“The AIDS epidemic is very much concentrated among marginalized populations, and those are groups that are distrustful of the government generally, that have experienced discrimination by the government, and that are hard to reach. The best and most effective way to reach them is through peers, civil society groups.”
– Joe Amon, Human Rights Watch
Chinese HIV/AIDS activist Wan Yanhai has followed the spread of HIV/AIDS across his country since graduating from medical school in 1988. He was working with AIDS patients long before the government acknowledged China’s epidemic as a legitimate concern. He launched China’s first HIV/AIDS telephone hotline in 1992, while working as a public health official, to provide information and explain the risks of unprotected sex. Two years later, fired from his public health position, he founded China’s largest HIV/AIDS organization, the Beijing Aizhixing Institute.
Wan endured years of government harassment from the public security department, the state security department, the propaganda department and even the fire department. He was repeatedly detained, for days or weeks at a time.
The Beijing Aizhixing Institute has also been subjected to harassment. In 2006, the organization’s Blood Safety and Legal Human Rights Conference was banned. In 2008, at the time of the Beijing Olympics, Aizhixing staff faced constant police inquiry and had to carry identification with them at all times. At times the Institute has been unable to receive overseas remittances—a major source of its funding.
The difficulties intensified in 2010. In March, Wan received visits at work from the Taxation Bureau and the Commercial Bureau, claiming that his organization was unregistered. He was banned from lecturing at a university in Guangzhou and at all universities in the area. For two weeks he was continually watched by a police car parked outside his home.
Following dozens of phone calls and visits from government authorities in April, Wan finally fled to the United States with his wife and daughter. They left their home in Beijing, but complications arose with his daughter’s visa. They then hid for two weeks, first with friends in Guangzhou, then in Hong Kong, before catching a flight to Philadelphia in May.