On May 26 two pickpockets were caught red-handed in Xi'an, capital city of northwest China's Shaanxi Province. They were stealing a cellphone.
A few minutes later two police cars arrived on the scene. The cops questioned the suspects, the taller of whom claimed he had AIDS. A piece of paper in his pocket mentioned the disease.
The cops decided to first send the short suspect back to the station and leave the other to the local emergency center.
An ambulance pulled up. The medical people, after learning the nature of the emergency, would not even get out. They said only the provincial disease control center could handle such a situation, and they had no protective gear.
For a full hour there was an impasse. Finally instructions were relayed. The ambulance was ordered to transport the suspect to the police station. Before it pulled away, the medical people insisted one of the cops sit with them. After some hesitation, the police obliged.
As a crime-fighting melodrama, this was far from a heart-pounding, tire-screeching episode. Yet it vividly illustrates the predicament of law enforcement agents who in the line of duty face a deadly disease that is quietly wriggling its way through the fabric of Chinese society.
In recent years special clusters of petty crooks have emerged in urban China. When they are caught, they do not hesitate to announce they are carriers of the HIV virus. As a result, they rarely face detention.
Word seems to spread quickly among these groups. They soon find out which city has the most "lenient" police. For quite some time, Hangzhou of Zhejiang Province, known for its beautiful West Lake, was also a paradise for so-called "AIDS pickpockets." Cops would rarely lay a hand on them, let alone abuse them.
The social stigma surrounding the country's AIDS patients is such that a few carriers of the virus, real or pretend, have transformed it into a protective shield while engaging in illegal activities. For a while there were even rumors that gullible youngsters in backward regions were injecting the virus into their bodies so that they could roam free in the urban underground and pick pockets with impunity.
"Who would be so stupid to do that?" retorts Lao Shu, a thief convicted in Hangzhou but originally from Luzhai County in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Many of the "AIDS pickpockets" in this picturesque tourist town are Luzhai natives. Yet Lao does not know a single one who would want a grand career of thievery by subjecting himself to a lethal injection.
Like 61.6 percent of the country's HIV carriers, Lao got the virus by taking drugs, "probably when sharing needles with others."
He got hooked at the tender age of 13, moved to Hangzhou at 15, and was infected with HIV the next year, 2000. He cannot even remember how many times he has been arrested or sent to mandatory drug rehabilitation. Every time he comes out, he reverts to stealing "because that's the only way to support my drug habit."
Lao reveals it takes him about 10 seconds to steal a wallet, usually by using a small clamp. His average daily take is 600 yuan (US$73), roughly what a migrant worker in China would make in a month. But it can support only two days of his drug consumption. He says he never resists police arrest. "I just follow them. They usually set me free in a few days and everything is back to normal."
By "normal" he means living off other's property surreptitiously and in the shadow of death. "We never bring up the topic of AIDS among ourselves," he says.
Late last year, Hangzhou police rounded up members of this group. Of the 26 people arrested during the initial campaign, 13 tested positive to the AIDS virus.
To stem the tide of worsening social order and deal with mounting public complaints, police had to take action. But the cost is steep.
Wang Qingkun, a local officer, disclosed that they have a pilot program in place for "putting AIDS pickpockets in one facility." To insure security, at least one policeman is assigned for each offender/patient. Everyone must wear two layers of gloves, a special mask and helmet. No sharp objects are allowed on the premises. Special sanitation policies are also adopted.
On top of that, there is the health-care cost. "Who will foot the bill? The department of healthcare, or justice or public security? Each person will incur an annual cost of 100,000 yuan (US$12,091)," says Wang.
Then there is the legal quandary. Many of them are incarcerated for minor misdemeanors and the judge probably would not dole out long sentences. And those who receive harsher sentences may become despondent and do something that might harm themselves or those around them.
"It is a social issue that requires coordination from many agencies," says the officer.
For the moment, authorities are putting a humanitarian touch on details. They persuade the media not to publish the full name, image or identity of the suspects, and keep vigilant of their state of mind. Even though the cost of trying the cases is higher, "we'll be fair in sentencing; making it either lighter or harsher is an insult to the defendants," said one court insider.
"The 'AIDS pickpockets' live on the periphery of society. They need our care, not our discrimination. By caring for them, we're also caring for ourselves," says Qin Huiqun, director of the disease control center in Luzhai, Guangxi.
If you think law enforcement agencies are over-sensitive, you need only consider the case of Du Lianyi.
Last November the 29-year-old Beijing cop was bitten on the finger by a drug dealer in a scuffle. The suspect tested positive for HIV. Du was told that the chance of catching the virus through saliva was slim and was given treatment.
In the next few months he tried to stay away from his family. When his wife finally found out the truth, she said, teary-eyed: "You should have told me."
"I wouldn't deny that the mental pressure was crumbling," Du said a few months later, still testing negative.
"In some other countries, people in my line of work are entitled to psychological counseling. I just wish the experts would come up with some methods to deal with AIDS-inflicted criminal elements.
"There's got to be a way that's both fair for them and good for the whole society."
(China Daily June 5, 2004)