AIDS and civil rights activists hit out Monday at China's proposed ban on HIV patients from public spa facilities, in what they said is the latest in a long string of discriminatory measures affecting HIV carriers in the country.
The proposed guidelines from the ministry, and posted online by China's cabinet, the State Council, requires spas, bathhouses and similar businesses to display signs that prominently prohibit "people with sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS and infectious skin diseases" from entry.
A top official from UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/Aids, called on Beijing Monday to scrap the order.
"This is a typically lazy act on the part of those in power, which has no upside, and a great many downsides," AIDS advocate Chang Kun said in response to the proposed guidelines from the Ministry of Commerce in Beijing.
"To start with, it shows a lack of understanding about the basic facts about HIV/AIDS, and people could get the wrong idea about how it is transmitted when they read about this," Chang said.
"This will exacerbate discrimination and demonize people living with HIV as a group, so that recruiters for civil service and teaching jobs will use it as an excuse to refuse to hire [them]," he said.
Experts say there is no risk of transmission of HIV in a spa or bathhouse setting, as the virus relies on the exchange of body fluids to infect another person.
Education is key
Women's rights activist Ye Haiyan said Beijing's move was a step backwards towards the days of the earliest AIDS propaganda used by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"In the early days, we would use photos of late-stage AIDS patients, and there would be a lot of information about the damage done by AIDS," Ye said.
"[Such propaganda] never told everyone that their lives could be extended [with antiretroviral therapy], or that it's not as terrible as all that."
She said the government still had a long way to go to educate the general public about contact with HIV/AIDS patients.
"They haven't really organized any good campaigns, so I feel that they have created a good environment for us," Ye said.
Call to revise discriminatory policies
A top U.N. official called on Beijing on Monday to abandon the plan.
"UNAIDS recommends that restrictions preventing people living with HIV from accessing bath houses, spas and other similar facilities be removed from the final draft of this policy," Hedia Belhadj, China country coordinator for UNAIDS, told Agence France-Presse.
"Any other policies preventing people living with HIV from accessing public or private services [should] also be revised," she said.
Currently, Chinese living with HIV are already barred from civil service appointments, while those already in jobs run the risk of losing them if their immunological status is made known to their employer.
China already bans those with the virus from becoming civil servants, and HIV-positive people face the possibility of losing their jobs if their employers discover their status, while some have sought hospital treatment only to be turned away.
U.S.-based whistleblowing doctor Wan Yanhai said in an interview earlier this year that while the U.N.-backed targets of zero new infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths are still a long way off for many governments, the target of zero mother-to-child transmissions set by the State Council in 2010 as part of the 12th Five Year Plan should be achievable for China.
But he said the Communist Party tends to view people living with HIV as legitimate targets for its nationwide "stability maintenance" surveillance system, while widespread stigma and poverty hamper the effectiveness of prevention efforts in the area of mother-to-child transmission.
UNAIDS estimates that there are 780,000 people living with HIV in China.
Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.