China AIDS Activist Riled Officials ; Friends Say Wan Yanhai Is 'Safe,' but Protesters Monday Urged Beijing to Explain His Disappearance

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China's top AIDS activist and whistleblower Wan Yanhai - who disappeared in Beijing more than a week ago - is alive and safe, activists and friends say. Yet for fear of reprisals during a sensitive political time in China, they are reluctant to say much else - adding to belief here that Mr. Wan was detained by Chinese authorities and is being questioned about his role as an independent voice in a potential AIDS crisis that China has only recently acknowledged.

Wan formed an AIDS awareness group in 1994, after being expelled from a government health office for advocating human rights, gay and lesbian issues, and AIDS awareness. Since then, he has pioneered the study of AIDS in China, where the disease has spread to as many as 1.5 million people, according to a recent UN report.

Wan is best known for helping to expose a scandalous blood- plasma buying scheme in China's poor and populous central Henan Province. Bad blood bought from intravenous drug users in the mid- to late-1990s was added to stockpiles that infected as many as a million farmers with HIV, half the population of some towns.

Last month, China banned Wan's organization, AIDS Action Project, which operates with grants from groups like The Ford Foundation and the Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation. Then on the evening of Aug. 24 Wan suddenly vanished.

Friends say he was followed for several days by "three large men" in a black Volkswagon. He had attended a gay and lesbian film screening and was on his way to meet unknown persons he had phoned, when he disappeared. Appeals to the Beijing Public Security Bureau by Wan's wife, Su Zhaosheng - a graduate student in Los Angeles where Wan splits his time - have so far been unanswered. Calls on Monday by friends to Beijing police headquarters also met with no response.

But informal confirmation that Wan is under detention is a relief to colleagues who say the mild-mannered 39- year-old has made dangerous enemies.

"The Chinese government understands that the AIDS problem is serious, and that it can't be hidden anymore," says Hu Jia, a close friend. "They may be now finding out how far he [Wan] will cooperate."

Still, in China a "disappearance" without police verification is not reassuring, say human rights groups, including Amnesty International, which called Aug. 31 for Wan's release, if he has not been charged with a crime. Monday, activists in Hong Kong protested outside the Chinese government liaison office, calling for Beijing to investigate or announce Wan's whereabouts.

A proximate cause for Wan's disappearance may be an internal Henan health ministry document he sent last month to an AIDS e-mail group. The memo repeats much of what is known about the stark conditions in that province. But as a state document, its distribution may be illegal, offering a reason to detain Wan.

Some activists worried that Wan might have been nabbed by locals from Henan who wanted him silenced. Wan's website has published the names of Henan health officials who remain in office, despite charges of complicity and profit in the blood-collection scheme of the '90s - and who have so far refused responsibility. …