One Woman’s Crusade Takes Truth to Youth

2005 December 1  |  South China Morning Post
By Vivien Cui
When Julia, an English major at a university in Wuhan, came down with what seemed like a persistent cold two years ago she had no idea that her body’s immune system was trying to fend off a bigger threat.
The fever was her body’s way of telling her that she had become infected with HIV, just two weeks after having sex for the first time.
Julia met her boyfriend, an overseas student who she calls Ma Lang, three years ago when she left her home in Xian to study in Wuhan. A year later, their friendship developed into a sexual relationship. She was 21.
“We did it twice that week. Two weeks later, I got sick,” Julia recalls, as if telling somebody else’s story. “I did not know what the cause was. I was treated as if I had a cold with a constant low-grade fever. All the injections and medications just did not help.”
She could not shake the malaise and out of concern for their only child, Julia’s parents asked her go home to recover.
“Looking back now I understand that was when the virus was attacking my immune system,” she says.
Julia returned to school the next spring and, in April, her boyfriend said he was going to Beijing for a month to sort out “some business”.
The night before he left, they had sex for the fourth and last time. They did not use any protection.
Then came the moment everything changed – Julia was summoned to a meeting with her dean, who had been informed that Ma Lang had to leave because he was HIV positive and had been expelled from the mainland. “That moment utterly changed my life.”
The fallout was immediate. Julia was isolated by the school, told to live alone in a hostel room and banned both from her classes and the campus canteens.
As a former student union leader, she had applied to join the Communist Party but that was no longer a possibility.
After two further tests at the local centre for disease control, one suicide attempt and one month’s isolation in the hostel, school staff took Julia back home.
“I was devastated but I dared not tell my parents, because the worst pain in the world is not to die oneself, but having to watch your loved ones die. They wouldn’t be able to stand that,” she says.
“For a while, I felt like I was a body, walking without hope. The only difference between me and a dead person is I can still breathe.”
Julia’s situation was compounded by her university’s determination not to let her resume her studies.
Gui Xien, a leading HIV/AIDS doctor based in Wuhan, conducted Julia’s HIV tests and tried to persuade the school to allow her back on campus, but to no avail.
“The school simply wanted to kick me out,” she said.
Through Dr Gui, Julia learned that six other university students had also contracted HIV through sex. She met two of them, boys, who gave her false phone numbers. Nobody knew what happened to the others.
The predicament of the other students made Julia more determined than ever to get back into university. “I swore not to let my case be a precedent to give schools across the nation the ‘legitimacy’ to expel people infected with HIV.”
She campaigned for her cause through the media using her English name and became the first female student with HIV to speak publicly about her situation.
The university relented and let her resume her studies.
Ruby Yang, an American documentary maker for the China AIDS Media Project, followed Julia for 18 months and says she was at odds with the exposure.
“On the one hand, she has this beautiful wish to help raise awareness about HIV prevention. On the other hand, she was very concerned about her parents finding out.”
Julia also appears in conflict about her former boyfriend. In the documentary, she says: “I do not hate him despite becoming infected by him. My love is not something that should be condemned. It is genuine.” But she also said: “I could forgive him for his ignorance of his own disease. But he was aware of it the last time we did it. He knew why he had been expelled.”
But she also has words of courage. “I am not afraid of death any more. Instead, I have learned to cherish my life better.”
Julia now speaks about HIV at universities around the country. “I want to tell students one simple but gruesome truth: AIDS is never far away.”
(c) 2005 South China Morning Post Publishers Limited, Hong Kong. All rights reserved.