The AIDS activists' first conversation since being released from a Chinese prison

You’re in: AIDS at 25 Coverage / Seed Interview: Wan Yanhai

Fake blood covers the plaque of the Chinese embassy in Paris Fri., Sept. 13, 2002, after a protest by Act Up militants against the imprisonment of Chinese AIDS activist Wan Yanhai.  Credit: AP Photo/Francois Mori

From the JAN/FEB 2003 issue of Seed:

Late at night on August 24, 2002, Wan Yanhai, China’s most important AIDS activist, was heading home when his taxi was stopped and surrounded by several unmarked sedans. Wan was ordered out of the taxi by four plainclothes men and hustled into the lead car. Wan recalled three months later, “I thought somebody might kill me.”

He spent 27 days incommunicado in a Beijing detention center. Since his release, Wan has resumed his work fighting for the rights of AIDS victims, curbing widespread ignorance about HIV, and pushing the Chinese government to acknowledge the disease. I met him in early November outside Washington, D.C. for his first sit-down interview since his release. In fluent English, he talked about his arrest and his time in prison, the climate of fear surrounding his work, and China’s response to an epidemic that he estimates might already be the largest in the world.

When did you first hear the word AIDS?
In 1983, in medical school.

What made you decide that this was an important enough problem to dedicate your life to?
There was no one incident. While I was in medical school, I had a chance to read World Health Organization documents on AIDS that talked about AIDS and human rights. I began to question the strategy of the Chinese government.
What was the strategy?
AIDS became an ideological weapon to attack Western culture. The media didn’t talk much about AIDS in the 1980s—at least not AIDS in China. There was no limit to talking about AIDS internationally, but the media kept silent on AIDS domestically.

“All of a sudden, a car pulled in front of us. Four men got out and asked to see my ID. When I showed it to them, they told me to come with them. They took my cell phone and glasses. They were not wearing uniforms.”

In 1985, when China found its first AIDS patient, officials in the Ministry of Health announced that AIDS would not spread in China, because we had a strong tradition of morality—no homosexuality, no drug users—and a good health care system. The government’s strategy was to prevent the virus from entering the country. It stopped importing blood products, and began screening people from overseas. China set up a Great Wall. Unfortunately, domestic blood was not tested, and law did not protect the rights of patients.

I felt that you have to face the reality of an open society. To travel from Washington to Beijing is no different than from Beijing to Shanghai. This is an infectious disease. Can you just close the door?

Did your experiences growing up lead you to question authority? 
My parents were old Communist Party members who fought in the civil war. My father really believed in Communism and he tried his best to follow its teachings and follow party leaders. I grew up in the Cultural Revolution, and that’s when I started to think about issues and question issues.

The Cultural Revolution made you question issues?
Well, the general environment was not exactly supportive of questioning. It was the changes the society went through afterwards. During the Cultural Revolution, I saw my father and my mother standing on the street, wearing signs that said “counterrevolutionary.” Mobs of people would attack them. My father was beaten so badly that he couldn’t walk for a long time.

How old were you?
Five or six. After the Cultural Revolution, my parents, the “counterrevolutionaries,” suddenly became revolutionaries again. The Cultural Revolution made a mistake—the labels against my father were wrong. My parents were suddenly good people, not bad people. My brothers, sisters, and I all began to talk about politics—how even a great party can make some mistakes. I grew up in this background.

When you got out of school, you went to work at the National Health Education Institute. You set up the first AIDS phone hotline, conducted the first AIDS—related surveys among gay men, set up a health promotion group for gays and organized AIDS education campaigns in gay cruising areas and with prostitutes. None of this was popular with the authorities. Your projects were shut down, you were fired from your position, you lost your housing, and you were forced to leave Beijing to get you out of the way during the visit of an American human rights official. Was the line between permitted and prohibited activities always clear to you?
When we started research on sexuality and AIDS in 1990 and 1991, the health department was working traditionally very closely with police. Homosexuals, drug users, and prostitutes were all identified as bad elements in the society. The police suggested to us that we could use their punitive actions to do research. Every week or so the police would arrest people, and we could interview them and even take blood tests.

