug users, who have very high rates of infection in Urumchi and other cities. According to China's Ministry of Health estimation the total number of HIV patients in China will reach 500,000 this year. Yet, the number of Uyghur HIV patients is unknown to the outside world.
IMPLICATIONS: Besides the Uyghur challenge against Chinese rule in Xinjiang, the AIDS epidemic poses yet another threat to Chinese government's hold on power in Xinjiang. The spread of AIDS among the Uyghur drug user population has the potential to rapidly spread among the Uyghur non-drug user population in Xinjiang. This will cause further instability among the Uyghurs. A majority of the Uyghurs do not trust the Chinese government. They have frequently vented their extreme discontent toward Chinese policies which have imposed family-planning, deprived Uyghurs of their cultural identity, sponsored immigration of millions of ethnic Han Chinese into Xinjiang, and brutally repressed Uyghur religious practices and political activities.
In Xinjiang, the regional government is mostly concerned with the political stability of the region. The Xinjiang regional government has done little in terms of informing the population about the AIDS epidemic and the methods to prevent it. Most people in Xinjiang are not even aware of or familiar with AIDS and its deadly impact. Those who are infected with HIV viruses do not even know that they have AIDS. The Chinese government seems to ignore the fact of the AIDS epidemic among the Uyghur drug user population as long as Xinjiang is politically stable and economically prosperous.
The current alternative for the Chinese government is to publicize the AIDS epidemic among the Uyghurs and take immediate measures to prevent and contain this outbreak. Otherwise, the outbreak of AIDS among the Uyghurs could serve as a catalyst in the Uyghur struggle against Chinese rule in Xinjiang. When that time comes, the Chinese government will find it extremely difficult to simultaneously contain both AIDS and a Uyghur resistance movement. The eventual cost and consequence of the AIDS epidemic among the Uyghurs promises to be devastating and destructive to the communist Chinese authorities.
CONCLUSIONS: Recently, the Chinese National AIDS Reference Laboratory in Beijing has typed the HIV viruses among the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The virus type circulating in Urumchi, Xinjiangs capital is B/C recombinant, containing genes and proteins from subtype B that is found in Thailand, Burma, and China, and subtype C that is largely found in India and Burma. This B/C virus is an extremely unique variety. The strain first appeared in Yunnan four or five years ago, then appeared in Sichuan and later made its way to Urumchi. Almost 100% of the HIV viruses found in Xinjiang are this B/C strain. So little is known about the B/C type of HIV virus that experts do not know if it is more or less deadly than either the B or C parent viruses.
It is also not yet clear how far and wide B/C type virus has spread beyond the drug user population. According to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the number of people who are infected through sexual intercourse is on the increase. The Muslim Uyghurs do not widely use condoms during sexual intercourse. This has exacerbated HIV infection among the Uyghur drug user population and those in sexual contact with them. The already frustrated Uyghur people suspect that the Chinese government is behind the outbreak of AIDS, a new fatal disease introduced from China Proper, among the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs view that this epidemic is yet another government-sponsored plot to eliminate the volatile Uyghurs, many of whom seek independence from China.
AUTHOR BIO: Alim A. Seytoff is an international broadcaster/reporter for the Uyghur Service of Radio Free Asia in Washington, D.C. A Uyghur who was born and raised in Xinjiang, Seytoff lived in Xinjiangs capital Urumchi most of his life.
Copyright 2000 The Analyst
All rights reserved