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Chinese AIDS Activist Honored Despite Ongoing Detention
(Montreal, September 12, 2002) - Human Rights Watch and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network will honor detained Chinese AIDS activist Dr. Wan Yanhai on September 13 as the first recipient of the two organizations' "Award for Action on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights." The two groups strongly reiterated their concern over the detention of Dr. Wan by the Chinese government.
"Dr. Wan has been active in bringing to light a public health scandal that Beijing would like to sweep under the rug. He has taken extraordinary risks to break down the conspiracy of silence around AIDS in China and protect the rights of those infected."
Ralf Jurgens, Executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network
The award recognizes Dr. Wan's long-term commitment to combating HIV/AIDS in China and his remarkable campaign to bring public attention to a health and human rights crisis in Henan Province, where hundreds of thousands of rural villagers have been infected through faulty blood collection practices in government-backed clinics. Local Chinese governmental officials are alleged to have been complicit in the scandal. Some foreign journalists attempting to investigate blood collection in Henan have been detained.
"Dr. Wan has been active in bringing to light a public health scandal that Beijing would like to sweep under the rug," said Ralf Jürgens, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. "He has taken extraordinary risks to break down the conspiracy of silence around AIDS in China and protect the rights of those infected."
Dr. Wan's wife, Su Zhaosheng, is expected to receive the award on his behalf in Montreal on Friday.
On August 24, 2002, Wan was reported missing by friends and relatives. Police have since indicated to his colleagues that he has been detained for "revealing state secrets," but his exact whereabouts remain unknown. Earlier in August, Wan had anonymously received a "neibu" (secret) AIDS research report on the blood collection scandal in Henan province prepared by government health officials that he then forwarded to an electronic mailing list.
"The report my husband distributed contained little information that had not already been published," said Su Zhaosheng, who currently resides in Los Angeles. "His efforts to ensure people in China have access to up-to-date information about HIV/AIDS shows that he is a thoughtful scholar who cares about his country, about human rights, and about HIV prevention in China. We hope to secure his unconditional release, but we are still trying to confirm where he is being held so that his relatives in Beijing can visit him."
Dr. Wan, 38, is coordinator of the AIZHI (AIDS) Action Project, a nongovernmental organization he founded in 1994 that provides some of the only basic information on HIV/AIDS available to people in China through a widely used web site (www.aizhi.org). As a government official he founded China's first AIDS hotline in 1992. A year later, he was fired from that post for his openness about sexual minorities and their risk of contracting HIV. With support from a variety of private and international sources, he has continued this work and has become the most visible AIDS activist in the country.
"Dr. Wan has led efforts to uncover the blood collection scandal in Henan and combat widespread social prejudice against rural villagers infected with HIV," said Joanne Csete, director of HIV/AIDS Program of Human Rights Watch. "In the face of continued state surveillance, he and his colleagues have visited Henan many times to document the extent of the epidemic, develop recommendations for social action and government assistance, and organize educational programs."
Dr. Wan's group has also arranged to bring HIV-infected villagers to urban centres to give talks at public forums, and has hosted photo exhibits and press conferences in Beijing and other cities to reduce discrimination and show the human face of people living with HIV/AIDS. In addition, the group has coordinated efforts to assist hundreds of orphans whose parents have died of AIDS.
"The allegation that Dr. Wan has revealed state secrets by publicizing government health research is ridiculous and counterproductive," said Csete. "Any country concerned about the health of its people would make such basic health information public in a second. China has imprisoned a man who is one of its best allies in the fight against a lethal and growing epidemic."
"The Canadian government has long asserted that its policy of expanding trade with China will lead to constructive engagement on human rights issues," said Jürgens. "This is clearly a situation where such engagement is needed, and we are urging the government to contact Chinese authorities to actively pursue the matter of Dr. Wan's detention and the appalling human rights abuses he has brought to light."
The Awards for Action on HIV/AIDS and Human Rights are sponsored by the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Human Rights Watch, the International Harm Reduction Development Program, the Hilda Mullen Foundation and Mark Gallop. Additional information about the Awards and about Dr. Wan Yanhai is available online at http://www.aidslaw.ca/Maincontent/awards.htm.
