Another AIDS activist, Wan Yanhai, flees China

Wan Yanhai has left China for the United States, soon after fellow AIDS activists Gao Yaojie also left and Hu Jia was sentenced to jail. Beijing is putting more pressure on nongovernment organizations (NGOs).

Elizabeth Dalziel/AP/File
In this Nov. 29, 2006, file photo, Wan Yanhai speaks to the media at his office in Beijing, China. Wan, a prominent Chinese AIDS activist said Monday, he has left China for the United States with his wife and 4-year-old daughter after authorities increasingly harassed him and his organization.

China’s best-known HIV/AIDS activist has fled China complaining of intolerable government pressure, sowing disappointment and despondency among his fellow campaigners here.

Wan Yanhai’s sudden departure to the United States “is a big loss for this country,” says Lu Jun, head of Yirenping, a nongovernmental organization working on behalf of those diagnosed with AIDS and other health concerns. “It suggests that the political space for AIDS campaigning in China is getting seriously tighter. I am disturbed.”

Mr. Wan, the outspoken founder of Aizhixing, which has become famous for its readiness to criticize the government, told the Associated Press in a phone interview from Philadelphia on Monday that “the attacks from the government had become very serious for my organization and for me personally. I had concerns about my personal safety and was under a lot of stress."

Wan is no stranger to trouble with the Chinese authorities. He has repeatedly been detained or taken in for questioning by the police since he took up the cause of 150,000 people in the province of Henan who were diagnosed as HIV positive after taking part in a government-sponsored blood donation drive in the 1990s.

Harassment, silencing

Recently, however, Aizhixing, known in English as “Love, Knowledge, Action,” has come under especially intense official scrutiny, employees say. The group’s office has been subjected to repeated unannounced visits from the tax authorities, the commerce and industry bureau, and the fire department, looking for violations.

“These checks affect our work because we don’t know why they do this,” says one associate of Wan’s, who asked to remain anonymous. “The uncertainty makes us very nervous.”

Wan is not the first AIDS activist to suffer in this way. Gao Yaojie, a former doctor who attracted worldwide attention when she became the first to blow the whistle on the HIV scandal in Henan, left China last year for the United States. She has said since she dares not return for fear of the consequences.

Another well known AIDS activist, Hu Jia, is currently serving a 3-1/2-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state authority.”

“Over the past year or so the government’s policy on AIDS has made progress, but their policy towards NGOs has tightened up,” says Mr. Lu, whose own group found itself unable to hold a training session earlier this month when unidentified thugs broke into the hotel room it had rented and broke all the furniture.

Progress on policy

AIDS has become the leading cause of death in China among infectious diseases, according to government figures. In 2007 an estimated 700,000 people were diagnosed as HIV positive, and the government hopes to hold that figure below 1.5 million this year. Unprotected heterosexual sex and intravenous drug use accounted for 87 percent of new cases in 2007 according to UNAIDS, but ignorance of the disease and how it is transmitted is widespread, studies have found.

The government has invited international organizations to help it disseminate information and curb the spread of AIDS, and has shown increasing openness in dealing with the disease. Last month China lifted its ban on HIV positive foreigners visiting the country.

That was a move advocated three years ago by Aizhixing, which is well-known for its public advocacy of AIDS patients’ rights and the help it gives to people diagnosed as HIV positive in Henan who want to sue the hospitals where they contracted the virus.

The group also works with marginalized people such as drug users and sex workers, “which makes them unpopular with the authorities” says Lu. “And because they criticize the government, they suffer heavy political pressure.”

Wan also has prickly relations with some international AIDS groups such as UNAIDS and the Global Fund, which work closely with the Chinese government. His organization depends heavily on foreign donations, however, and like many other grass-roots Chinese NGOs has been hard hit by recent restrictions on funding from abroad.

New rules introduced in March by the Foreign Exchange Administration are making it practically impossible for local NGOs to receive foreign money, activists complain. “The new regulation is strangling us,” says Wan’s associate. “If the problem is not solved, we can do nothing but die.”

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