On Wednesday, millions sat for China’s notoriously grueling two-day college entrance exam, known as the gaokao.
While everyone files into testing facilities for the exam, 16 kids in northern China’s Shanxi province will sit the test in isolation — because they’re HIV-positive.
The students go to the Linfen Red Ribbon School, the only institution of its kind in China. Linfen was set up over a decade ago specifically to provide education to HIV-positive kids.
The school has always maintained that it serves as a safe-haven for the HIV-positive community, away from society’s discrimination and rejection — often even from even their families.
Most of the school’s 33 students got HIV from their mothers during birth. Due to lack of mainstream understanding of the virus, many villages call for the banishment of these children to separate communes, for fear of transmission.
For the big gaokao, Linfen had to obtain special permission to let them do the exam on the school premises. Other students would have filed into large, designated centres set up for the exam.
Linfen’s headmaster, Guo Xiaoping, told China News: “The local education department would allow these students to take the test with other children, but parents of other children might object to that.”
Guo also told Sixth Tone the school has even gone to the lengths of arranging for its students to have the name of another school on their graduation documents, in the hopes of helping them escape discrimination when they graduate.
A call for better HIV and AIDS awareness
After media coverage of the isolated exam for Linfen broke, debate on its methods has erupted on Chinese social media, where some are calling for better awareness of HIV and AIDS in the country.
“It gives the public the negative impression that these people should be isolated,” Sixth Tone quoted Ye Chengjiang, director of Zhitong Guangzhou LGBT Center, as saying.
Zhitong is one of several NGOs trying to educate the broader Chinese population on HIV and AIDS — an uphill battle, to reach a billion people with little support from the centralised Communist news agencies.
Online, many Weibo users argued that the isolated exam hall would achieve the opposite effect of protecting the kids:
“There’s not a lot of awareness when it comes to HIV in the country — a lot of people don’t even know that anti-retroviral drugs exist. Usually our media just talks about AIDS prevention on World AIDS day, and we have a lot of publicity during fundraising campaigns, but we don’t see it happening every day.
“We should make caring for HIV-positive people a normal thing, and not something we publicise one day and stop the next.”
“A lot of people don’t understand how HIV is transmitted, and they panic very easily. Hugging, sharing a meal and kissing won’t cause the transmission of HIV, so there is no need to panic. You have no right to discriminate against HIV-positive people; being ostracised by the people around you often hurts more than the pain and suffering from the illness.”
“This is discrimination! Just think about why you’re distancing yourself away from them.”
Headmaster Guo has always maintained that the segregation Linfen provides is beneficial to the students.
He defended the school in an earlier media report from February, saying: “Without us, these children might not have even had the chance to go to school.
“I hope, as they do, that one day, when there is no discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS, there will be no need for our school to exist.”