Why would anyone trust you if you did that? It’s ironic that someone who is trying to promote gay rights for the first time in China chose to do so with the traditionally coercive methods.
Well that was the problem. It was a big mistake by us. We went to the police station and we were all shocked at how people were being treated. We began to realize that this was harmful to people and we changed our methods.

At the end of that year, we organized meetings so that some gay activists and police officials in our institute could talk to and understand each other. We spent about a year trying to establish trust on both sides. We consulted the police on whether it’s okay to train gay people to do peer education in the gay community. The responsible officials told us, “We’re in a time of reforming everything, so you can try.”

So the police came around.
It was easy for us to establish good relations with the police department—at the time, we were part of the government. It also helped that there were no clear definitions from the central government. When we discussed AIDS and sexuality in general, in the beginning the media and experts would say “we can’t talk about that; it’s taboo.” We would ask them, “Why do you feel it’s taboo? Who prohibited that?” And they realized that nobody did. There was no prohibition. So we could do radio programs in Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing that talked about gay rights in China.

There was no formal policy on AIDS in 1992—you didn’t need a policy because no one was talking about it. AIDS wasn’t a sensitive issue because no one realized it was serious. When people decided to wake up and started to talk, the ruling authorities began to stop them.

They began to talk about it in part because of your work?
Yes. Many issues became taboo only in 1993. That’s when the Party’s propaganda department and the Ministry of Public Security started to interfere, and to put pressure on the Ministry of Health to stop our work. Media discussion programs were asked not to touch sexuality issues. The police department became very negative. We had contacts with the Beijing police until 1994.
Did your staff begin to leave when the pressure increased?
There were different reactions. Young people, those of my generation, almost all of them supported me. In the older generation, more than half of them didn’t. People who had been in the Cultural Revolution had a lot of fear. When political forces became involved, many of them became very afraid.

And you were fired.
Yes, my Institute got a new director, who finally forced me to leave, though he later told my colleagues in an Institute meeting that they should copy their working spirit from me. After he asked me to leave, he told my former colleagues, “Whatever your perspective, you should all learn something from him.” It is a totally ridiculous story.

Dismissed from his government job, Wan formed the AIDS Action Project. He continued his work promoting the rights of gays and other groups at risk, as well as educating people about AIDS, but his efforts became much riskier. China permits virtually no nongovernmental groups to work on controversial issues. There are almost no independent activists for democracy, minority rights or labor rights who are not in prison.  Paradoxically, China’s drive to modernize its economy is making the country more repressive. The government has cracked down even harder on dissent to ensure that economic disturbances—such as the dismantling of a once-praiseworthy public health system—do not end up provoking a challenge to Communist rule.

When you began working on your own in 1994, you were followed and harassed. How did that feel?
I felt tired and sometimes nervous. At night, if I found somebody watching me I felt frightened. I dreamed of escaping to the outside. I was crazy. I did not have financial support.

On New Year’s Day 1997 I left China and went to Los Angeles. I felt that I escaped from a big jail, and that I would not go back. In the U.S., I became very relaxed and less emotional. For the first time, I had access to the Internet. I saw the website of a Chinese magazine that described our work as being in the public interest and not part of a political movement. I took it as a sign that my situation would not be that bad, and that I would be able to do my work. After a year, I decided to go back.

In fact, when I went back in 1998, I found I was spied on, but not as seriously as before. I almost forgot about the existence of the security department. In some issues, the government even came to consult my opinion.

Then this changed.
Yes, because of Henan.

In 1996, Dr. Gao Yaojie, a professor of gynecology at the Henan College for Traditional Chinese Medicine, discovered that poor villagers in Henan were selling their blood for money in clinics that not only failed to sterilize their needles, but re-injected unused red blood cells back into the donors. Dr. Gao began publishing an AIDS newsletter, but was eventually forced out of her home by Chinese authorities.

Wan’s first activity in Henan was to connect Dr. Gao to the outside world. He showed her how to use a computer and email, and helped her to expose what was going on to foreign journalists and U.N. officials. China has since prohibited the selling of blood, but the practice continues underground. “Without the international attention, the local government would not have paid attention,” he said. “Government officials would still be playing their very old game.”

