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December 1, 2011

Most people do not talk openly about being HIV-positive in China for fear of being shut out by society, where discrimination is rampant. Government measures have helped reduce the number of infections.

A Chinese woman looks at a red ribbon on World Aids Day
Many Chinese keep their infection a secretImage: AP

Wang Tao, which is not his real name, is sitting in the visitors' room at You'an Hospital in south Beijing. He lowers his voice while speaking. He is slightly cross-eyed - the result of an injury he sustained during the spring festival, when a firework exploded directly in his face. The 38-year-old man was taken to the clinic in his village in Henan province where the doctors said that he would have to be operated upon immediately.

A Chinese woman sits in a hospital room
Hospitals often turn HIV-positive patients awayImage: AP

But then Wang was refused treatment and sent to another hospital. The reason was that he is HIV-positive, since contracting the virus while donating blood. However, the doctors at the next hospital, a clinic specializing in eye surgery, were equally unwilling to perform the operation, and sent him instead to a clinic for infectious diseases - where there was no eye department.

In the end, Wang had to wait for nearly two weeks before he could get any kind of treatment and ended up losing his left eye altogether. He now has a glass eyeball in its place. 


Wang Tao, who did not want to give his real name for fear of stigmatization, is generally in good condition thanks to the free antiretroviral drugs he receives. Although his wife and parents know about his illness and support him, he has never told any of his friends or his seven-year-old son.

"The school my son goes to doesn't know either," Wang admits. "Many children with HIV-infected parents cannot go to school. I am afraid my son will have a disadvantage because of my disease." 

"HIV-positive people have difficulty getting any kind of medical treatment, getting jobs and even travelling," says Meng Lin, the head of the China Alliance for People Living with HIV/AIDS.

Meng Lin knows this from first-hand experience. His family disowned the former businessman when he was diagnosed in 1995. To this day, his parents refuse all contact with him.

After giving a television interview in his capacity as the president of the China Alliance, his customers started taking their custom elsewhere. Meng Lin had to file for bankruptcy.

School children sign a banner on Aids Day in China
The Chinese government has introduced HIV awareness campaignsImage: AP

Fighting on two fronts

UNAIDS estimates there are around 740,000 people living with HIV in China. Most of them belong to the so-called high-risk groups of sex workers, drug addicts and homosexuals.

A man blows up a condom with a red ribbon on it on Aids Day
The Chinese government is taking 'progressive' steps to reduce discriminationImage: dpa

The UN had originally predicted a staggering 10 million HIV infections in China by the year 2010 but the government was able to prevent this by introducing a number of initiatives, such as free HIV tests and treatment, and awareness campaigns, as well as national discrimination directives.

Mark Stirling, UNAIDS Country Coordinator in China, believes that while the guidelines are very progressive, they often clash with local regulations. "We have to fight on two fronts" he says. "We have to get local regulations in line with the national ones. And it is important to continue to continue educating the public." 

Meng Lin's alliance is working hard to educate the public but the activist thinks it will take a long time to rid society of discrimination. "I don't think anything will change in the next 10 years. But maybe in 100 years." 

Author: Christoph Ricking / ac
Editor: Sarah Berning