China AIDS activist riled officials

Friends say Wan Yanhai is 'safe,' but protesters Monday urged Beijing to explain his disappearance.

China's top AIDS activist and whistleblower Wan Yanhai – who disappeared in Beijing more than a week ago – is alive and safe, activists and friends say. Yet for fear of reprisals during a sensitive political time in China, they are reluctant to say much else – adding to belief here that Mr. Wan was detained by Chinese authorities and is being questioned about his role as an independent voice in a potential AIDS crisis that China has only recently acknowledged.

Wan formed an AIDS awareness group in 1994, after being expelled from a government health office for advocating human rights, gay and lesbian issues, and AIDS awareness. Since then, he has pioneered the study of AIDS in China, where the disease has spread to as many as 1.5 million people, according to a recent UN report.

Wan is best known for helping to expose a scandalous blood-plasma buying scheme in China's poor and populous central Henan Province. Bad blood bought from intravenous drug users in the mid-to late-1990s was added to stockpiles that infected as many as a million farmers with HIV, half the population of some towns.

Last month, China banned Wan's organization, AIDS Action Project, which operates with grants from groups like The Ford Foundation and the Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation. Then on the evening of Aug. 24 Wan suddenly vanished.

Friends say he was followed for several days by "three large men" in a black Volkswagon. He had attended a gay and lesbian film screening and was on his way to meet unknown persons he had phoned, when he disappeared. Appeals to the Beijing Public Security Bureau by Wan's wife, Su Zhaosheng – a graduate student in Los Angeles where Wan splits his time – have so far been unanswered. Calls on Monday by friends to Beijing police headquarters also met with no response.

But informal confirmation that Wan is under detention is a relief to colleagues who say the mild-mannered 39- year-old has made dangerous enemies.

"The Chinese government understands that the AIDS problem is serious, and that it can't be hidden anymore," says Hu Jia, a close friend. "They may be now finding out how far he [Wan] will cooperate."

Still, in China a "disappearance" without police verification is not reassuring, say human rights groups, including Amnesty International, which called Aug. 31 for Wan's release, if he has not been charged with a crime. Monday, activists in Hong Kong protested outside the Chinese government liaison office, calling for Beijing to investigate or announce Wan's whereabouts.

A proximate cause for Wan's disappearance may be an internal Henan health ministry document he sent last month to an AIDS e-mail group. The memo repeats much of what is known about the stark conditions in that province. But as a state document, its distribution may be illegal, offering a reason to detain Wan.

Some activists worried that Wan might have been nabbed by locals from Henan who wanted him silenced. Wan's website has published the names of Henan health officials who remain in office, despite charges of complicity and profit in the blood-collection scheme of the '90s – and who have so far refused responsibility.

Wan had also met with Henan officials, including the vice minister of health, this spring at an upscale hotel restaurant in west Beijing, say colleagues who accompanied him. The officials offered Wan a deal: In exchange for deleting officials' names from his website, Wan could freely collect evidence in Henan. They also suggested that Wan stop "embarrassing" them, and stop accusing local health officials in future reports. Wan refused.

This June, based partly on work done by the AIDS Action Project, the UN released a study, "HIV/AIDS: China's Titanic Peril," predicting that 10 million people in China could carry the virus by 2010. "China is on the verge of a catastrophe that could result in unimaginable suffering," the UN said and criticized "insufficient political commitment and leadership at many levels of government."

Chinese authorities, who have downplayed a potential AIDS crisis until this year, were reportedly angered over the June UN report. A Ministry of Health official termed it "inaccurate." While there have been no formal responses to the detailed 89-page document, China reevaluated its official estimate of the number of HIV infected persons from 600,000 to 800,000, closer to the low-end UN estimate.

Some Beijing sources say Wan's work was becoming too noticeable. They point out that with the 16th Party Congress approaching Nov. 8, expected to usher in a major leadership change in China, officials issued orders that no troublesome or "bad" news be published, and that the social and political climate prior to the transition be calm. If Wan is being held, it is for this reason, local sources say.

Before it was shut down, Wan's AIDS group began a new set of petitions to the UN, the US, and European governments, and a variety of nongovernmental organizations sprinkled internationally, for more funds and help. "He came back in June from the US full of passion," Mr. Hu. "On July 1, he got a two-year $15,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, and he was making plans."

Prior to Wan's disappearance, friends also note, The New York Times interviewed him for a story about children orphaned by the AIDS scandal in Henan.

China is preparing its own funding application worth millions to a group called Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, based in Geneva, for use in Henan and other hard-hit provinces. Wan's disappearance may be a prelude to talks with him about his views on how those projects are funded, some activists speculate.

When asked if authorities had ever approached Wan to discuss his role in a normal above-board meeting, one friend said, "You have to know Wan. He is not that kind of person. He is direct and frank, and it would be impossible to persuade him of anything he didn't believe in a meeting like that."

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