Prominent Chinese AIDS activist disappears

Family says government has likely detained him

August 29, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BEIJING - China's most prominent AIDS activist has disappeared, apparently detained by government security services, human rights groups and relatives said.

The activist, Wan Yanhai, is a former Chinese health official who was fired after he took up the causes of gay rights and AIDS in the mid-1990s. He has been involved in various small but influential projects in the past few years, including a Web site about HIV and the creation of small support groups.

He has also helped expose a devastating AIDS epidemic in central China, whose epicenter is in Henan province, where as many as 1 million people may have been infected through sales of tainted blood.

Wan divides his time between China and the United States, where his wife is a student.

His disappearance and probable arrest come at a time when China is struggling with an escalating HIV problem. The country's leaders have been ambivalent about becoming more open about AIDS, a shift that virtually all experts agree is necessary to reverse the crisis.

China is about to submit a proposal to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, requesting millions of dollars to be used for AIDS control and prevention in some of the areas where Wan first exposed the AIDS epidemic.

Wan has not been heard from since late last week, and attempts to contact him by phone and e-mail have been fruitless, his wife, Su Zhaosheng, said by phone from Los Angeles.

People who have had even brief contact with him have sometimes been questioned by representatives of China's state security apparatus.

This summer, his group, the AIDS Action Project, was forced to vacate its small office at a Beijing academic institute.

Those familiar with his Web site speculate that he might have given authorities an excuse to take further action last week by posting an internal document prepared by health authorities in Henan province that included statistics about the HIV epidemic there.

Although the document contained little new information, some experts involved with the HIV issue speculate that authorities might contend that the document included information that was a "state secret," making Wan vulnerable to arrest under Chinese law.

Through his work, Wan has earned the admiration of foreigners and the enmity of Chinese officials. Last year he accepted a prestigious health award from United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on behalf of Dr. Gao Yaojie, a retired Chinese doctor who works with rural AIDS patients, after Chinese officials had refused Gao a passport to travel to the United States to accept the award.

If Wan has been detained under state secrets charges, he could be held for a long period without explanation and he would lose much of the protection guaranteed under China's Criminal Procedure Code, such as the right to a lawyer.

A small, soft-spoken man who generally works behind the scenes, Wan nonetheless had absorbed some of the confrontational style of American AIDS activists during several fellowships in the United States.

At a regional AIDS meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, two years ago, Wan rose from the audience to confront China's vice minister of health.

More recently, he has been involved in creating support for people with AIDS in rural China. In a recent petition, a group of AIDS patients wrote to the Ministry of Health demanding affordable medicines.

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