BEIJING — If it wasn't shocking enough to learn that a local housing developer in Henan province recently hired HIV-positive people to threaten residents with infection so they would move out of their houses, consider that this wasn't an isolated case. 

In China, it's relatively common for people living with AIDS to be hired for jobs such as helping to get houses demolished — in this case, the six people were known as the "AIDS demolition team" — or collecting debts, says Cheng Shuaishuai, founder of an anti-discrimination organization providing free housing to patients suffering from AIDS. 

The main suspect in the Henan case, a man named Liu, told the Xinhua News Agency that he learned about the job opportunity online, and Cheng says many employers are apparently willing to use this kind of coercion on the uneducated people in Henan's rural areas.

Though Cheng stresses that HIV carriers should be punished just like other citizens if they violate the law, he says the majority of people living with AIDS in China work just like other ordinary people.

Media coverage suggests that people with HIV opt for these shady assignments intimidating people because of physical limitations that preclude them from doing heavy labor. But as Cheng points out, there are latency and onset periods for HIV-positive people. In theory, medication can prolong the latent period of the virus — the stage where there are often no symptoms — so that those infected have no obvious signs of illness. But for those with a long history of HIV infection and who started medication only after experiencing full-blown AIDS symptoms, physical fitness is already diminished.

A Chinese HIV carrier takes his medication in Chongqing — Photo: Gu Yi/Xinhua/ZUMA

There are more than 60,000 identified HIV cases in Henan province. The area has the highest prevalence of HIV in China because of unsafe blood donations and blood selling. Among these cases, 30,000 are past latency and in the full-blown AIDS stage. Though the Henan authority gives a small living subsidy to each person carrying the HIV virus and to people suffering from AIDS, medical expenses aren't fully covered once they are hospitalized. 

That some HIV-positive people support themselves by taking jobs that require intimidation reflects the grim reality of employment discrimination against this vulnerable group. Though China's Employment Promotion Act generally specifies that employers cannot refuse hiring on the basis of whether a person carries an infectious disease, it allows companies to decline HIV-positive candidates by saying that they are "medically unfit."

In 2010, a Normal University graduate from Anhui province passed the teacher recruitment examination but the local education authority refused to give him a job because he was HIV-positive. He filed the first anti-AIDS discrimination lawsuit in China but lost both his initial case and his appeal.

His lawyer, Li Fangping, says that news coverage of the "AIDS demolition team" and similar cases will definitely affect public perception of HIV-positive people, stigmatizing them even more. It's even likely that the judges will penalize those involved more harshly than they otherwise would in order to calm public outrage.

Li says there should be scrutiny not just of the housing developer and the HIV-positive people in his employ but also of the role of public authorities. For example, was the "AIDS demolition team" somehow protected from the government?

It's only just that any housing developers and officials involved are duly punished, just as their hired hands no doubt will be.