China’s First HIV Discrimination Case: Mostly Good News

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In what appears to be a first for Chinaís legal system, a court in Anhui Province has agreed to hear a complaint by a prospective schoolteacher that he was illegally denied a job because he is H.I.V. positive, the manís lawyer said Tuesday. The unidentified man, said to be in his early 20s, brought the case under a 2006 national regulation that prohibits job discrimination against people with H.I.V. (New York Times)

This is positive news in most respects. The standard operating procedure for Chinese courts up until now is to dismiss these discrimination cases, including HIV. We’ve seen some very positive trends with sexual harassment over the past few years, and now perhaps HIV cases will begin to be accepted by judges. The Central Government has, via legal reform in 2006, made their intentions clear that such cases should be taken seriously.

Although it’s been slow going, the government has stepped in with assistance for HIV-infected individuals in recent years:

H.I.V.-positive Chinese suffered official and public discrimination for years after the disease first surfaced in the country in 1986. Infected students were often forced to leave school and workers were shunted from their jobs.

More recently, the national government has taken a tolerant approach, offering free antiretroviral drugs and prenatal care to many people who are H.I.V. positive, as well as screening for those who suspect that they might be. Many migrants remain unable to receive the services, however, because they lack the appropriate residence papers.

Again, this is all positive. But one aspect of this legal case does give me pause. The judge in this instance had delayed his decision on taking the case for some time, and only after the matter was profiled by a journalist in the Legal Daily, perhaps China’s top legal newspaper, did the judge decide to move forward.

I’m delighted that the case was accepted, but once again we see a case that seems to have been influenced by public opinion. This has come up several times in the past few years, usually when a bogus criminal charge is pilloried in the press (and online), forcing public officials to drop charges. That sort of public action is usually hailed as a good thing.

I call it scary, and I’ll include this HIV discrimination case in that category. The more often cases are influenced by the public, the more likely that in the future we will see outcomes we don’t like, perhaps pushed by nationalism or xenophobia. Not a good trend at all.