China's Struggle With Hepatitis B Discrimination

Job applicants and students are regularly turned down on the basis of the disease. Now, some are fighting back. 
Researcher Wang Tingting gives a demonstration on how condoms produced by Chinese company Safedom prevent the transmission of Hepatitis B at a factory in Zhaoyuan. (David Gray/Reuters)

When Jack Wei graduated from college in 2006, he, unlike many of his classmates, decided not to apply for the big companies that he wanted to work for in Shanghai. His reasoning had little to do with a lack of courage, talent, or will, but rather something simpler: Wei was afraid of being rejected because he is a Hepatitis B carrier, and in China, this is a major obstacle to getting a job.

Wei then settled for work at a small company and stayed there for three years. In 2009, having found the courage to again apply for a major company, he received a job offer. But before he could begin, the company turned him away: He had tested positive for Hepatitis B. Discouraged and despaired, the then-26-year-old gave up job hunting.

“I felt like I fell into a hole and couldn’t get up,” Wei recalled. “It gradually pushed a normal person like me into depression.”

A combination of poor needle hygiene, a heavy reliance on injections and infusions in medical care, and a low vaccination rate have exposed a large number of Chinese people to Hepatitis B, and the virus’ victims are then often subject to employment discrimination. Despite a 2010 law banning Hep B tests in job and school admission applications, 61 percent of state-run companies continue to use the test as a part of their pre-employment screening process, according to the latest human rights report of the U.S. State Department. Companies collaborate with hospitals to test applicants in secret during the hiring process, and employees are fired if they test positive during annual physical checkups. As a result, victims struggle to obtain evidence and gain protection from laws.

Lei Chuang, a 26-year-old graduate student at Shanghai’s Jiaotong University, is one of the few well-known Hepatitis B activists in China. This summer, Lei walked from Shanghai to Beijing, a 1,000-mile journey requiring three months, to advocate for the lowering of medical costs for patients afflicted with the virus. Following his arrival in the capital, Lei and his father handed in the petition to the National Health and Family Planning Commission, and took a picture with an official. He described the walk as a success.

“I was crazy,” Lei said, “But I wanted to reduce the health expense for Hepatitis B patients and their financial burden.”

Lei begun his advocacy work back in 2007, and used creative methods to gain attention for his Hep B cause: He sent pears, rubber balls and flowers to different government departments, protested and did performance art at discriminatory companies or schools, and wrote thousands of letters to authorities. In one of his performance art pieces, Lei took off his pants and sat on a toilet seat to protest in front of a company.

As a carrier himself, Lei believes that physical checkups in school admissions and job applications are designed to screen out candidates for all sorts of health ailments, not just Hepatitis B. This process survives, he says, because of ignorance about how the virus is transmitted combined with public fear of the illness and the people who carry it.

Hepatitis B is an infectious inflammatory disease of the liver caused by the Hepatitis B virus, which is transmitted by exposure to fluids such as blood and semen. According to the World Health Organization, the virus is mostly spread from mother to child at birth, or from person to person in early childhood. Daily activities like hand-shaking, dining, and kissing don’t transmit Hepatitis B. China has about 120 million chronic carriers, a third of the world’s total, and most do not show any symptoms.

Shako Liu is multi-media journalist based in Los Angeles.

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