Public sympathy for the disadvantaged
A draft government policy on disallowing HIV infected persons from entering public bathhouses and a court’s decision to sentence the wheelchair-bound “Beijing airport bomber” to six years in prison triggered considerable criticism among the public this week.
Critical opinion on both also surfaced in the state media though censors seemed to have blocked stories on the “airport bomber” on some foreign websites.
Reactions in both cases showed that, broadly, there is sympathy for the disadvantaged; be it for those suffering from an infection that carries the additional weight of stigma – though misinformation and fear about HIV clearly remains — and for those perceived to have been wronged by those more powerful.
In July, Ji Zhongxing exploded homemade explosives in protest inside the main Beijing airport after apparently warning people to move away from him. He blew away his own arm in the process.
According to Ji, it was his last resort to get the government’s attention to a wrong that was done to him in 2005. In June that year, Ji claimed to have been so severely beaten by the “chengguan” – urban government officials who manage low-level crime – that both his legs became paralysed. All his petitions to get justice failed.
“I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I just wanted the attention of the police so that they could take me away, so I could voice my complaints. I also asked people around to leave in order to draw police attention.” Ji was quoted by the state media as having said.
The court sentenced him to six years in prison anyway. According to state media, it was a “minor sentence” because he warned people to stay away from him before triggering the explosion and also confessed to his crime.
The court – courts in China are part of the mammoth apparatus of the Communist Party of China – could have sentenced him but Chinese bloggers not only sympathised with Ji but also questioned the court’s decision.
Ji is being seen as a symbol of the millions of marginalised migrant workers – he was one when the 2005 incident happened – who have little recourse to justice in case of wrongdoing in the hands of the authorities.
BBC’s Chinese service quoted an online user as having written: “The court believes that he must take legal responsibility for his action. But who should take legal responsibility for what had driven Ji Zhongxing to do all this?”
Even the tightly controlled state media had a word of sympathy for Ji. Current affairs commentator Gregory Yingnien Tsang told CCTV – the national broadcaster, no less – that public sympathy was with Ji because he was not a habitual criminal and had no option left.
He said an appeal case was justified and the evidence of the earlier crime should be carefully scrutinised. Interestingly, officials looking into the 2005 case have failed to unearth new details.
Ji might appeal but it is unlikely to succeed in reducing the sentence, the state media reported.
Critical opinion has also erupted against the draft policy on banning HIV patients from entering bathhouses but unlike in Ji’s case where public sympathy could have little bearing on a legal decision, this policy could be well be withdrawn if the volume of criticism grows.
The Ministry of Commerce’s new policy orders the “owners of the facilities to display clear signs forbidding people with sexually-transmitted diseases, infectious skin diseases and for the first time, AIDS/HIV, from entering.”
“The draft Administrative Method to Regulate the Bath Industry soon made headlines after being released for public consultation, kicking up a heated row. Epidemiologists, NGOs and even UNAIDS raised suspicions or objections against the proposal,” state-controlled newspaper, Global Times reported.
Activists said the policy strengthens stereotypes and adds to the misinformation about how HIV spreads.
And it was exactly the case with an online survey done by the newspaper: “The general public holds the opposite opinion, with 72.9% of respondents in an online survey saying they would support the new policy.”
It was mostly for fear of how the infection spreads among people; many probably still think it can spread by touch and casual contact.
“After touching a sensitive issue, the new policy is bound to raise heated debate. Some approve of it, saying it is good for both the public and individual health, while others criticize it, claiming it is discrimination against AIDS patients, and the policy is impractical. Most Chinese people, especially in underdeveloped areas, still believe AIDS is a daunting and highly infectious disease, and they usually treat HIV patients in a manner that isolates and discriminates against them,” the newspaper report added.