summer was dreadful in China. Hundreds of lives were lost
and millions of people driven from their homes as torrential
rain brought monstrous flash floods and landslides. The last
thing the country needed was an earthquake or a series of
typhoons. But what China needs is not what it gets in the
natural — or unnatural — order of things. Soon
the world’s most populous country was being very seriously
shaken while still struggling with the flood season.
On 10 August in southern Yunnan province,
an earthquake registering 5.6 on the Richter scale left four
people dead, nearly 600 injured and 126,000 without a home.
Another 50,000 were afraid of floods because 22 reservoir
dams had been cracked and were now visibly leaking.
The Chinese Red Cross was stretched.
The day before the earthquake, it had launched a nationwide
appeal to extend flood relief operations already under way
in 14 provinces. Yunnan had been one of the worst affected
but now the Red Cross was obliged to divert assistance to
cover the earthquake as well. It was the third to hit the
same county in less than 12 months. As tents and medical supplies,
and relief goods from fast-diminishing disaster preparedness
stocks, reached the county, provincial operations chief Fan
Lin commented, “You wonder what next this summer will
He did not wonder long. Heading out
of the Pacific and across the East China Sea came typhoon
Rananim, the worst in half a century. Yunnan escaped. Rananim
was content with ravaging the coastal provinces but by the
end of the week, the authorities in Zhejiang were reporting
164 people dead, 42,000 homes destroyed and almost 13 million
people affected. Before August could end two more typhoons
would follow, and elsewhere in China there was drought.
Year of the Disaster
Coming in its centenary year, the horrendous
summer has only underlined that never in the history of the
Chinese Red Cross have the humanitarian challenges been greater.
Disasters loomed large on the agenda
last month as the Chinese Red Cross assessed the road ahead
at its five-yearly National Convention. From a centennial
vantage point, however, there are other serious challenges.
Among them is the scaling up of response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic
spreading rapidly through the country, a push for 100 per
cent voluntary and non-remunerated blood donation, the need
for half a million blood stem cell donors and the reduction
of urban risks.
There is, too, an organizational challenge:
galvanizing a National Society of 20 million members and 400,000
volunteers in an immense land following a gradual separation
from the Ministry of Health, under whose umbrella it operated
for half a century.
On World Red Cross Red Crescent Day,
Madame Peng Peiyun, the society’s president, told an
international gathering in Beijing’s Great Hall of the
People that after a hard, century-long journey through the
twists and turns of history, the Chinese Red Cross had arrived
at a fresh starting point. Unprecedented new opportunity was
accompanied by new requirements, she said. “We must
work with ever-greater enthusiasm to push forward and contribute
to the making of a well-to-do society.”
Born on a battlefield
The Chinese Red Cross, like the global
Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement itself, was born out of
conflict. War between Japan and Russia broke out in north-eastern
China in 1904 as these powers pursued imperialist ambition,
bringing enormous suffering to the Chinese population. Mirroring
Red Cross founder Henry Dunant on a northern Italian battlefield
half a century earlier, a man called Shen Dunhe founded the
Shanghai branch of the International Red Cross to help the
wounded and refugees.
A couple of name changes later, in
1911, it became the Red Cross Society of China. By then it
had long been dealing with natural disaster as well as frequent
conflict that would continue to plague the country.
Conflict may have faded but no one
in China needs to be told that natural disasters are increasing,
and have done so rapidly worldwide over the past decade. According
to the country’s National Statistical Bureau and the
National Meteorological Bureau, disasters in 2003 —
floods, four serious earthquakes, typhoons and drought among
them — impacted upon 490 million people out of a population
of 1.3 billion. Seven million were displaced and 2,000 died.
As elsewhere in Asia, floods are the most common disasters
and between 1996 and 2003 they alone accounted for 660 million
Steeling its disaster response has
been a Chinese Red Cross priority. That was reflected this
summer as from Jilin and Inner Mongolia in the north to Guangxi
and Yunnan in the south, and from western Sichuan to eastern
Shandong and Jiangsu, the Red Cross delivered food, clothing,
tents and quilts, and mitigated health risks to stricken communities.
But in its centenary year the National Society is pushing
ahead with programmes to reduce the vulnerability of rural
communities as well.
Despite its strong economic growth,
China still has nearly 20 per cent of the world’s poor
and 160 million predominantly rural people living below the
international poverty threshold of one US dollar a day. The
gap between rich and poor is growing and poverty and economic
loss due to natural disaster is undermining the country’s
otherwise rapid development.
