China must wake up to Aids, says freed activist

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01/12/2006China's best-known Aids activist used his first interview since being released from police custody this week to accuse the authorities of being "asleep" in the face of the spread of the virus through the country.

   
Wan Yanhai, the director of Aizhixing, the country's foremost Aids awareness group, was arrested last week as he was preparing for a conference in Beijing to mark World Aids Day tomorrow.

He was forced to ring participants from round the world, including Britain, to tell them to return home.

It was the third time that he has been detained in 12 years of campaigning, but the first since the government admitted, partly because of his efforts, the ravages wrought by HIV-Aids in China.

Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, he said it was too late to examine why the government continued to crack down even while acknowledging that activists had a role to play in fighting the disease.

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"We have no time to wait," he said. "People are dying, people are in detention, people are crying, people are becoming crazy."

Dr Wan said that he was willing to work with the health ministry. It needed to warn thousands of people likely to have been infected with HIV through receiving contaminated blood. Many were unaware of the danger.

"We have tried to establish a relationship with the department," he said. "We called them many times. There is no response."

With his boyish features and pink jumper, Dr Wan, 43, looks more like the international health activist he has become than the health ministry bureaucrat he was.

He set up Aizhixing - the characters mean love, knowledge, action, and are a play on the Chinese word for Aids - after being fired from his government job in the early 1990s. He stepped over the line when he demanded equal rights for homosexuals, and those infected with HIV.

Aizhixing, which has now been formally recognised by the government, has received funding from the British Embassy as well as Save the Children.

Dr Wan has acquired a reputation as an outspoken advocate but at the same time one who knows how far he can push the government.

He remained cautious after his unexpected arrest last week. He refused to say what happened in custody, or what the police wanted from him. He became deeply emotional, shaking and breaking down in tears while talking of his work.

Dr Wan was among the first to publicise the scale of infection in central China, after millions of peasants sold blood to freelance collectors. Reports began to appear in the western media of whole villages falling sick.

Dr Wan disappeared for a month, just as he was about to take up a scholarship to study in America. It emerged he had been detained, accused of leaking state secrets.

He said he believed that 10 times the 650,000 estimated by the authorities are infected, though the official figure is backed by the United Nations.

"In my heart, I believe the best way to help the government is to demonstrate on the street," he said. "If not, they will not wake up, they will stay asleep - or is it that they are cowering? But I dare not."




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