Churches Work to Fill Void in Social Services

Article excerpt

Kunming

SOME HAD THEIR hands outstretched as though imploring, others closed their eyes as they sang a hymn whose refrain, translated from Mandarin, said, "I will praise you all my life."

They could have been members of any choir, this group of men huddled around a guitarist who sang a heartfelt song of deliverance in a tiny square on a hilltop in this rural-town.

But they're not. The men, their ages ranging from 20s to 50s, are recovering drug addicts in a rehabilitation centre of the Amity Foundation, run by China's Protestant churches. The centre, one. of four in the province of Yunnan, southwest China, doubles as an HIV/AIDS prevention program--a much-needed response to the frightening prospect that by the year 2010, at least 10 million Chinese would have been infected by the disease unless a drastic intervention happens. In 2003, the Chinese government estimated its HIV-positive population, which has been increasing at an annual rate of 30 per cent, at 1.04, million. A majority of reported HIV infections were among intravenous drug users in Yunnan, where crack and heroin--smuggled from neighbouring Myanmar--are plentiful and cheap. For only two yuan ($0.29) you can smoke or inhale heroin, according to One patient at the centre.

"I was under the bondage of drugs for five years," said a man who looked 10 years older than his stated age of 37, in a testimony before members of an ecumenical, delegation that visited China last April. "I was a merchant before but because of drugs I lost everything, including my family. But now I'm willing to IX changed by God and I'm willing to give my life and help others."

The program (either free or subsidized, depending on the patient's capacity to pay) has three components: drug rehabilitation, holistic life training and HIV-AIDS care and prevention. Patients undergo a one-week detoxification during which they are not allowed to leave their room, smoke, or use the telephone.

"We persuade them to ten the truth," said Tippawan Zheng, a consultant from Thailand who works at the centre. "Some stay for a year and we build them up spiritually and given them vocational training."

Most get hooked on drugs because of family problems, said Ms. Zheng. Almost all have been pushed into crime to support their drug habit.

Amity Foundation, created in 1985, was among the first groups in China to raise awareness of HIV-AIDS, whose existence in China was being denied by authorities until the 1990s. It took four years for government to agree to the foundation's HIV-MDS education program in Yunnan and Hunan in 1996.

"We were met with resistance from the local governments," said Zhang Liwei, Amity's associate general secretary for research and development. Efforts to persuade government to invest in HIV-AIDS projects paid off when Premier Wen Jiabao made an unexpected visit to several AIDS patients in Beijing on Dec. 1, 2003--International AIDS Day. It was, according to Mr. Zhang, "a breakthrough in overcoming the taboo and stigmatization" related to HIV-AIDS. The government also announced an action program to combat the disease.

HIV-AIDS education and prevention is but one of Amity's advocacies, which run the whole gamut of social justice issues, including poverty alleviation.

China's shift from communism to the market economy and from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one has made a few affluent in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, but has given rise to unprecedented poverty, especially in the rural areas. …