Only in China, kids, only in China. The four-week "disappearing" of the nation's most prominent AIDS activist has turned out to be one of the best moves yet to ward off what the United Nations predicts could be a titanic health catastrophe. Chinese police snatched Wan Yanhai, the 39-year-old founder of the HIV-activist group Aizhi [AIDS] Action Project, late last August shortly after he left a screening of the groundbreaking but banned-in-China same-sex romance flick Lan Yu. As happens often to activists deemed threatening to the state, Wan was detained without public notice or formal charges. Only later was it confirmed through government sources that Wan was apprehended for publishing on his website (www.aizhi.org) a classified report on a 1990s blood-selling scandal that spread HIV to hundreds of thousands of Chinese. Wan did break the law -- the publication of the report, which he received anonymously via e-mail, was illegal -- but the incident was likely used as an excuse by Beijing officials to punish him for his activism.
Then came the shocker: Wan was released September 20 after four weeks in detention -- and an international outcry from human rights groups, the UN, ACT UP and The New York Times editorial board. That's vastly different from what other types of political prisoners in China endure, which is why experts are encouraged that Beijing may finally be taking its AIDS emergency seriously. The UN estimates that 1.5 million Chinese people have HIV and that 10 million may by 2010. Beijing claims about 800,000 current cases and perhaps 2 million by the end of the decade. Only last year did the government even acknowledge that a problem existed.
No one was more surprised that his wait was curtailed than the demure, bespectacled activist himself, whose price of release was to admit in a public statement that he shouldn't have disseminated the classified report. "I told them I know I did something wrong, so they let me go. They treated me well and I understand their position," Wan told POZ by phone, declining to answer further questions about his detention.
Still, his release may mean more for his cause than his arrest did. China often disregards international opinion about whom it detains, so experts believe Beijing realized that global moral outrage could jeopardize its application for millions in aid from the Global Fund if Wan were not freed. Whatever the motivation, the release is likely a sign that Beijing has decided that AIDS activism isn't in league with sympathy for Tibet, Taiwan or Falun Gong, topics that routinely land advocates in lengthy detentions. "It may be a reflection of a realization among the Chinese leadership that AIDS is an issue that the West will react more strongly to," said Bates Gill, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
Wan may be treading carefully right now, but friends in Beijing say the international attention will likely embolden him. After all, the government did not force him to renounce his AIDS organization or take down his website, even though the group was declared illegal. And Wan's history shows his bravery. He formed the organization after being fired from his position at the Ministry of Health in 1994 for advocating human rights, gay and lesbian issues, and AIDS awareness.
Ironically, Wan's one month in prison accomplished what years of furious activism could not, creating a global backlash to the scandalous way China has been handling its HIV crisis and forcing Beijing to take notice. Said Shanghai gay activist Xiao Wang: "This makes him a bigger star, more influential than ever. It was a bad thing, but it could turn out to be a good thing also."