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Li Jidong: Breaking HIV Discrimination Barriers
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29-year-old Li Jidong earned himself the title as one of the country's Top Ten Civilian Anti-drug Workers in 2005 with 159,996 ballots cast in his favor on June 5, 2006 in Shanghai. The ceremony was organized by the National Narcotics Control Commission and the Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

Several young people in camouflage clothing are playing basketball in the playground of Renascence Cement Casting Factory in Simao City, southwest China's Yunnan Province. Just looking at them, nobody would be able to tell that these sporty young men are recovering drug addicts.

The factory is a private drug rehabilitation center that also provides employment for its residents. Most of these recovering addicts are HIV-positive.

Li, a strong man with sunburned face, is the director of the factory.

Li started his own business, a restaurant, when he was just 15. He later diversified into a milk company and an automobile services company. "My father used to head the narcotics squad in our city. I saw too many tragedy caused by drugs," Li said.

"In 2001, a friend of mine who did drugs contracted HIV through a contaminated needle. He committed suicide two weeks after because he couldn't bear the discrimination from his friends and relatives. It was then that I made up my mind to start a facility where addicts could live without fear of discrimination."

On August 1, 2002, Renascence Cement Casting Factory was open for business.

There are currently 179 drug addicts who live and work at Renascence. Ninety percent of them are HIV-positive. Li's ethos is: No drugs, no discrimination, self-sufficiency, recovery-through-labor, and rebuild the spirit.

"The environment here is pretty good. We have a basketball court, video room and swimming pool. More important, you won't find a fence or a security guard here," according to Xiao Li, a resident who has been living at Renascence for three years.

But the factory does impose a pseudo military style of management. Xiao Li and his colleagues begin their day at 6 AM with a four-kilometer run. Then it's uninterrupted work until lunch time. It's lights out at 11:30 PM.

"This place is also quite different from other rehab centers in that sex is not forbidden. There are eight female workers here and they moved in with their husbands," Xiao Li revealed.

Apart from kicking the drug habit, residents also learn new skills such as driving and bricklaying.

"We got our first bricklaying contract for a 20 km-long sidewalk by public tender in August, 2003. The project earned us about 300,000 yuan (US$37,543) in profits. Sadly, it was our first and last contract," Li said.

"My employees are not accepted by society. Many people believe that drugs and AIDS are crime-related. People are also afraid of being infected with HIV."

"My colleagues in the other companies deserted me when they found out about my Renascence employees. I had to close down my milk company because people were worried about the HIV virus in the milk. My automobile services company, too."

Renascence didn't get another contract for almost three years. Although they have about 100 pigs, eight mu (0.57 hectares) of pond with fish, and 30 mu (two hectares) of land for corn and vegetables, the income earned from farming cannot cover monthly expense for all 179 workers, which is over 50,000 yuan.     

"To help 179 addicts overcome their addiction means to control over 40 kilograms of drugs poured into society every year. Users pay 200 yuan for one gram of drugs now. That amounts to an 8 million yuan (US$1 million) loss for drug dealers because of me. Drug dealers really hate me. I've been threatened many times. I even prepared my coffin four years ago," Li recalled.

Despite his commitment, Li admitted to a fear of infection. But he's learning to cope with that fear and has learned to take care of terminally ill patients.

In March, a drunk HIV patient scratched Li's hand in a scuffle. Li was trying to prevent the man from committing suicide.

Li has taken a blood test and the results are due soon.

"I will never leave brother Dong, and I just want to spend rest of my life in our factory," said Xiao Wu, a 22-year-old HIV sufferer from Lancang County. He's lived at the factory for three years.

Xiao Wu's loyalty to Li is not unfounded. In April 2004, Xiao Wu was buried alive in a landslide. Li organized a rescue team and they dug Xiao Wu out of the rubble with their bare hands. "That was the first time I cried in front of other people. But I couldn't help myself when I saw brother Dong's hands all bloody and hurt."

Although Renascence isn't making much of a profit these days, its contributions to society are invaluable, and Li and his team have been recognized for the work they do.

In April 2006, Zhang Xinfeng, vice minister of public security and vice director of the National Narcotics Control Commission, after a visit to Renascence, urged others to join in the anti-drugs campaign.

Bao Zhengguo, former vice chairman of the Red Cross Society in Simao City suggested that Li apply for charitable organization status to raise funds from the public. Peng Peiyuan, chairman of the Red Cross Society of China also called on the local government to render any assistance necessary to Li including ensuring his personal security.

( by Wu Nanlan, July 3, 2006)

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