Health is also suffering. Poor sanitation
and unsafe and unprotected water supplies in rural areas present
enormous hazards, particularly during flooding. Waterborne
and sanitation-related illness accounts for more than 70 per
cent of infectious disease in China and effluent from village
latrines has contaminated surface and ground water again this
With support from the European Commission’s
Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), the International Federation
and the Australian and Danish Red Cross, the National Society
is working to redress the balance. By providing health education,
good sanitation and improved water supplies, and fostering
community disaster preparedness, integrated programmes in
the south-central province of Hunan and the southern Guangxi
Autonomous Region are leading the way.
Alarm over AIDS
The spread of HIV/AIDS, though, is
the premier health concern in China. No one knows how many
people are living with the disease and official statistics
are grossly wanting. The most useful figure available is an
indicative one from UNAIDS which says the number of infected
people could rise to 10 million by 2010 unless much greater
action is taken.
China’s central government is
making enormous efforts to mobilize the country, hindered
in some provinces by authorities who continue to turn a blind
eye, harass activists and suppress information for fear that
it will reflect badly on them. The bottom line is contained
in a Ministry of Health/United Nations report, which warns
of the need “to seize the fast-disappearing window of
opportunity in both prevention and care, to keep the economic
and personal losses caused by HIV/AIDS as low as possible”.
All 31 provinces have reported HIV
infection and transmission has been mainly through intravenous
drug use and the sale of blood and plasma that has not only
infected recipients but donors exposed to unsafe practice.
Now the proportion of sexually transmitted infections is growing.
General ignorance and misunderstanding
of what is popularly perceived to be a self-inflicted disease
bring stigma and discrimination, and accelerate the epidemic’s
spread. A report released this past summer says surveys show
only 8.7 per cent of the Chinese population is well informed
Breaking down the ignorance requires
massive investment. Present budgets are far short of requirements
in both prevention and care. The Chinese Red Cross has been
working on prevention, and care and support for people living
with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA), since 1994. Much Red Cross focus is
on peer education, particularly youth peer education. In Yunnan
and the western autonomous region of Xinjiang, the Red Cross
is developing peer education by and for PLWHA.
Already the Chinese Red Cross has scored
great success in the process of securing the nation’s
blood supply. Transfusion-transmitted infections such as HIV
and hepatitis can be eliminated or substantially reduced through
a safety strategy based on collecting unpaid blood from volunteers
in low-risk sections of the population. With a government
mandate to recruit and retain reliable donors, the Red Cross
has long championed the cause.
The number of Chinese blood donors
who are voluntary and unpaid has risen dramatically over the
past few years. The National Society is campaigning to reach
100 per cent and, given its commitment, it was appropriate
in its centenary year that it hosted the 9th International
Colloquium on the Recruitment of Voluntary, Non-Remunerated
Blood Donors. Experts from around the world gathered in Beijing
to discuss how to increase and effectively manage a sustainable
There is another type of donor the
Chinese Red Cross is pursuing, the blood stem cell donor.
Some 4 million people in China are waiting for stem cell transplantation
to overcome leukaemia and other blood disease. A Red Cross
Data Bank of Chinese Hematopoietic Stem Cell Donors or the
Chinese Marrow Donors Programme (CMDP), which opened in 2002,
has already recruited 170,000 donors and by 2009 wants to
reach between 500,000 and 700,000. A blood marrow programme
had been in operation in the 1990s but due to lack of funds
and technical difficulties had not flourished. Now, with state
lottery funding to secure it, it operates in 27 provinces
with an administration centre in Beijing.
What the programme does is to provide
Human Leukocyte Antigens (HLA), proteins found on the surface
of white blood cells among other places, which are immunologically
compatible with those of patients in need of transplant treatment.
“The chance of a match can range from one in 400 to
one in 10,000 among people who are not blood relatives,”
explains programme director Junling Hong. “For some
rare HLA types the chance may be one in hundreds of thousands.”
That was the case this summer when
a student from Chongqing University of Medical Sciences became
the first stem cell donor in China to donate desperately needed
cells to a blood cancer patient in a foreign country, the
United States. The recipient was an American Chinese doctor.
The student, Wu Yu, became a donor
last year when the Red Cross made an appeal for donors on
her campus. Her possible saving of the American’s life
brought enormous media attention. In its centenary year, the
Red Cross was again good news in China.
John Sparrow is International Federation
regional information delegate in Beijing.