SCMP Saturday, November 10, 2001


Online diary describes lonely plight of Aids sufferers

ASSOCIATED PRESS in Shanghai

The 27-year-old man traces the beginning of his nightmare to a drunken night two years ago, when a colleague took him to one of Shanghai's dozens of illegal brothels disguised as beauty salons.
Two months later, he learned he had the Aids virus.
Like many with Aids in China, he has not told friends and family for fear of losing his job and shaming his parents. But many in China know about him anyway, because rather than suffer in silence, the university-educated engineer has begun chronicling his lonely struggle on the Internet.
''My Final Battle,'' updated about twice a week on a Shanghai Web site, gives a rare look at life with Aids in China. It also coincides with an abrupt switch of communist government policy from pretending there is no epidemic to confronting it head-on.
The diary of the man who calls himself Li Jiaming has created a sensation in online chat rooms and state media, drawing attention to discrimination against people with Aids.
His real name is secret and he gives no clues to his identity. But Zhu Weilian, manager of Rongshu.com, where the diary appears, said he has talked to the author's doctors and confirmed the diarist is real and has Aids.
The writer tells of humiliations universally known in the world of AIDS, like the company that sacked an Aids sufferer and then disinfected all the toilets, and of habits that evolve directly out of everyday Chinese life, such as not letting his lips touch his chopsticks when eating with friends from shared dishes.
''I have learned special strategies that allow me to continue life with my friends,'' he said in a telephone interview arranged by the Web site's managers.
''Living with Aids is a life of loneliness,'' said the soft-voiced, articulate author. ''If you tell the truth, you face discrimination that will rob you of everything you have. All you'll have left is the disease.''
The online diary has been visited 2.2 million times in a country with 27 million Internet users since the first entry appeared four months ago, the site's operators said.
''Li Jiaming has washed off some of the shame of having Aids, but it is still very difficult to tell the world,'' said Fei Le, who edits the diary for Rongshu.com.
Fear of ostracism is so intense in China that most Hiv infections go unreported. While 26,058 people have been reported with the virus, the Ministry of Health says the true number is closer to 600,000.
In August, the government gave up insisting Aids isn't a problem in China and confirmed that the virus is spreading, especially among drug users and in the flourishing sex trade.
But even though authorities have announced a campaign to train health workers and educate the public, many Chinese still hide their disease even to the point of avoiding medical treatment. Doctors say some patients have been dismissed from jobs or schools and even refused treatment by hospitals when their infection was revealed.
''Ordinary people are terrified of Aids. If they know there is an Hiv carrier living nearby, they will cut off all contact with him,'' said Dr. Pan Qichao, who treats Aids patients at the Shanghai Municipal Aids Surveillance Centre.
The diary alternates in tone between anger at discrimination and despondency about the toll of Aids - ''Aizibing'' in Mandarin Chinese.
The author writes that a friend infected with the virus took out his rage by advertising in newspapers for girlfriends and having unprotected sex with some of them.
He says he had a girlfriend but ended the relationship before they ever had sex because he feared exposing her to the virus.
He writes that doctors have told him he is showing early symptoms of Aids, including memory loss that causes him to lose his train of thought mid-sentence.

Because like most Chinese he can't afford Western anti-Aids drugs, he takes traditional medicines, including herbal teas and a bitter melon that doctors say slows the virus' advance.

He vows to live a normal life as long as possible. What he fears most is that his parents will be made to suffer for his disease.

''I will devise a way to make it look like I died a natural death,'' the diary said. ''I can't bear to see my parents living under the accusing gaze of others.''

Postings on the Web site have praised the author for opening China's eyes to the tragedy of Aids. So have the state media.

The diary revealed ''the cloud of shame that still cloaks the disease,'' said the Shanghai Daily.