About the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network
The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network (www.aidslaw.ca) is a national organization engaged in education, legal and ethical analysis, and policy development. Founded in 1992, the Network's promotes responses to HIV/AIDS that respect human rights; facilitate prevention efforts and access to care, treatment and support; minimize the adverse impact of HIV/AIDS on individuals and communities; and address the social and economic factors that increase vulnerability to HIV/AIDS and to human rights abuses. The Network is an NGO in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. Its work has received national and international recognition, and the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS has included the Network's activities in UNAIDS' collection of "best practices."
AIDS: China's state secret
HIV action groups face numerous bureaucratic obstacles in China, but their positive approach may one day produce better results, writes John Gittings in The Guardian
Tuesday January 7, 2003
On a snowy December morning, slipping on icy mud paths, six volunteers from a Beijing-based HIV/Aids action group entered the village of Houyang in Henan province, one of many hit by China's growing epidemic. They brought with them sweets and bean-milk powder for the children, who include many orphans and those infected at birth: a truck with warm clothes was on the way from Beijing.
Houyang and the other villages are suffering the consequences of grossly unhygienic commercial blood schemes in the mid-1990s which recycled infected blood among the peasant donors. The scandal, covered up for many years by the Henan health authorities (which had encouraged the blood collection), is now acknowledged by the central government in Beijing. In Henan, as the team from Aizhi Action soon found out, it is still an "official secret".
The condition of the families in Houyang made the activists weep: all the victims complained of the inadequacy of government aid. In one house, the villagers had organised a pre-school group for children orphaned by Aids. The teacher was a girl who was not yet fourteen years old.
The next day (December 25), the Aizhi team sat over lunch in the Shangcai hotel (the official guesthouse which also provides accommodation for visitors). They were planning to visit another village - after buying some pairs of galoshes so their feet would not be soaked for a second day.
Instead they received an invitation they could not refuse to an urgent meeting with health officials from Shangcai county, plus the head of the local state security office and some unidentified plainclothes policemen.
From these officials they learned the following:
1. The Aids epidemic is a state secret which may not be divulged without authorisation. Aids may seem to be a "social problem", but the situation has been turned by some people into a "political problem": that is why it is a secret.
2. The Aizhi Action Group (which had previously published material about the epidemic in Shangcai) had no right to do so. Nor could it visit the area unless it registered first with the county Civil Affairs Bureau, and then obtained permission. It was regarded as an "illegal organisation": even if it had good intentions, it must go through the proper channels. The volunteers must surrender all the notes and pictures which they had taken on the previous day in Houyang village.
3. The county authorities had done a lot of good work to help the HIV/Aids victims in Shangcai which was not properly appreciated. Even when health officials did not get paid themselves, because of financial difficulties, they still distributed aid. They had been slandered by the media: the Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend, the only Chinese newspaper to cover the crisis consistently) was "the worst of them all".
On the next day, the 26th, the team members were officially informed that they could not visit any more villages. Any material aid they had brought should be distributed via the authorities. Their luggage was searched and all notes and films confiscated. An "expert" was called in to examine their digital camera. Plainclothes police kept them under observation in the street and the hotel.
The sorry tale continued in a manner familiar to anyone who has had a similar experience in China. It was the familiar mixture of bullying and wheedling by local officials anxious to prove their zeal and to protect their own backs. On the third day, the team was threatened with arrest. On the fourth the atmosphere warmed again and the team was allowed to leave for the nearest railway station. "We understand you; you should understand us," said the security head as they said goodbye: "Long live understanding!"
The conclusion drawn from this experience by Aizhi researcher Hu Jia, who has circulated an account of his team's visit to Shangcai, is surprisingly positive.
Whatever shortcomings in the behaviour of local officials, he argues, their difficulties in the face of this appalling crisis have to be appreciated. In fact the team was treated "quite politely": for example, members were allowed to keep their mobile phones with them all the time. The supplies they had brought from Beijing were after all delivered to the victims later: there is a chance now that future deliveries of aid can be achieved by co-operating with the county government.
Education, particularly education of the "Aids orphans", should be a top priority. The philosophy behind this is simple and practical. The hostility and prejudice of local officials is a fact of life in rural China, but every possible way has to be tried to help people in desperate need.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003
by The Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

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