Wan Yanhai's departure comes less than a year after another Aids campaigner moved to America and serves to illustrate the toll that relentless official harassment takes on activists in China, even those working on issues such as AIDS that are recognized by the government as legitimate concerns. Likewise, a renowned women's rights organization was shuttered last month, and more recently, two lawyers who represented a member of an outlawed spiritual movement were banned from practicing law for life.
Wan founded the Beijing-based Aizhixing Institute in 1994 to raise awareness and fight discrimination. While he praised the government for strides it made on the issue in recent years - such as increasing funding and attempting to address the stigma of having the virus in China - the authorities were less tolerant of his work on sensitive issues, such as highlighting the cases of those who contracted HIV from blood transfusions.
Wan had been detained and questioned several times, but said in recent months the stress escalated following checks by tax, education and propaganda officials, and the state administration for industry and commerce. Police recently interrupted a lecture he gave at the Southern China Science and Industry University on sexual orientation and mental health. Wan later heard that a notice had been sent to universities nationwide telling them not to invite him to speak.
Furthermore, in March the government decided to regulate overseas donations to aid groups. Wan expressed that these tightened regulations on foreign assistance to Chinese NGOs have caused major funding problems. The rule says groups such as Aizhixing must show proof that overseas nonprofit donor groups are registered in their home countries and strictly follow detailed agreements with foreign donors on how donated funds are spent.
In recent years, China's government has made huge strides in openly addressing the spread of HIV, but it is deeply suspicious of independent activists, and Wan has one of the highest profiles among those working on AIDS in China. Wan's move was met with support by Chinese activists, many of whom posted messages on Twitter, although some also expressed regret at his departure and worries about the future of his organization.
"I empathize with Wan's feelings. Although I feel a little regret toward his decision, still, I fully understand and wish them a happy life," said Zeng Jingyan, whose husband Hu Jia, another HIV/AIDS activist is serving a 3 1/2-year jail term for sedition.