The Communist Party's new number two Li Keqiang has been accused of hypocrisy by Chinese AIDS activists after he called for more non-government efforts to fight the disease.
The ruling party has long been suspicious of HIV/AIDS campaigners because of their refusal to support official policy, and activists accused Li -- expected to become prime minister in March -- of overseeing deliberate oppression.
He was party boss of Henan province in the 1990s when it was hit by China's most debilitating AIDS epidemic. It stemmed from a tainted government-backed blood donation programme and infected tens of thousands of people, including entire villages.
Li's provincial government responded with a crackdown on the victims and their activist supporters.
Li, now a vice premier and head of a cabinet-level commission on HIV/AIDS, was quoted in state media Thursday as praising the role of NGOs and calling for them to step up their activities.
"Civil societies play an indispensable role in the national battle against HIV/AIDs," the China Daily quoted him as saying ahead of Saturday's UN World AIDS Day.
"The government should support them in funding, registration and boosting their capacity."
But campaigners were scathing in response.
"You can't believe what he says, he is only putting on an act like the government does every year ahead of World AIDS Day," leading dissident Hu Jia, who has repeatedly confronted authorities over the Henan AIDS scandal, told AFP.
"The first time I was detained by police was in 2001 in Henan when I was bringing clothes and toys to the families of victims.
"During his time in Henan, Li Keqiang was responsible for a lot of the oppression on AIDS activists and even prevented UN AIDS (the United Nations body that combats the epidemic) from visiting the victims."
Another AIDS activist, former government health official Chen Bingzhong, accused Li of being responsible for a huge number of infections and deaths in Henan.
"There is no way that our next prime minister Li Keqiang can cover up this serious wrongdoing," Chen said in a comment emailed to AFP.
As of the end of last year there were an estimated 780,000 people with HIV/AIDS in China, according to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, out of the country's total population of about 1.3 billion.