Both public security and health authorities on Wednesday refuted a rumor claiming that a large group of HIV/AIDS carriers had infiltrated large cities and intended to transmit the virus by contaminating food sources.
The rumor, that went viral, claimed that some 20,000 HIV-positive sufferers from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region had gone to major cities across the country and laced restaurant food with their blood.
It said those attackers were incited by separatists and terrorists, and warned people to not eat Xinjiang food.
"The Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Health (MOH) have confirmed the threat. Several people in Henan Province have been infected," the rumor claimed.
The MOH rebutted the rumor Wednesday, saying that the virus can be transmitted only through blood, sexual contact and pregnancy.
"People will not be infected with the virus through drinking, eating or sharing tableware, and there is no case either in China or abroad in which people were infected in this way," the ministry said.
On the same day, the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau (XPSB) also refuted the rumor, saying their investigation had turned up not a shred of evidence to corroborate it.
Li Li, a deputy director with the XPSB publicity office, told the Global Times that authorities had not discovered the origin of the rumor and no arrests had been made.
Yi Jinfeng, an owner of a halal restaurant in Chaoyang district, Beijing, told the Global Times that his business had not been affected so far.
"The rumor is a joke for people who know about HIV/AIDS prevention," Yi said.
However, it still made some people uncomfortable.
"I received the message from my mother. I knew it was groundless after reading it, but my mother was concerned and asked me to not eat in street restaurants," Li Xujun, 28, an IT engineer in Beijing, told the Global Times.
A similar rumor circulated in the country in early 2008, which was then refuted by the Urumqi health bureau.
Peng Xiaohui, a vice secretary-general of the World Association of Chinese Sexologists, told the Global Times that the rumor could cause panic among those who lack awareness of the disease.
"Someone must have started the rumor to cause a stir by taking advantage of these people's poor knowledge and fear of the disease," Peng said, adding that authorities need to further raise people's awareness of AIDS prevention.
Wang Sixin, a law professor at the Communication University of China, speculated that the rumor could be cooked up by some hostile groups.
"They might intend to cause panic and instability, as the rumor could not only stir discrimination and misunderstanding toward HIV/AIDS patients, but also stir up ethnic tensions," Wang said.
Xinjiang was hit by two terrorist attacks this summer. On July 20, police shot 14 rioters who had attacked a police station in the city of Hotan. Less than two weeks later, four suspects were shot dead by police in the city of Kashgar after they mowed pedestrians down in a truck.
In July 5, 2009, a riot in Urumqi left 197 people dead and more than 1,600 others injured. The riot was confirmed as a premeditated crime orchestrated by separatists from outside the country.
Ministry of Public Security figures issued in 2007 showed that terrorist forces in and outside Xinjiang had led to 260 terrorism attacks in China and overseas in the past decade, killing over 160 people and injuring over 440 others.
In 2002, the UN Security Council added the East Turkestan Islamic Movement to its list of terrorist groups.
Apart from speculation of a terrorist plot, the rumor also highlighted social problems in China caused by faulty information online.
According to the Computer Information Network and Internet Security, Protection and Management Regulations enacted in 1997, any person spreading rumors will be fined a maximum of 5,000 yuan.
Li Leping, a deputy chief procurator from Changzhou People's Procuratorate of Jiangsu Province, told Legal Daily that the current legal punishment for such acts is too light compared to the losses and impact caused.
The State Council Information Office also vowed to firmly crack down on online rumors.
"Such rumors are cancer to the Internet and the society. To clear them up needs joint efforts from the whole society," the office said in a statement on September 30.
Zheng Yi and Zhu Shanshan contributed to this story