There was no ambiguity about the government’s reaction to your work in Henan?
From Dr. Gao’s case we realized that local officials in Henan were really really bad people. They were quite different from the police department in Beijing, because the police department in Beijing was just implementing a task. In Henan, they were corrupt officials who organized blood selling to earn money for themselves, and they had close contacts in the central government. When we organized resources to challenge the local health department, local officials reported us to the central government, describing our project as a bad organization. They said we were motivating people with AIDS to act against the government and that sick people threatened the public. They tried to stigmatize people with HIV and those working for them to protect their own power. They tried to stop people from going to the city to seek a doctor. They detained journalists and persecuted medical experts who came to Henan.

The Chinese government’s initial response to the disease was to see it as a foreign problem that could not happen in China. And yet AIDS in Henan is not only widespread, it is probably the world’s most explicit example of a man-made epidemic; one created by government practices.
In the beginning our government felt quite ashamed. They didn’t know how to say it, how to explain it to the public. So they wanted to cover up the story. When we finally found that millions of people were infected by government-organized blood selling, I think they were afraid of that. They were afraid of people knowing the facts.

Millions of people?
The Henan provincial government organized blood selling in every county. There were more than 270 blood-selling centers in the mid-1990s. According to the Ministry of Health, in one village, those who sold blood before 1995 have an infection rate of more than 40 percent. For people who did not sell blood, the infection rate was more than 7 percent—still very high, because their spouse infected them. You do the math. I believe that at least one million people were infected in the mid-1990s.

You received a classified document by email, from an unknown address, and sent it by email to your group’s mailing list, about 300 people.
On the night of August 17, I received a document written by the Henan health department, identified as secret.  It was from an email address that was just strange numbers, and the subject line read only “Political News.” I would usually just delete this kind of email but for some reason I felt like reading some political news so I opened it.  I still don’t know who sent it—the address was not a traceable one. But I feel that someone in the government of Henan wanted to help.

The document was a report to the Henan provincial party committee about the AIDS epidemic situation in Henan, the reasons for the epidemic, and what the Henan Health Department was doing for prevention and care. It did have clear suggestions to the provincial government for more funding. That is positive. 

I read it carefully and felt angry. The whole world knows there is a severe AIDS epidemic in Henan, but local officials pretend that the situation is not serious—and they are still lying. They still want to cover up the scandal. The paper claimed that only 30,000 were infected, and it gave five reasons why people were infected—none of them the responsibility of the Henan health department. It said the Henan health department has done many good things to help—I think they should get an award from the U.N! I felt I had a responsibility to let the world know how they think about issues. I felt it was an issue of my freedom of speech and of my responsibility to monitor the government. 

According to the government, you were publishing state secrets—a very serious offense. 
I was arrested exactly a week after I sent out the document.

On August 24, Wan’s evening began at a gay and lesbian film festival. He had dinner with friends, then met another friend for tea at a hotel. Just before 11pm he got in a taxi to go home. He never arrived.

Three days later, Wan’s wife, Su Zhaosheng, raised a worldwide alarm. A student in Los Angeles, she was accustomed to daily telephone conversations with her husband. Ominously, her emails and calls to their Beijing home and her husband’s mobile phone went unanswered.

Police began to detain and interrogate the staff and volunteers of Wan’s AIDS Action Project, asking if they had received the secret report from Wan and had forwarded it to anyone else. .

The news that one of China’s most outspoken AIDS campaigners had gone missing—in a country that has earned worldwide criticism for its persecution of independent activists and its indifferent response to the disease—provoked international concern. UNAIDS staff in Geneva, American State Department officials and AIDS activists at ACT-UP began to write, call, and demonstrate against the Chinese government, demanding Wan’s release.

How were you arrested?
It was in Anzhenxili, where I live, in the north of Beijing. My taxi was about a minute from my apartment building. It’s a neighborhood of tall buildings. I had just moved there. It was late at night, in early autumn, and the streets were empty—there was nobody in the street.

All of a sudden, a car pulled in front of us, and at least one more car pulled up behind us—maybe more.  Four men got out of the first car and asked to see my ID. When I showed it to them, they told me to come with them. They took my cell phone and glasses. They were not wearing uniforms. I didn’t know where I was going, and I thought that I might be killed. But then, we pulled into a building, and I heard dogs barking and peoples’ voices, and I realized we were in a detention center of the Beijing security bureau.

