Fighting AIDS in Asia

In China, the release of a jailed activist holds promise

October 13, 2002|By Steve Friess

THEY SNATCHED him off the sidewalk one dark, hot Beijing night and tossed him in jail. They held him without contact with his loved ones for four weeks, forcing his family and friends to piece together his fate from rumors, inferences and the comments of unidentified sources to the Western media. He received no formal charges, no consultation with a lawyer, no idea of what could happen next.

And yet, what happened next to Dr. Wan Yanhai turned a nightmare into arguably the best thing ever to happen to the HIV/AIDS movement in China.

He was released. And quickly. For China, anyway.

Conventional wisdom had it that the Chinese AIDS activist, apprehended in August and later charged with disseminating state secrets, wouldn't be freed until at least late October, when Chinese President Jiang Zemin was scheduled to visit President Bush in Crawford, Texas. That's the typical drill with the Chinese, to release a wave of political prisoners on "humanitarian parole" around the time of high-level meetings.

Yet by giving Mr. Wan his humanitarian parole on Sept. 20, a date associated with no significant international diplomatic events, the Chinese did something dramatic and remarkably promising: They announced in their special way that advocating and working on the AIDS issue in the People's Republic is not a sin on par with activism related to Taiwan, Tibet or the Falun Gong.

That's a huge distinction, and one that was not at all clear before Mr. Wan's release. In fact, the reason Mr. Wan's arrest was so startling to the international AIDS community was that it seemed to portend a crackdown on information on the spread of HIV in China at a pivotal moment when the nation must choose between confronting its health catastrophe or exacerbating it.

The world's most populous nation only admitted last year that it even has an HIV problem, but government estimates of the problem remain laughably low even as the United Nations predicts 10 million infections by 2010.

Indeed, China has long treated AIDS as a public relations problem, not a public health fiasco, and went to great lengths to keep it from the Western media.

A year ago, as a reporter in China, I had to slip into a remote village in a central province under cover of night to avoid being noticed by guards whose job was to keep out journalists. In order to interview an AIDS-stricken woman who contracted HIV while selling her blood in a major scam, I had to sleep until my pre-dawn departure on her floor surrounded by plastic buckets filled with her waste. (She was too frail to make it to the nearest toilet down the road.)

These conditions embarrassed the Chinese officials enough to dispatch guards, but did not alarm them enough to dispatch doctors. Thus, throwing Mr. Wan in the dungeon last summer appeared disturbingly consistent and seemed to open a new, more severe era. Some in the government were sick of Mr. Wan's antics and hoped to show that agitating on AIDS issues in China was officially dangerous.

But then the international AIDS community went berserk, something the Chinese could not have anticipated. The usual legions from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Human Rights in China were joined by angry rebukes from quarters as varied as the United Nations and ACT-UP.

Arresting Mr. Wan, ostensibly for releasing a classified government document that contained information everybody already knew, was about to jeopardize China's applications for millions of dollars in international aid to cope with its pandemic.

So the Chinese let him go after forcing Mr. Wan to admit he had misbehaved. But he wasn't forced to take down his Web site or disband his organization even though the government banned it this summer.

It's always difficult to decipher the cryptic acts of the Chinese government, but this episode can only be seen as a very bad sign that turned into a very good one. The West won't jeopardize its huge investments in China by punishing China for human rights violations against the Falun Gong or pro-Tibet forces, but China just proved itself vulnerable to a backlash from the world AIDS community that could cost it millions in aid.

And while Mr. Wan's involuntary visit with the state security apparatus couldn't have been much fun, those four weeks accomplished as much to raise awareness of the Chinese AIDS problem as everything Mr. Wan did for the prior eight years. China inadvertently gave him global stardom, and it will be fascinating to see what he does with it.

Steve Friess is a free-lance reporter who was based in Beijing in 2001 and now lives in Las Vegas.

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