It’s the first day of the semester after the summer break, and a group of students gather in a schoolyard in northern China to watch the raising of the national flag. Dressed in their new uniforms, these 32 children make up the entire student body of Linfen Red Ribbon School, which claims to be the first and only school in the country that specifically caters to students who have HIV.
This coming school year will be a pivotal one for many of these children. That’s because next June, the first batch of seniors — or about half of those currently enrolled — will graduate and head out into the world.
Most of the students have been orphaned by AIDS, or abandoned by their families, so they’ve grown up in the boarding school. Leaving the Red Ribbon fold marks an important transition from childhood to adulthood. But it also marks a departure from a caring, comforting environment that has offered them some degree of shelter from discrimination. For the students, they will have to make it on their own in a country where, despite some modest advancements in recent years, HIV carriers continue to face significant discrimination in many areas of society.
More than 30 students gather for a flag-raising ceremony at Linfen Red Ribbon School, Shanxi province, Sept. 1, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone
When Sixth Tone visited the school in early September, students’ apprehension about life after Red Ribbon was palpable.
Nineteen-year-old Hong Hong, one of Red Ribbon’s first students, says she’s nervous about leaving the school, which she describes as a safe haven. “I feel inferior,” she says. “I don’t have enough self-confidence yet.”
Such uncertainty is inevitable, says Guo Xiaoping, the school’s principal. “They will inevitably face all sorts of problems and challenges after leaving,” says Guo, “but that’s something they will have to deal with by themselves.”
During the morning flag-raising ceremony, Guo implores the students — aged 7 to 19 — to study hard, and also offers words of encouragement. “Remember that you are entitled to the same rights shared by everyone else in our society,” he tells them.
It’s easy to understand why some of these children need reminding.
When 10-year-old Kun Kun first came to the school from Sichuan province, approximately 1,200 kilometers away, he was unruly, his teachers say. In the village where he was born, the 200 or so residents there — including his grandfather, who serves as his guardian — ostracized him after he was diagnosed with HIV four years ago. The local school prohibited him from attending classes.
“I used to play by myself in the woods,” Kun Kun recalls of his days in Sichuan. Under the guidance of his teachers at Red Ribbon, he has transformed into a cheerful, attentive, and outgoing child. Still, because he missed out on so many years of schooling, Kun Kun has fallen behind most of his peers. “I can now write all the numbers up to 33,” he says with pride.
Sixth graders at Linfen Red Ribbon School during a math class, Shanxi province, Aug. 31, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone
There are currently 575,000 people living with HIV or AIDS in China, according to the latest national statistics. In order to ensure that they receive better care, the Chinese government began offering free treatment for low-income people in 2003, and then expanded the program nationwide in 2004.
Experts estimate that roughly 8,000 of China’s HIV-positive are children under 14. HIV prevention efforts have resulted in a drastic reduction in parent-to-child transmission over the last decade. Previously, 34.8 percent of infants born to HIV-positive mothers would be infected, but after a decade of targeted programs, that figure fell to 6.1 percent in 2014.
The Chinese government in recent years has carried out a series of measures to protect the rights of people with HIV, including the Regulation on the Prevention and Treatment of HIV/AIDS, adopted in 2006, and the Employment Promotion Law, adopted in 2007. The law states that an employer may not refuse to hire any person based on their HIV status. Yet discrimination persists despite the law, which relies on HIV-positive individuals standing up for their rights.
Discrimination and stigma are widespread, affecting many people living with HIV in China. Particularly in rural areas, they are barred from attending school and discriminated against at work due to a lack of education and awareness of how the disease is transmitted and treated.
Back in 2005, when Hong Hong was receiving treatment at Linfen Hospital for Infectious Diseases, the hospital staff started a class for her and three other children to teach them basic mathematics and Chinese. By the following year, there were 16 students, so hospital director Guo Xiaoping decided to set up a school. “Their parents were my patients too,” Guo tells Sixth Tone. “I treated them like my own kids after their parents died.”
Students do morning exercises at Linfen Red Ribbon School, Shanxi province, Aug. 31, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone
The entire hospital officially turned into a school in 2006. But for the first five years, it was uncertified because the local government refused to grant approval until October 2011, when Peng Liyuan — China’s first lady, who in June of that year had been appointed World Health Organization Goodwill Ambassador for Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS — visited the school and had lunch with the students.
The school’s newest student, 9-year-old Hanya, was sent by her aunt last September from their home in the eastern province of Jiangxi. Her mother died in 2014, and her father broke off contact with the family. Hanya then moved in with her aunt and uncle, who always wore gloves around her and set up a separate toilet for her to use. Her grandfather said he’d rather die than have Hanya live with him.
Hanya still isn’t clear on what HIV is exactly. “My dad was infected with HIV after being bitten by a big animal,” she tells Sixth Tone as she sits on her dormitory bed. “And then he passed the disease to my mom and me,” she adds, holding a picture of her mother in her hands.
All that the little girl knows is that she has some sort of medical condition. “My aunt told me I’m here to treat my disease, but I don’t feel there is anything wrong with my body,” she says.
Neither Hanya nor Kun Kun went home during the summer holiday because their families refused to take them. Instead, they stayed with their teacher, 44-year-old Liu Liping, who has been in charge of the students’ daily life for the past 11 years.
Liu was exposed to HIV through a blood transfusion 20 years ago, but she didn’t realize it until 2005, when she went to see a doctor for an oral ulcer. “When I saw the test result, I felt like it was the end of the world,” Liu recalls.
Liu says she almost lost all hope, but the children she met as she underwent treatment at what was then the Linfen Hospital for Infectious Diseases gave her courage and strength. After completing her treatment, Liu volunteered to be their teacher.
Though medication means that Liu and the students can enjoy normal lives, many of the surrounding villagers initially regarded the school with suspicion and even superstition.
A girl writes in her textbook at Linfen Red Ribbon School, Shanxi province, Aug. 31, 2016. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone
In the early years, Red Ribbon administrator Qiao Jiping remembers that no produce was ever stolen from the school’s vegetable garden. “Villagers believed they would get infected if they ate our food,” Qiao says. “Taxi drivers didn’t want to drive near the school, and some shop owners kicked out students who tried to buy snacks.”
Nowadays, attitudes are shifting slowly thanks to the increased media coverage that has attracted a steady flow of volunteers to the school. Guo Fang — no relation to school Principal Guo Xiaoping — is one of the volunteers who comes at least once a month to make dumplings for the kids. Guo’s husband and 14-year-old son Tian Tian have started coming with her as well. Now her son plays games on his smartphone with Kun Kun.
“We learn about HIV and AIDS in biology class,” says Tian Tian. “So that’s why I really don’t understand why people are afraid of HIV/AIDS patients.”
Principal Guo says the school can accommodate only 40 students with its current income. When the seniors graduate next June, the student population will be halved. But rather than fill their places, Guo would like to see the student numbers dwindle.
“I hope the school can shut down soon,” says Guo, “because kids with HIV should be able to go to normal schools without facing discrimination.”
Surveying the children in the schoolyard, Guo wonders if they — and the world — are ready for a future without Red Ribbon. “They look so happy and carefree,” he says. “But they don’t have a clue what they’ll have to deal with after they get out of here.”
(Header image: Students participate during class at Linfen Red Ribbon School, Shanxi province, Sept. 2, 2014. Yan Ruipeng/VCG)