Where was it?
I don’t know… maybe between a suburb and the city. It was night, and I couldn’t bring my glasses. When they released me, they drove me home, and I tried not to learn too much about where I had been. 

One of the ways China often punishes political prisoners is to put them in cells with violent thugs. Were you held with other people arrested for political offenses, or for common crimes?
I can’t say that.

You can’t say?
I can only talk about my situation. I cannot talk about other people’s stories. That’s also a state secret. If I tell you, I could be arrested when I go back to China.

How did they treat you?
The health situation, food and general environment were not bad. They went to my house, took my computer, and afterwards gave everything back to me. They just deleted the two documents in my computer relating to the case. They allowed me to read newspapers: that’s common. When I had a chance to read the newspaper, that’s when I knew I would be released. They treated me well, but not always. I was very resistant in the beginning and the international society responded quickly. For a moment, I think they felt angry.

How did they take it out on you?
No, I can’t talk about that.

It’s a state secret?
It could be considered a state secret. For me it is important not to say too much.

The police seemed to make a distinction between sending out a classified report—even though it should certainly not have been classified—and the rest of your work.
Even in the detention center the police said to me, ‘Wan, we are only investigating your illegal activities. We will not forget what you have done for people.” They didn’t say anything against my work. The Ministry of Health and the national AIDS center all lobbied the police department to ask my release. 

It is unusual for people arrested for this offense in China to be released so soon and with no restrictions on their future activities. Some people think that it might have had something to do with the fact that China has a $90 million proposal waiting for approval from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis, after its first-round proposal was rejected. Did this influence your treatment?
It’s difficult to say. There were many forces involved. I admitted my mistake, asked for tolerance, and wrote this down on paper. Therefore, the law allowed them to release me. It was no problem for me to do that. What I want is first my freedom, and second my work.

They released you right after you signed this document?

Why didn’t they allow you to contact your wife or answer her questions about your whereabouts?
(pause) The Xinhua News Agency (the official government agency) explained that when a person is arrested for revealing state secrets… that the government has the right not to inform family members.

You have said that you had 27 days to learn about the law, but the government had 27 days to learn about AIDS.
I got a legal lesson and it changed me. I think this experience will be very important in my future life. Before my detention, I was a person who easily became angry and emotional, and I liked to act immediately without thinking. Now maybe I will still act but think carefully and ask people’s opinion first. We have to think about the general environment and should clearly understand that the Chinese environment is still not tolerant. Before we can criticize something now we have to think about the reaction; before, we just acted as scholars. Now the project and I have become well known, and we have to think about that.

I think our government also got a lesson about health issues and AIDS issues. They learned that people in the international community think health issues are very important. I think we may reach some agreement to work on AIDS. After my release, I talked with the Beijing Municipal Health Department and they agreed to help.

You talk about how your arrest and imprisonment raised the profile of your work, made the government more aware of you, and allowed you to make useful contacts. Do you consider the experience a positive one?
No, those are side effects. But I had always regretted that I have not had the chance to talk with people at the top levels of government, and that may be part of the reason we have had so many difficulties. Now the government will pay more attention to us.

In June, the United Nations’ AIDS watchdog, UNAIDS, held a press conference in Beijing to release a report titled “China’s Titanic Peril.” “We are now witnessing the unfolding of an HIV./AIDS epidemic of proportions beyond belief, an epidemic that calls for an urgent and proper but as yet unanswered quintessential response,” the report said. This uncharacteristically blunt language reflects the dissatisfaction of AIDS experts with China’s inaction. The country’s tracking system is spotty. Consistent condom use by prostitutes is only between 10 and 15 percent. Very few local governments are carrying out prevention campaigns. Currently, there are no official data on AIDS awareness, but the country’s AIDS action plan for 2005 aims for 45 percent of the rural population to know basic facts about what AIDS is and how it is transmitted.

Since China first acknowledged its AIDS epidemic in August 2000, the country has been grudgingly raising its estimate of the infected, now setting the figure at about 1 million. Today, UNAIDS says there are possibly 1.5 million people infected, some UNAIDS officials believe HIV may already have spread to as many as 6 million victims.

