Prising open the grip of prejudice
Lu Jun has spent the past nine years helping people with communicable diseases such as hepatitis and HIV fight the discrimination they face on a daily basis. Lu, 40, founded and now directs a non-profit organisation called the Beijing Yirenping Centre, which has been involved in hundreds of lawsuits targeting prejudice. He decided to become an activist after hearing about a distressing incident in which an infected university student killed a government official after being turned down for a job due to his medical condition. Lu says his work has not always been easy - he is no stranger to 'having coffee' with security officials, but he is proud of the progress his centre has made, and has ambitions to make it more influential.
What work are you involved in?
My colleagues and I founded the Yirenping Centre in 2006. We work closely with people infected with hepatitis or HIV who encounter discrimination on the mainland. Prejudice can be found at all levels - kindergartens, universities, the workplace or in government departments. We have provided legal help on more than 200 anti-discrimination lawsuits involving plaintiffs infected with hepatitis, and three lawsuits involving HIV carriers who were discriminated against by employers. We also advocate human rights and the protection of patients with mental illnesses. One aspect of our campaign is to persuade the authorities to stop sending petitioners, who are healthy, to psychiatric hospitals. We also work on safety problems involving food and drugs, from melamine-contaminated milk formula to a vaccine scandal in Shanxi that killed several children.
Why did you start the NGO?
I started my work after I joined a forum devoted to hepatitis B in 2003, after an angry graduate of a Zhejiang university stabbed a government official to death after being turned down for a job because he was infected. At the time, hepatitis carriers were barred by law from working as public servants, teachers, bus drivers or in food-processing plants. In 2006, my colleagues and I decided to found the Yirenping Centre in Beijing, after we agreed the fight for their equality was worth our time and effort. There are nearly 100 million carriers of hepatitis in China, and there is widespread trepidation over the virus. We have eight full-time employees, and the centre receives a lot of help from public interest lawyers who provide free services to infected people involved in court cases. We receive funds from international charity organisations and carry out joint projects.
What progress have you made?
Our work over the past 5 1/2 years has been fruitful. The central government in 2010 stopped requiring all new students to receive mandatory blood tests to identify hepatitis carriers before they could be enrolled in kindergartens, schools or universities. Hepatitis carriers have been allowed to work as public servants since 2005, and very few employers require job applicants to take tests for hepatitis, as more than 200 lawsuits backed by the centre have called anti-discrimination to their attention.
Does the mainland have any laws that prevent discrimination?
The mainland doesn't have a law that specifically bans discrimination, but there are a handful of clauses contained in other laws that do address the issue. The Employment Promotion Law, for example, bans discrimination against infected people in the workplace. But many of these clauses neither go into detail about what behaviour constitutes discrimination, nor do they clearly state the punishments for offences.
Why do the authorities send some petitioners to psychiatric hospitals?
These people, who only seek redress over perceived wrongs, are thrown into illegal 'black jails' or mental hospitals, where they may be beaten and raped. We have helped people sue the authorities after officials unjustly sent them to such a facility. Mental hospitals on the mainland do not assess an individual's mental condition before they admit him. That can lead to petitioners being forced to accept treatments such as medication for as long as authorities pay the hospitals. It's a kind of illegal detainment. So far, there's no law to protect the rights of people with mental illnesses, perceived or real.
Have you been harassed by officials?
We've got into trouble with several government departments. I have often been invited for coffee with state security officials who want up-to-date information about our work. In the summer of 2008, the centre was forced to move its website [www.yirenping.org] to an overseas server after the site was mysteriously taken offline. Rather than regard these types of behaviour as harassment or threats from authorities, I think of it as a kind of communication with the government. It is trying to find out about what we're doing amid concerns rights advocates could cause social unrest. Officials don't know much about NGOs, and I have to keep telling them that we're a 'non-political organisation'.
What obstacles do you face?
We have been subjected to many restrictions that were not just related to registering our NGO. On the mainland, it's very difficult for independent NGOs to register with the government. Some are forced to work underground. An NGO can only carry out its work in the place where it registered, and those who offend authorities will have difficulties passing their annual licensing inspection. Many NGOs are forced to pay hefty taxes, as the government considers them 'private sector non-companies' rather than NGOs. The Yirenping Centre isn't allowed to raise funds on the mainland because of this restriction. Authorities have also put up many obstacles for Chinese NGOs that receive funds from international charities. For instance, their foreign partners are required to visit China in person in order for the agreement over the grant to be notarised.
What are the centre's plans?
We will continue our work to reduce discrimination against people with disabilities, especially when it occurs in recruitment for government jobs. Research and surveys we have conducted since 2010 show how serious the problem is. The mainland government has disqualified people who are sight or hearing impaired from working as public servants, and many disabled people have complained to us they face different kinds of discrimination in interviews for government jobs. Our research found the percentage of disabled employees in regional governments can be as low as 0.39 per cent in some areas, much lower than the minimum mandated 1.5 per cent. We'll also try to boost gender equality in every aspect of society, while helping reduce the number of safety problems involving food and drugs.