Pioneering civil rights lawyer dies aged 49

18 November 2013

Zhang Yuanxin, the well-known and respected lawyer who was at the forefront of the campaign to end discrimination against people with HBV, the virus that causes Hepatitis B, died in a Beijing hospital on 7 November 2013 after succumbing to liver failure. He was 49.

Zhang was dedicated to defending the civil rights of ordinary people in China. He was the Director of the Xinjiang Western Law Firm and was on the board of the anti-discrimination organization Yirenping. He helped set up a nationwide voluntary legal service for the victims of Sanlu milk powder scandal in 2008, and initiated the “Western Candle Light” campaign that helped more than 200 workers to get wage arrears of more than two million yuan.

But it was Zhang’s continual fight against HBV discrimination that was probably the highlight of his career. There are as many as 93 million people with HBV in China, who suffer routine discrimination in employment and education because of their health status. However, thanks to the work of Zhang and many other anti-discrimination activists over the last decade, the situation is now much improved with greater public understanding of the disease and legal protections in place.

In 2005, after two universities in Xinjiang forcibly suspended more than 150 students with HBV, Zhang helped one of them file a lawsuit against the university on the grounds of deprivation of the right to education. The lawsuit was successful and the student was eventually readmitted to the university.

The following year, Zhang helped the parents of 19 middle school students sue the Urumqi Education Bureau for denying admission to students with HBV. The case received domestic and international media attention and the students were all later re-admitted.

Numerous other citizens across China followed suit in the late 2000s, filing anti-discrimination lawsuits against employers and educational institutes, and in 2010, China enacted new regulations specifically designed to protect the rights of people with HBV.

Zhang Yuanxin is remembered as a warm and witty colleague, a great mentor and loyal friend.

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