Since June, China’s leaders seem to be taking the epidemic more seriously. Health Minister Zhang Wenkang, speaking at a conference in early November, warned that AIDS was spreading “very rapidly” from high-risk groups into the general population. Remarkably, he asked for international help. “The infectious figure could expand to 10 million by 2010 if we fail to take immediate action” Zhang said. “We now have no time to lose.”

Has China changed its strategies for fighting AIDS? Is the government moving to a more open response?
I think it’s changing but very slowly. There are still strong conservative forces in China. When you see the law, it seems like the central government wants to follow the standard of the UN and WHO. Our leaders at the top have become internationalized. They get information from the world AIDS campaign and their talk about AIDS is perfectly in line. The government has become more tolerant. They are now supporting some health promotion for sex workers and have a “100 Percent Condom Use” project for sex workers. They admit they have an AIDS problem in China.

But local officials all want to take their lessons from the experience of the Cultural Revolution and the time of Mao Zedong, when people were asked just to stay at home and not to be active—restrict people to control disease.

Sometimes it is difficult to say if policy is changing. If you can’t change people’s attitudes through public education, it’s still very dangerous. Last year, for example, the Chinese Psychiatric Association changed its policies on homosexuality—it is no longer defined as a mental illness. This was due to our influence. But if you ask the members, I believe that 70 or 80 percent would still say homosexuality is an illness.

The government has said it will begin making generic copies of antiretroviral drugs. That’s a very big deal.
They have said this, and it is a very big deal.

I’ve been trying to understand why a country that has generally been quite serious about public health has not been responsible about AIDS. One reason, as you say, is nationalism and anti-Western ideology. The other reason could be that to be able to fight AIDS they must allow people to organize and have some civil society, and this is anathema to the government. In addition, your approach, based on rights, is the scariest for them.
They have some reason to feel nervous. We helped people organize support groups in Henan and we reported the stories from the villages to the outside, so finally the government couldn’t cover up the scandal. Sometimes they may think that if people get involved in our project, they may take some radical action, like some small protest.

Traditionally when people had difficulties, they would go to government offices and sit there. Now they know how to organize. They send a representative and bargain with the government. I don’t think the government likes it, but we’ve found that it has influenced policy. In the beginning in Henan they would give patients vouchers for health care to use at a specific hospital. But that hospital might be very expensive. Now, after negotiation, the government has agreed that patients can choose their clinic.

What is the single biggest change China needs to fight AIDS?
The budget. We need activists, more professional people, protective laws, and strong leadership. Now I think the most important thing is money, for more education and training and to help people with AIDS.

What do you consider your biggest achievements?
It’s difficult to point to a success or achievement. I general I think I have experienced a lot of failure. We have set up hotlines and organized networks. We promoted inter-community activity and media involvement. That’s quite pioneering in China. From 1994 until now, we have published a lot of material on AIDS. Twenty years ago, this would be unbelievable to have independent publications on sensitive issues. But we have not been able to influence many people.

Don’t you think your work exposing the Henan scandal, or pushing the government to be more open about AIDS has had an impact?
Our group is trying to contribute, but there are many other factors standing in the way. If the government is listening to us, why is it spending so much energy against us? In July we tried to organize some students to do AIDS education in rural areas. The government told the students we were an illegal organization with contacts in the United States. We got a huge amount of trouble.

You have about 10 people in your AIDS Action Project and 20 to 30 others elsewhere who help you occasionally. How many other activists for AIDS are there in China?
Well, there’s one young guy who acquired AIDS five years ago in Sanshi province. He and his family have become active on AIDS issues. A doctor and his patient have become active; they rode bicycles from Beijing to Shanghai to educate people on AIDS…

Let me interrupt you. Your answer is terrifying. There are 1.3 billion people in China and you are naming AIDS activists on your fingers.
Some activists, for example in Sichuan, got infected through a blood transfusion, and they organized themselves and asked for compensations from hospitals. In Henan you can find many people with AIDS in villages who have become active. The difference with our group is that we help other people to organize themselves.

No other group does this work?
There are some international groups, some gay and lesbian groups. Some gay and lesbian hotlines have become active on AIDS issues. Recently some religious organizations have expressed the will to help. But it’s a very small number of people.

Originally published August 15, 2006


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