For debt collectors in Henan Province, being HIV-positive can be a useful weapon in their arsenal. These people, who have few ways of making money due to the taboo over the virus, can earn a healthy income by joining gangs. However this “industry” is declining as the government cracks down on debtors and debt collectors.
Every time Zhao Yi showed a debtor his medical record, they became terrified of him. The virus which had been a burden to him for years became a useful weapon for the debt collector.
In Shangqiu, Central China’s Henan Province, it has become common for people like Zhao, who is living with HIV, to take advantage of the fear people feel toward them to earn a living.
But Zhao tries to be reasonable. He always tries to talk sense to the debtor before scaring them into handing over what they owe. But not everyone is like him, and harassment is a regular occurrence in the industry.
Police in the city’s Yucheng county recently arrested Li Jianmin, who is himself HIV-positive, for organizing a gang to help collect debts.
Police said that they suspect his gang – made up of HIV-positive people, the elderly and the disabled – of being involved in around 50 criminal cases.
This phenomenon is not specific to Shangqiu. Across the country, people use the general ignorance about HIV as a form of psychological warfare, to do everything from collecting debts to facilitating demolitions.
Once these debt collectors are hired to get money from someone, they follow them wherever they go for days on end, usually brandishing their medical record. If debtors are stubborn, a vial of red liquid is sometimes used as a weapon of intimidation.
Experts have claimed that many of these HIV-positive debt collectors fall into this shady industry because society has abandoned them, and called for more attention to be paid to these vulnerable people. As these calls have gradually been heeded by the authorities, the “industry” has begun to shrink.
A well-played card
In November 2015, Jiang Fei’s Yucheng county photography studio was visited by over 20 unexpected guests, including several with disabilities, elderly people and others waving medical records revealing their HIV status. Some of them yelled “I have HIV,” and one even urinated on her front door.
“Someone paid us to curse you and you must close the studio right now without delay,” they told Jiang. This ragtag group, who Jiang suspected had been hired by her competitors, accosted her in her studio every day for two weeks.
Jiang later learned that they are not from Yucheng, but live in other parts of Shangqiu. Jiang said she learned that the HIV-positive harassers take orders from Qiao Si, a local who is also living with HIV. Jiang heard a rumor that Qiao “has no family and injected himself with HIV-carrying blood out of fear of being bullied.”
These stories frightened Jiang, and she decided to track down Li Jianmin, a well-known HIV-positive resident of Yucheng. She offered Li 1,000 yuan ($150) to negotiate, but Li demanded 30,000 yuan for his services. While she was considering his counter-offer, the troublemakers turned up again, which led Jiang to decide that “they are in league with each other” and she called the police.
According to the local procuratorate, Yucheng police received many similar reports during the two-week period Jiang was being harassed and many of the cases – before and after – involved Li.
Jiang learned that Shangqiu is actually a hotbed for this kind of gang, as in the 1980s selling blood was very popular in the area and across Henan more generally. Often, the people collecting the blood didn’t follow proper hygiene protocols and many people contracted HIV. Shuangmiao village in Shangqiu’s Zhecheng county is particularly notorious for its debt-collecting gangs.
As reported by Intodeepthoughts, a WeChat public account run by the Beijing Youth Daily, the majority of the HIV-positive people in Shuangmiao don’t regard debt-collecting as a big deal, but some say that “those who do it are shameless.”
Zhao Yi, who is in his 60s, said they “don’t earn as much as is reported, and we are reasonable.” To him, collecting debts is a righteous act and sometimes he doesn’t even ask for payment.
Most people find Zhao through word of mouth. Zhao’s latest job was last year when a friend of his had his wages withheld. Zhao teamed up with two other people living with HIV and went to the construction site at which his friend had been working, taking along their medical records.
They surrounded the foreman and persuaded him that it’s only fair to pay one’s debts. Zhao’s usual tactic is to tell the debtor that he is a friend of his client and that the money owed is going to go to his treatment.
Zhao found that most of the time, people who find out he has HIV quickly adopt a look of disgust and are “eager to get you out of their house.”
Though the foreman said he would pay, he then hid out at his relative’s house after saying that he needed to go there to borrow money. In a fit of anger, Zhao then “cut the electricity to the debtor’s factory,” Intodeepthoughts reported.
Eventually, Zhao succeeded, but did not ask for a share of the cash because the client is his friend. His friend simply treated him to a nice dinner and some good cigarettes.
A good job
Collecting debts is one of the few ways HIV-positive Chinese people can earn money.
In Shangqiu, HIV-positive residents like Zhao get 260 yuan for “living expenses” from the local government and a 115 yuan subsidy. For many, this is their only income.
Due to the effects of the virus, few locals living with HIV are strong enough to do the kinds of jobs for which they are qualified. Some HIV-positive women work in local clothes factories, but their efforts earn them a meager 10 yuan a day.
On the other hand, Zhao rakes in up to 100 yuan a day collecting debts. While some admire him for his money-making, others see him as unethical.
Several years ago, when Zhao was relatively healthier, he received more jobs. Before accepting these missions, he would first figure out if the debt was legitimate, demanding to see IOUs. For his own safety, he only accepted jobs where the creditors “have a reason,” because if the debtors call the police he has to justify his actions to them.
Zhao’s jobs are not all local. In 2015, he and five HIV-positive fellow villagers went to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to collect a 3 million yuan debt. Even though they had to travel thousands of kilometers there and back, and spent eight days arranging an agreement, they only made 400 yuan each.
Besides HIV-positive people, other vulnerable Shangqiu residents collect debts. Chen Li, who has problems with his legs, joined a debt collecting company a few years ago with other Yucheng locals living with disabilities.
“Even though there were not many business opportunities, we had a high rate of success,” said Chen. Later, his company was shut down by the government during a crackdown on this sector. However, they simply went underground before disbanding last year. Chen now sells soft drinks.
According to Ren Chunhua, the head of the company at which Chen worked, many disabled people he knows have stopped collecting debts and have found alternative employment or set up their own small businesses.
Chen revealed that he quit the industry because he craved stability. He said that in the last two years, the government has been cracking down on both debtors and debt-collecting gangs.
Recently, in Shangqiu’s Suiyang district, several elderly women were given jail terms from two to 11 years for getting involved in debt and demolition disputes.
Zhao too, says that he is being offered fewer jobs since last year and the number of people willing to join gangs is shrinking. Zhao himself now only collects debts for his friends.
The number of HIV-positive locals is also dwindling. In Shuangmiao, there used to be more than 600 HIV-positive residents, but now there are only around 200, aged between 40 and 60.
The people who contracted the virus in the 1980s are gradually getting older and dying. Zhao’s grandchildren are nearly grown up now and the time at which he needed money the most is in the past.
Zhao stressed that both selling his blood and collecting debts were simply ways for him to support his family.
Source: Global Times