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Speed, social mobility of China's economic growth could help spread AIDS, U.N. official warns


BEIJING (AP) _ Members of the increasingly affluent middle class that is powering China's explosive growth can carry AIDS up the economic ladder from poorer environments where infections spread most rapidly, a United Nations official warned Tuesday as the nation's first AIDS conference began.

The problem, common in countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia, poses a greater threat to China because of the country's huge population and unprecedented decade-long economic awakening, according to Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, the United Nations' AIDS-fighting agency.

``That is the other side of economic development,'' Piot said. ``Wealth is often associated with the fact that people think they can buy anything _ including sex.''

His warning was doubly significant for the environment where it was delivered: a landmark AIDS conference where China promised to fight the disease more diligently and spread information into vast nation's every corner _ from the leadership in Beijing to residents of the tiniest villages.

More than 2,700 participants from 20 nations _ doctors, social policy experts, educators and Chinese government officials _ are participating in the four-day conference, which also will explore ways to reduce other sexually transmitted diseases.

The main goal: to slow the growth of new infections to 10 percent per year by 2005. Experts estimate more than 600,000 Chinese _ in a population of 1.26 billion _ had been infected by HIV by the end of 2000.

``This is an opportunity to explore the way forward,'' Zhu Zhongshan, head of the Beijing Health Department, said in an address at the opening ceremony.

Participants _ from suit-and-tie bureaucrats to army officers to stylish youths in black turtlenecks _ filled the Beijing International Convention Center with the looped red ribbons that have come to symbolize the worldwide fight against AIDS, known in China as ``aizi bing.''

AIDS has long been a reluctant subject for the Chinese government, critics say. But alarm over the disease's 30 percent annual growth rate is changing attitudes and eliciting candor. In mid-August, Vice Health Minister Yin Dakui chided local officials in a rare public statement for not recognizing the danger.

Piot praised the Chinese government's initiative as progress and ``an important source of hope for future response to the epidemic.'' But solid actions must follow good words, he said.

``It is probably not an exaggeration to say this is a historic event in terms of response to AIDS in China,'' Piot said. ``But all this is clearly not enough. ... There is still a need to break the silence about AIDS in all levels of society and in all places in the whole country.''

Needle-sharing by intravenous drug users established the disease in China, and the flourishing sex trade has fanned it, the government says. Officials also say health authorities failed to protect the blood supply in some areas, causing the disease to spread in the countryside.

The conference kickoff was uniquely China _ equal parts sloganeering, socialistic optimism and synchronized spectacle.

Ethereal young girls in white dresses waved glowing green batons as a violinist's strings introduced a pop duet's bright ode. An emcee in a white dinner jacket oversaw matters. Mood-soaked public-service ads depicted the dangers of unprotected sex in the big city as slides flashed China's new slogans: ``AIDS: I care, do you?'' and ``Together, we can.''

Just as quickly as the show began, it was replaced with a long row of officials who sat, seriously, as a 25-foot inflatable condom wearing sunglasses loomed nearby.

Speakers at the opening ceremony and a subsequent news conference stressed the importance of distributing information and described the mass media as a crucial player. However, reporters were barred from the conference itself, reflecting the government's continuing ambivalence.

That hesitation, some participants said, must end as the battle to contain AIDS grows into a priority for China.

``What we need most at the moment is a better awareness of the urgency,'' said Dai Zhicheng, deputy director of the China Preventative Medicine Association, a non-governmental organization. ``From the cities to the villages, we need every single person to understand the problem of AIDS.''

Added Qi Xiaoqiu, director general of the Disease Control Department in China's Health Ministry: ``We still have an arduous task ahead of us.''
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