Four years after his release from prison, the AIDS activist sits down for another chat.

You’re in: AIDS at 25 Coverage / Re-Visiting Wan Yanhai

Chinese AIDS activist Wan Yanhai, who co-founded Aizhi, a Beijing-based AIDS advocacy group, and says his AIDS work cost him his job as a health researcher and landed him on a government blacklist. AP Photo/Greg Baker

In 2003 Seed spoke with Wan Yanhai, China’s “most important AIDS activist,” who had recently been released from prison for questioning the government’s strategy for dealing with AIDS. Last month Mara Hvistendahl, our China correspondent, caught up with Yanhai to see what, if anything, has changed since then.

When you talked to Seed in 2002 you had just been released from detention. Maybe this is too big of a question, but how have things changed since then?
Good question. No change. Our government still controls everything.

How has AIDS activism changed since then?
AIDS activists are still being detained everywhere in China.

But there are more of them now. Has it become easier to—
There are more activists working on this issue, but there are more activists being detained. So you can see some good stories and some bad stories. The good story is more activists started to work on this area. The bad story is more activists are being detained. They are detained and released, detained and released.

So more activists means there are more people to be detained.
Yes, yes.

How about yourself though?
Myself, I am still free. I am very angry with our government right now. I’m thinking I’ll be detained sometime.

It’s horrible right now. Four years have passed and they want to show the international community that they are much better. But the evidence is that it’s still a closed government; it’s still lying, still ignoring the voice of the people, and still putting activists in detention. It’s a closed government.

“If you don’t criticize them, they smile a really beautiful smile. But if you want to talk with them seriously, then you are an enemy of the nation.”

How has the government’s stance with regard to AIDS changed, though? They have started to admit that it’s more of a problem. At one point they didn’t admit it was a problem.
Now they acknowledge it’s a problem, but they want to say that the problem is [being handled] quite well. Four years ago they lied to the world that there is no such problem. Now they lie to the world that the problem is being handled quite well. It’s the same attitude of lying.

Is government acknowledgement of the problem partly a desire to get funding?
Now the government receives more funding from the international global community, but the government is not transparent. They don’t take responsibility for what they do, and we don’t know where the money goes.

Has more money been coming in to your organization?
More money comes to our organization and more attention comes to our organization from the government. So it’s good and bad.

There is funding coming from the government, though.
[No,] almost none. We received one small grant two years ago from the government. But I think we spend much more money because sometimes they make trouble for people, so when we handle that issue we spend more money [in order to get detainees out of jail].

You mentioned in the last interview that you were working with the Beijing Municipal Health Department on a project.
Yes, some projects, some relationships, but not strong. Yesterday, in the office of the Chinese CDC a government official condemned me for receiving funding from foreigners and helping foreigners, [saying] that’s not fair to the Chinese people.

He said you should you shouldn’t be receiving funding from foreigners?
He didn’t say that. He just said, you receive funding from foreigners and help foreigners. You are not serving the Chinese people.

How would they argue that you are serving foreigners?
They didn’t argue that. No evidence, no explanation, just what they said. What they said repeatedly. And a government-sponsored NGO condemned me publicly as a person or group that splits China.

A government-sponsored NGO working on AIDS?
Yes, yes.

Condemned you in front of—
In a public setting.

Were you routinely criticized before? Before, say in 2002, were you getting lots of public criticism, or was it more the police dealing with you in secret?
If you don’t criticize them, they smile a really beautiful smile. But if you want to talk with them seriously, then you are an enemy of the nation. That’s what they condemned me as.

In your previous interview with Seed, you said that the government learned a lot about AIDS while you were in detention.
Yes, they learned a lot about AIDS. But they didn’t learn about democracy.

So would you say you are less hopeful than you were?
In a nonpolitical area, the government agents control resources, power, and have some secret games to control those areas…. They want us to be politically neutral, but they send spies into the community to control us. That’s something we can’t tolerate.

The government revised the estimate of AIDS patients downward in January. What do you think about this?
We don’t have the figure ourselves. We don’t have the original data. We also know many people who don’t believe the data from the government. We need to get the original data. The statistical data is handled by the government, and the people don’t have the data. The environment is not open, so it’s difficult for people to estimate the [severity of the] situation.

On March 1, after Aizhi [Wan’s activist organization] petitioned the Justice Ministry, the government tightened regulations governing the collection and distribution of blood products by blood banks. How did that petition come about?
In April a group of hemophiliacs [took] some action in Shanghai. So immediately after the action the central government studied the case and is now consulting the institute that make the policy for hemophiliacs and other people infected by blood transfusions.

Wasn’t that as a result of work by Aizhi?
Yeah, that’s a part of our work, because our work is based on the action of people. So we were involved strongly in the action, but the movement came from the people.

And what do you think will come of the hemophiliac case?
I think the government will provide some compensation, treatment and care. But still there will be some difficulty with the treatment because hemophiliacs need treatment for HIV/AIDS, and they also need treatment for hemophilia. Until now the treatment for hemophilia is not clear. In some places they provide some treatment for hemophiliacs, but comprehensive care will be necessary for hemophiliacs. Otherwise it’s useless.

In 2002, you suggested that there was a big gap between the outlook of the central and local governments. People in various disciplines say this about China: The central government officials are savvy and global-minded, while local officials are corrupt and inept. Does the local government have a long way to go to catch up with the central government?
Well, the central government has a long way to go itself. Last week nine AIDS patients who asked for our help in getting compensation were detained. They said that the government blocked them from getting compensation from the hospitals that gave them blood transfusions, and they were detained. But officials in Henan took 10 million yuan that was supposed to go to AIDS through corruption.

What about average Chinese who want to learn about AIDS prevention? Can they find good information on the Internet? Or does the blocking of certain sites, like those related to homosexuality, prevent them from finding what they need?
The Internet is how most people get access to information. But now the most important thing is to organize intervention and community outreach and communicate with people in person. We’re working on extending our education efforts among marginalized populations. And we need good government support and political support.

Originally published August 16, 2006


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