The wave of repression and intimidation of human rights activists and dissidents in China in advance of the Beijing Olympics has also targeted homosexuals, according to China’s best-known gay and AIDS activist.
In an email, Dr. Wan Yanhai reported that the month of March saw numerous police raids on gay gathering spots in Beijing and Shanghai, and he said that the evidence of a new pre-Olympic crackdown on gays is so widespread it is clear it is being orchestrated "at the national level."
Wan is not just anybody. A former official of China’s Ministry of Public Health, he was fired in 1994 for his participation in AIDS information and prevention campaigns and for his support of full equal rights for homosexuals.
After being purged from the ministry, Wan founded the AIDS-fighting Aizhixing Action Project (the Chinese characters for "Aizhixing" represent love, knowledge, and action, and are a play on the Chinese word for AIDS). The association also works for freedom of expression on the Internet and is active on behalf of LGBT rights.
Hu Jia, the former executive director of Aizhixing and a long-time close collaborator of Wan who is also a noted human rights activist, was sent to prison for three and a half years on April 3 for "incitement of subversion" because of online articles he’d written and interviews he’d given to the foreign press.
In 2002, Wan was kidnapped by the authorities and then arrested for having disseminated an internal government report on the contaminated blood scandal in China, in which some estimates say as many as a million people were infected with HIV through transfusions in 23 of China’s 30 provinces. Wan was freed after a month in prison following a worldwide campaign for his liberation that received enormous publicity.
In 2006, Wan was again arrested for having accused the Chinese government of "falling asleep" in the face of the mushrooming AIDS crisis. An international AIDS conference he organized in China for that time was canceled on the government’s order.
Wan’s activism on AIDS and human rights has been recognized with an award from Human Rights Watch.
In his email about the new anti-gay crackdown, Wan detailed several of the police raids. They began on March 9 when police invaded Destination, Beijing’s most popular gay nightspot. Police pretended the nightclub was "over-crowded" and ordered it closed, and it remained shuttered for several days.
According to a well-informed foreigner residing in Beijing who spoke by telephone to this reporter on condition of anonymity, before proceeding to muscular interrogations of Destination’s Chinese clients the police evacuated all non-Asians from the nightclub, to prevent any diplomat or other foreigner from witnessing the manner in which the police conducted their investigation.
On March 17, police and armed officers of the Bureau of Public Security, which is in charge of organizing the Olympics for the government, descended on Dongdan Park in the East District of Beijing, a well-known gay meeting place and cruising spot. According to Wan, police arrested all the gay people found in the park and took them to the police commissariat located there.
"The 40 people taken away by the police were all requested to show their ID, and their details were checked on the computer," Wan wrote. "They were all requested to write their name on a white paper, and hold the paper with their names before their chest to be photographed. Some people refused to be photographed and [were] released without being photographed. Some others, as a result of refusing to be photographed, and because their details were not found in the computer records, were taken to another police station for further interrogation.
"A gay volunteer of Aizhixing Institute was taken to the police station because police said that his name was not found in the computer records, and released after the lawyer of Aizhixing showed up at the police station. When the individuals were taken away, the police reported that a person was killed inside the park a day before, and everyone had to cooperate in the investigation. But after being walked to the police station, the individuals were not asked any question related to a criminal case."
Wan went on to write, "In the following days, many people in the park were asked to show their ID. Every evening after 7, a police car drove into the park to inspect the surroundings. For a small imprudence, people would be taken away by the police. Later in the evening, the police would clear out the park. In the afternoon of 22 March, 2 young people were taken away by police officers as soon as they walked into the park."
On March 20, a similar raid was carried out against Oasis, the most popular gay bathhouse in Beijing. There, according to Wan, "More than 70 people, including all the members of staff and clients were taken away. After more than 30 hours, in the early morning of 22 March, the clients of the house were released. But the members of staff were kept detained. In the early morning of 21 March, the police visited another Oasis bathhouse near Dongsishitiao Bridge, and took away all members of staff, but not the clients. At present, these two bathhouses have been shut down. It was reported that at the same time, in another part of the city, another gay bathhouse was also shut down."
