China’s fight against the spread of AIDS has seen marked progress in some areas over the past decade, but the social stigma that the virus carries continues to be a major obstacle. Individuals who contract the virus not only face challenges in society, work and school, but in getting medical treatment as well.
The recent case of a 25-year-old man from the coastal city of Tianjin is one high profile example. The man, who goes by the name of Xiaofeng (not his real name) says he had to alter his medical records to hide the fact that he was HIV-positive to get treatment for lung cancer.
His case has been widely reported in Chinese media and sparked a public outcry both in the press and online.
Not a haven
Liu Wei, a public interest lawyer who defends people discriminated against because of HIV/AIDS says Xiaofeng's case is not unique.
“In the past staff in hospitals would just say that they denied treatment because the patient had AIDS,” she says. “Now they find excuses, such as that they are not equipped for surgeries on an HIV positive patient."
Performing surgery on a patient with HIV/AIDS does not require hospital staff to take any extra precautions that they would not normally be required to take with other patients.
Ma Guihong, an HIV-positive woman from a village in Hebei a province neighboring Beijing, says it is in hospitals that she feels most discriminated against.
“[In hospitals] they will discriminate against you out of ignorance, for example when I go do a heart check, they will use two pairs of gloves and try to stay far from me, and put the mask on and try to protect themselves,” she says. “Common people do not discriminate against you, you go to a hospital and there is where you find discrimination.”
Ma is one of the tens of thousand of people who were infected with AIDS in the 1990s after participating in state-sponsored commercial blood donation programs. She says that at the time her husband's income was not enough to support her family of two children. When local officials started encouraging people to sell blood, most assumed it was safe, and saw it as an easy way to make ends meet.
“The men went out to earn some money through labor, and the women stayed home and sold blood,” she says.
Lots of fellow villagers who took part in the blood scheme had gotten weak over the years, and many had died after long periods of cold-like symptoms. Newspapers were barred from reporting on the disease and the link it had with the government-run blood clinics, yet Ma says she suspected people's illnesses had something to do with the blood donations.
Only in 2004 after reading about how an HIV epidemic in a neighboring province was caused by blood sales, did Ma get tested and find out that she too had been infected.
Ma, who now heads an NGO that educates people on HIV/AIDS, was able to get fairly compensated after petitioning the government together with other victims of her village. Others have not been as successful.
According to a recent survey by the Korekata AIDS Law Center, an HIV rights protection non-profit organization based in Beijing, the amount of compensation - if any - varies greatly throughout the country.
The survey found that big obstacles remain. Courts often refuse to hear cases involving HIV/AIDS compensation, after being warned not to accept them by superior courts. Victims are required to supply evidence of the blood donations almost two decades after they sold blood, when medical records are lost or hard to find.
Many resort to petitioning to gain redress, but unlike Ma are less lucky with the outcome.
When Tian Xi was only nine years old and in elementary school, he got into a fight one day with a classmate and hit his head on the corner of desk. After being taken to a state-run hospital he was given a blood transfusion of tainted blood.
However, he did not learn he was HIV positive until he took a test in high school. He lobbied the local and central government for compensation, but in 2010 was found guilty of destruction of property on charges that Tian says were fabricated. He was sentenced to a year of prison.
“They said that I was a criminal of the nation, but I do not agree, I think that I really care about the country and society,” he says and adds that in China people who fight for their rights, and the rights of the disadvantage group are persecuted.
During the blood scandal Li Keqiang, now China's premier in waiting, was the party chief of Henan province, where Tian was infected and one of China's most affected areas.
AIDS & Li Keqiang
Under his tenure Henan's economy grew considerably, winning the praise of senior government leaders and securing Li a smooth promotion to higher posts, but critics point at Li's response to the scandal and say that he covered up the HIV epidemic while strongly cracking down on victims and activists seeking redress.
Earlier this week, a decade after the first news reports on the tainted government-backed blood donation program highlighted the extent of the infection, Li Keqiang met with HIV/AIDS activists in Beijing and praised the role of NGOs in promoting better care of HIV/AIDS patients.
Guy Taylor, a consultant with the UNAIDS China office, says that Li Keqiang's recent statements show that the government is committed to fight AIDS and discrimination against HIV positive people in China.
“The laws and the statements are very very positive and now we just need to make sure they are fully implemented on the ground,” Taylor says.
Infection through blood transfusions or donations are much less prevalent now, thanks to a law passed in 1998 that prohibits all profit based collection of blood.
China has made other significant steps in reducing the AIDS mortality rates, and expanding HIV treatment and testing.
But, as the case of Tianjin resident Xiaofeng highlighted, discrimination is still rampant in many state-run hospitals and institutions.
The government has pledged to tackle the issue by issuing a circular banning hospitals from turning down patients infected with HIV/AIDS.
Tianjin's Health Department also said that they had started an investigation to find those within the hospitals responsible of denying treatment to Xiaofeng.
Li Hu, a Tianjin based activist who helped Xiaofeng forge his medical record before trying to get surgery for the last time, was one of the activists who met with Li Keqiang earlier this week.
In a letter addressed to the premier in waiting Li Hu wrote his NGO's recommendations to ensure better rights protection to HIV/AIDS patients.
“Showing care for people with HIV/AIDS is of direct concern for the rights of the people, and for the harmonious development of the nation,” the letter said.