AIDS Activist Flees China

Wan Yanhai says he'll reestablish his NGO abroad.
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Wan Yanhai speaks at his office in Beijing, Oct. 14, 2008.
Wan Yanhai speaks at his office in Beijing, Oct. 14, 2008.

HONG KONG—A leading AIDS activist just forced to relocate to the United States said he hopes his exile will allow him to concentrate on his work without the risk of interference by Chinese authorities.

Beijing-based AIDS rights advocate Wan Yanhai, 46, who founded the AIDS charity Aizhixing Institute, said in a phone interview from Philadelphia on Monday that he had been forced by Chinese authorities to leave China with his family last Thursday.

Wan said he spent seven days in Hong Kong after leaving Beijing by plane at the end of April and ultimately decided to relocate to the United States.

“All of our friends were shocked that we were told to leave. So were we. When I left Beijing we didn’t know what our destination would be. Some of our international travel documents weren’t even ready,” Wan said.

But Chinese police followed his movements closely and harassed him about the possibility of trying to return home, he said.

“On the second day after my arrival in Hong Kong, police from the station near my home called me five times, questioning my whereabouts and if I was planning to return. I answered that I was in Hong Kong and would go back,” he said.

“On the last day in Hong Kong, we had to arrange our air tickets urgently.”

Mounting pressure

Wan said he had considered a flight to Hong Kong since March because of mounting government pressure and increasing police scrutiny.

He said Public Security and tax authorities in Beijing had repeatedly “investigated” the foreign-funded AIDS charity Aizhixing Institute, attempting to shut off its supply of resources.

“The Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party issued a secret directive on March 4, banning reporting on our organization. By the end of March, authorities had barred me from delivering any speeches at universities in Guangzhou,” he said.

Wan said that following the months of harassment, he concluded that the best way to bypass restrictions on foreign funds to NGOs in China would be to reestablish the Aizhixing Institute outside of the country.

Building an overseas base would be the best course of action to ensure the survival and continued success of his charity organization, he said.

“My decision aims to reduce the operational risk of our organization. If I didn’t agree to leave, our operation was sure to fail,” Wan said. “Therefore, I don’t want to use the word ‘escape’ to describe my flight. Rather I think it was a way to break through a siege.”

Wan said the operating environment for NGOs in China is still difficult  both for individuals committed to their causes and for the organizations they manage.

“My decision to leave was both for myself and for all of China’s other NGOs. Through voicing our plight, I wish to contribute to the development of civil society in China. But for now, we are all facing many difficulties.”

Wan was a public health official until 1994 when he set up the first HIV/AIDS telephone hotline in China for Chinese people to obtain comprehensive information about the disease.

The physician has also written a book about the epidemic in China.

Denied treatment

Lawyers and civil rights activists say AIDS sufferers are routinely denied treatment in hospitals in China and have died as a result.

Without heavy external pressure, children with AIDS are also denied entry into schools.

Official estimates put the number of people living with HIV in China at about 700,000, with around 85,000 people having full-blown AIDS, according to UNAIDS.

The HIV virus that causes AIDS gained a foothold in China largely as a result of unsanitary blood plasma-buying schemes and tainted transfusions in hospitals.

While health authorities say sex has overtaken drug use as the main cause of HIV infections in China, veteran activist and retired gynecologist Gao Yaojie has repeatedly said that infection through transfusion is a continuing scandal in poverty-stricken Hunan province.

Recent studies have shown that 60 percent of female Chinese sex workers do not consistently use condoms with their clients, which UNAIDS warned could fuel future HIV outbreaks.

And officials from China's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have described an "explosion" of HIV infections among men who have sex with men.

Original reporting by Ding Xiao for RFA’s Mandarin service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated by Ping Chen. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.





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