One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Court Decision in China Upholds HIV Employment Discrimination

China always seems to find its way into human rights headlines these days. Now that the sound and fury of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize has died down, the People’s Republic is in the news again: this time for a landmark court decision in which a man lost a discrimination case for being denied a teaching job based on his HIV status. Wu Xiao (an alias that means “Little Wu”), a 22-year-old college grad, passed a series of written tests and an interview for the position, so he should have been perfectly qualified for the post. However, when his mandatory blood test revealed his HIV status, the local education bureau in Anqing rejected his application. The court ruled that the criteria for hiring civil servants (which disqualifies HIV-positive individuals from being hired) overrules a 2006 law that prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV and their families. The verdict is highly discouraging to Chinese AIDS advocates.

Discrimination against persons with HIV is nothing new. The history of the disease is littered with horror stories of stigma, persecution, and invasion of privacy, and discrimination continues all over the world in various forms, including cultural norms and, in some cases, even laws. In Chile, HIV-positive women are frequently pressured to get sterilized, and some are even sterilized without consent. Twenty-two countries, including Russia, Egypt, and South Korea, will deport foreign nationals based solely on HIV status, and other countries (such as Malaysia and Syria) will not allow students with HIV to apply for study. Gugu Dlamini, a SouthAfrican woman, was beaten to death after speaking openly about her HIV status at an AIDS awareness gathering on World AIDS Day in 1998.

China is certainly no stranger to HIV/AIDS discrimination. From the government’s frantic cover-up of the “Bloodhead Scandal” (in which 30,000-50,000 people were infected through blood transfusion programs in the 90s) to present-day violations of patient privacy laws, Chinese HIV patients face harsh stigma from healthcare providers, government officials, and their friends and neighbors. On the surface, the country has been somewhat proactive in mitigating this: it passed its first laws regarding HIV patient privacy in 1988, and it is illegal to disclose personal information of HIV-positive individuals. Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao make visible appearances with people with AIDS every year on World AIDS Day, and ARVs are available to AIDS patients for free. However, privacy laws are routinely violated, and people with HIV are ostracized from their families and communities. The government routinely harasses and often imprisons AIDS activists (Hu Jia, for example, was held under house in 2006 and has been in jail since 2008). Fear, ignorance and the threat of discrimination discourage individuals from getting tested and deter many who already know their status from seeking treatment. Chinese AIDS patients are encouraged by their providers to use fake names and IDs when seeking treatment and picking up medicines.

Wu’s lawyers plan to appeal the decision, but advocates are frustrated. “The entire H.I.V. community had high hopes, but now the door appears to be shutting for people who want to use the courts to fight against discrimination,” said Yu Fangqiang, whose organization represented Wu in his case. Others, however, urge patience, and point out that the fact that the case was even heard demonstrates progress. Either way, it is crucial to end the institutionalization of discrimination against HIV. Cultural norms will not change until the official government position changes, and, along with it, its laws. People will not seek treatment until they are no longer afraid to come out of hiding.

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