China and the Golden Veins of Henan: A film-maker’s view

Chinese speculators rolled into Henan Province in the late 1990s to stake their claim. But it wasn’t gold they were after – it was blood. Blood as pure as the province’s peasants. Geneva-based film-maker and writer Andy Cohen writes about his experience shooting a documentary (Ximei, 2019) on China’s ‘poisoned’ blood scandal infecting more than 300,000 victims with HIV/AIDS – and then the Beijing government's efforts to do everything possible to cover up the scandal.

Ximei (Left), the HIV/AIDS-infected peasant woman who fought back. (Photo: Andy Cohen Production)

Andy Cohen’s documentary, Ximei (2019), was premiered at the 18th International Film Festival and Forum on Human Rights (FIFDH) in Geneva, Switzerland, in March, 2019.

Local health officials, worried they would get left behind by China’s miraculous economic engine, moved in to exploit and monetize the untapped resource of pure blood from Henan’s peasants. Blood product companies, backed by the central government, rushed mobile blood units into villages. Propaganda campaigns followed, advertising that bloodselling is good for your health, good for the country.

Heeding the call, villagers lined up in droves to sell their blood, sometimes as often as three times a day, to earn roughly five US dollars per sale. The more blood and plasma collected, the more profit everyone made. It seemed like easy money.

The blood rush continued unabated. Unsanitary equipment and collection methods were used to collect, separate, and reinject the peasants’ plasma and platelets necessary for the blood products. Many peasants were hooked up to one machine at the same time, with strangers’ blood flowing between them.

Uneducated health officials never thought to screen the blood they extracted. As a result of all this negligence on the part of the health department, AIDS spread rampantly throughout the peasant villages. Instead of generating income, the unchecked rush created one of China’s worst health crises and cover-ups. The peasant population didn’t know what hit them. Nor did the ill-equipped and outdated local hospitals.


Hundreds of thousands of infected peasants later, when the story finally broke, the government – responsible for the blood selling campaign – forbade the victims access to imported medicines, to travel, nor to petition for medical expense compensation. They were sequestered in what became known as the AIDS villages.

To this day, journalists are denied access to these villages. Making a film on so sensitive an AIDS story in a totalitarian society has obvious challenges. Some are predictable, but many are not; particularly in the highly monitored, impoverished rural areas where the pavement stops and the dirt roads start.

Film-maker Andy Cohen filming Ximei in China. (Photo: Andy Cohen Productions)

We started shooting footage seven years ago, but after only a few minutes of filming in an alleyway in a village of less than a hundred people, we found out that the neighbours of Ximei, our protagonist, an infected peasant woman, were government-paid informants. Westerners, usually never seen in these parts, triggered an instant telephone tag to the authorities.

We hid the cameras and scattered our crew in time. The law in these areas are in the hands of local authorities and their parapolice thugs loyal to their rural version of the Communist Party. We had to play a cat-and-mouse game since our first shoot in Xincai, and this continued until the final shoot last year, when even filming undercover of giant wheat fields, the Party’s shiny black sedan managed to find us.

The officials expelled us from the province under threat of arrest.Being surveilled is no game if you are Chinese and live in China. The temporary surveillance our crew encountered is nothing compared to the permanent surveillance Ximei and others encounter on a daily basis.

On more than one occasion, our Chinese cameraman and fixer, Huang Huang, was detained and beaten, the footage along with our camera confiscated (Huang Huang has been in jail since May, 2019, for his activism). The mother of our driver, who lives in Beijing, was paid a surprise visit by an official. Her son now works in a restaurant having given up driving in order to safeguard his mother.

Most of the local villagers featured in our film were interrogated by the police and made to sign statements. Creating arbitrary fear is a means totalitarian states use to control people’s freedom of movement and of expression.

One courageous woman, Ximei, chose not to be intimidated by these strong-armed government bullies. Possibly born between 1982 and 1985 – she believes – Ximei was 10-11 years-old when working in the wheat fields late at night with other kids. She got tired and fell asleep. The wheel of a wheat thresher caught her hair, ripping off her scalp. She needed a blood transfusion and this is how she contracted AIDS.

Frail from years of fighting AIDS with substandard medications, she dared to stand up for her rights and those of her fellow survivors. Ximei created the Ximei House, which offered a bed, food and counselling to anyone with AIDS. With a compromised immune system, she gambled her life daily, as she cooked and did chores for her sick patients, all the while confronting the local authorities who continually abused her.


The more I got to know Ximei, the more I realized I was working with one of the great heroes of our times. I followed and filmed her as she tended to dying victims, offered suicide counselling to those who wanted to end their life, gave home care for HIV-infected orphans, fought off discrimination and petitioned the government on behalf of her patients. I became determined to help her by getting her story known.

Documentary journalism is one of today’s cornerstones of free expression. It shines a light on the dark injustices of the world, gives voice to those whose cries are often drowned out.

Of course, with this comes a huge moral responsibility. Because most of my subjects are freedom fighters, showing their actions on film can jeopardize them. When Ximei received reprisals, such as house arrest.and constant harassment for the film being shown earlier this year in Geneva and for her speaking at the United Nations with the help of one journalist and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), who lobbied the Chinese during an official delegation, the local officials received orders to back off.

Ximei has been finally granted proper compensation and is now allowed more freedom of movement within China. Ximei remains a great inspiration and role model to me. She struggles daily, not only to wake up and fight through illness, but to stand up to one of the world’s most powerful governments. She was given AIDS through no fault of her own. And instead of helping, her government abused her and her fellow patients, hoping they would all die off and the story buried with them.

In the end, Ximei brings her patients a measure of dignity and humanity. By holding the authorities’ feet to the fire,speaking out against unfair treatment, the existence of every individual is validated.

Andy Cohen (Left)

ANDY COHEN is an American documentary film-maker, journalist and author based in Geneva. He also participated in Global Geneva’s first ‘Youth Writes’ (Young Journalists and Writers Initiative) workshop in Versoix, Switzerland, in March 2019, helping high school students better understand the role of documentary film reporting. For more information on Andy Cohen’s film Ximei (2019), please click here to view an extract. To contact Cohen at AC Films, please go to his website.