I’ve been reading about Zhang Zhan, the 37-year-old former lawyer and citizen journalist who’s been arrested in China for the crime of reporting the facts about the pandemic virus in Wuhan. Her sentence: four years in jail. Zhang was arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, the charge the government there often uses.
Sadly, I’m, reminded of Dr. Wan Yanhai who I met in New York City and interviewed for my book “Pushing The Boundaries” which will be published in the spring of 2021. He’s a genuine freedom fighter who was prepared to take on the powerful Chinese national regime by working for trivialized groups who have no voice.
For his trouble, he no longer gets to live in his homeland.
Can you imagine?
Wan Yanhai started his career in China at the Ministry of Health. His work with HIV/AIDS began with translating the first announcement of the AIDS epidemic
into Chinese. He went on to set up the first HIV/AIDS telephone hotline so people could obtain comprehensive information. That was followed by advocating for health care and human rights for people with AIDS. He did this, fully aware that there was a cover-up of blood-selling-businesses connected to local government officials which had infected as many as one million men, women, and children with the AIDS virus. Realizing the government was committed to zero sharing of information, Dr. Wan expanded his work to advocate for the health of injection drug users, sex workers and other marginalized groups affected by the AIDS epidemic.
But he didn't stop there: he became co-founder of the first gay community center in China. "Simply put, the issue of blood safety is a very serious problem in China," he told me. "I sought to deal with this by founding the Beijing Aizhixing Institute, China’s premier HIV/AIDS civil society organization." Aizhixing’s mission was to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, as well as ensuring that vulnerable communities have equal access to education, health care, housing, and legal protection. "We sought to fight the disease in two ways," he said. "On the health and science front as well as the rights and social stigma front."
Yanhai’s work at Aizhixing supplemented its initial domestic education and outreach programs by building up institutions within the LGBT community, pressuring the government to act on behalf of the LGBT population. "I got in trouble with the government because I was defending the rights of people who were being marginalized," he told me. "I was advocating for victims. The government didn't like that."
"Dr. Wan, let me ask you: when you first got involved in all of this, did you realize you were walking into a minefield?"
"But you still did it anyway?"
"Yes. You see, Peter, in the beginning I tried to give opinions to the government. To help them do a better job. Publish reports. That kind of thing. But my efforts expanded because we wanted to offer medical support and financial support. Then, when I came to Beijing to help organize a meeting in a hotel around building a gay and lesbian website, it became apparent that by now we had become a threat to the government. The hotel security tried to shut us down."
"Hotel security?" I say. "Were they being directed by the government?"
Dr. Wan Yanhai was eventually "detained" in a state security center, the first of several incarcerations he would experience.
"You are waiting for a jail sentence," he explained. "But you might be released without any charge. There's no certainty one way or the other."
"I can't imagine such a thing," I said. "How did you deal with that?"
"I felt a lot of anxiety. There was no communication with the outside world at all. But you know, in the beginning, I felt pretty confident: I'm innocent, everything will be OK. So I'm pretty relaxed. But as time went on, this changed. By the third week, I couldn't walk. No one came to investigate me. A lot of anxiety."
I expect that for most of us, the writing would now be on the wall: either quit or leave. But for someone like this resilient individual committed to pushing whatever boundaries must give way until he achieves success, quitting simply didn't enter his mind. His actions were the price of entry in achieving a favorable outcome for those being marginalized. Definitely a courageous decision.
"Severe harassment and intimidation from government authorities was always present," he explains. "As our work at Aizhixing developed, I was denied many of my fundamental freedoms and rights. I was blacklisted by the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department. And after we announced the establishment of the Beijing Aizhi Action Project, the Ministry of Public Security banned the media from reporting our work."
But this brave, intrepid crusader was not prepared to stand down. After attending an international meeting in Indonesia, he accused Chinese leaders of "falling asleep as the AIDS virus spreads". He was once again detained on his return to China and forced by the government to cancel his upcoming workshop on "Blood Safety, AIDS and Legal Human Rights".
And it continued: in the weeks before he left China, he experienced harassment and intimidation at the hands of government authorities on numerous occasions.
"The police visited my apartment and called my mobile phone dozens of times. Even the fire department and the community administration office visited my apartment without being called, on spurious fire prevention claims.”
The tyranny of absolute power. Hardly ideal conditions in which to live a life, right?
The foreboding was becoming overwhelming. Dr. Wan had to accept a reality: the harassment he was subjected to was overflowing too far into his personal life. There were days when his wife wondered if she would ever see him again. Would he be there as a father to their daughter?
“I realized that my time in China was coming to an end," he told me, even now looking back with sadness. "My wife and I made the decision to leave China. Our plans were contingent on whether or not we would be allowed to actually exit the country. Yet ultimately, it seemed that the government was pushing us to leave."
And so, full of regret and unsure he was even doing the right thing, Wan Yanhai, his wife and daughter fled to the United States because of what he considered government persecution.
He has not returned to China since.
He likely never will.
These days, we hear stories of China's "democratization". But apparently official tolerance has its limits. You learn about police threatening to shut down the country’s first gay pride festival, and you wonder. The authorities had already cancelled a play, a film screening and a social mixer. Gay publications and plays were banned. Gay websites were occasionally blocked and those who tried to advocate for greater legal protection for lesbians and gay men – advocates like Dr. Wan Yanhai – faced harassment from the police. “Sometimes I felt like we were playing a complicated game with the government,” he told me. “No one knew where the line was... but we just kept pushing.” Indeed, pushing up against courage. Pushing the boundaries.
Sidebar. As I prepared to end my discussion with Wan Yanhai, I was compelled to ask one more question. “After seven years of living in the U.S., do you miss China?”
“Of course,” is his immediate response. But then he pauses. He looks off. I detect his eyes moistening. Within seconds, the tears begin to fall. He removes his glasses and struggles to speak but the words will not flow. He looks back at me, embarrassed. It’s clear that my question is the straw breaking the camel’s back, coming as it has after an afternoon of extensive contemplation and remembrances he may well have wished to forget.
“Hey… hey…” I put out my hand and it lands on his shoulder. “Relax my friend. No need to feel badly. I get it. I can’t imagine the life you've experienced. You’re a man with amazing courage and bravery, as well as superb training. You've got such an incredible past, with responsibilities, with accomplishments, with a global reputation... and yet, you’re a prisoner. I get it.”
“Thank you Peter,” he says. “Thank you, and I’m sorry. Sometimes…”
His eyes moisten again and he looks off.
And so, as I read about Zhang Zhan’s jail sentence, I naturally think about meeting the courageous Wan Yanhai. I can only thank my lucky starts that I live in a country that allows me to have opinions and talk and act as I feel.
Clearly, this basic human right that we have all come to expect is not in play elsewhere.