The anonymous speaker sat off on one side of the stage, green glowsticks and shadowy lighting obscuring his identity. He told of his despair about having HIV and about the discrimination he would face if his neighbors knew, but he offered nary a critique of his government’s failure to help in either problem. The heard-but-not-seen HIVer at China’s first national conference on AIDS became a fitting symbol -- at least in the Western press -- of a regime only now fessing up to its health crisis.

Conspicuously absent from confab talk was any mention of the scandal in which tens of thousands of impoverished peasants got HIV by selling blood in Central China. A small group of them rode the overnight train from Henan Province -- about 300 miles south of Beijing -- to bend the ears of foreign journalists covering the event. Yet rather than grant them pride of place onstage in a show of PWA acceptance, the government locked up the peasants in a Beijing hospital for the duration. They were officially quoted in the English-language mouthpiece China Daily as being grateful for the fine care.

Still, the conference marked the culmination of China’s great leap forward in 2001. Health Minister Zhang Wenkang admitted earlier this year that the 28,133 reported HIV cases are only a tiny fraction of the national reality of 600,000 to 1 million.

Conference attendees predictably said that while the media’s exclusion was disappointing, the discussions among the 2,700 participants from 20 nations were promising. Hong Kong gay activist Cheng To noted that the “men who have sex with men” panels were surprisingly frank and nonjudgmental. And Beijing-based British advocate Billy Stewart was equally diplomatic: “It’s not what happens at these conferences that matters,” he said. “It’s what happens afterward.”