In other developments, an announcement posted by the proprietors of the gay website Beijing Tongzhi told of mass arrests of gay sex workers identified by their Internet ads. (The word "tongzhi," which literally means "comrades," has been largely adopted by Chinese gays to refer to themselves.) The website’s statement read, "These days, Beijing is clearing out the city and carrying out a crackdown on sex work, the police has currently detained more than 80 sex workers, this website does not welcome people with illegal intentions, and hopes everyone works together to fight illegal behavior, thanks for your cooperation!"
Wan is not the only one in China to report on the anti-gay crackdown. The Shanghai-based English-language website The Shanghai-ist reported that "the raid on the Beijing club Destination took place the same night as a raid against PinkHome of Shanghai, where a number of gays were arrested. Such repressive measures taken so rapidly in such a short time span against places frequented by gays has never before been seen in China, and justifies our being afraid."
The number of commercial nightclubs, bars, and bathhouses for gays has grown in recent years ever since the change in the legal statutes regarding homosexuality. In 1997, the term "criminal" was removed from the Criminal Code against gays arrested for "solicitation," the preferred charge at that time against gays whom the police suspected of cruising. Homosexual acts were thus effectively decriminalized, and in April 2007 homosexuality was removed from the official Chinese list of mental illnesses.
Contacted by this reporter, a foreigner residing in Beijing who had spoken to a number of Chinese gays said by telephone, "The authorities have begun this so-called clean-up to signal to Chinese gays that they better be really discreet and invisible during the Beijing Olympics.
The government is very suspicious of anyone or anything that they do not consider normal or in keeping with official standards for correct conduct. And the authorities want to drive out of Beijing all those who do not have the internal passport required to reside there, which is often the case among gays who seek to lose themselves in the more tolerant great cities, as official persecution of gays in the provinces and rural areas can be quite severe."
In addition, according to this source, corruption may also be playing a role in the crackdown on commercial gay establishments.
"New commanders were recently appointed for every police district in Beijing, and some suspect that the raids on the clubs and baths are a way of telling the owners that the new commanders expect to receive the usual bribes if those places want to be able to continue their business without being bothered, harassed, or closed," this source said.
Wan’s email also reported intimidation of a number of Chinese gay activists, including several lesbians, who were harassed on March 21, the day after the opening of an exhibit, by the Chinese advocacy group Common Language, of 10,000 signatures on a petition-banner supporting same-sex marriage equality. The gay and lesbian activists were visited in their homes by the police, as were their landlords and employers, who were interrogated about the pro-LGBT activities of the investigation’s targets. Other gay activists had their residence permits called into question by the police.
Meanwhile, in London, Britain’s best-known gay militant, Peter Tatchell, was arrested on April 6 after he ambushed the Olympic Flame during its relay through the British capital. Tatchell, head of the UK gay agit-prop group OutRage!, was violently tackled and wrestled to the ground by police when he jumped in front of the bus carrying the Olympic Flame just outside Selfridge’s department store.
Tatchell shouted "Free Hu Jia! Free Tibet!" as he blocked the bus. Video footage of Tatchell’s demonstration and arrest were shown on television reports worldwide. After questioning by police, he was released without charges.
Tatchell later praised Hu Jia for having "exposed the Chinese government’s cover up of the use of HIV-contaminated blood, the lack of support and care for people with HIV, and he challenged social prejudice and discrimination against people with the virus. Hu Jia is a truly heroic figure, who has shown immense foresight, determination, and bravery. He has kept campaigning, even though he knew it would put him at risk of arrest, torture, and imprisonment. In jail, Hu Jia is likely to be mistreated, denied medical treatment for his hepatitis B infection, and starved of proper food."
In San Francisco, the only American city to be visited by the Olympic Flame on its way to Beijing, a group of gay activists this past weekend joined a pro-Tibet demonstration and also demanded the release of Hu Jia.
South African Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu, in San Francisco to receive an award on April 8 from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) for his work on behalf of lesbian and gay rights, used the occasion to call on world leaders to boycott the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. Tutu praised the willingness of people around the world to protest China’s repression of Tibet and on its own soil.
"Sometimes we think that there is a lot of indifference," Tutu told the Los Angeles Times at the IGLHRC event, "but I am thrilled myself that people care as much as they have shown they do."
The Aizhixing Action Project’s website is http://www.aizhi.org/en/. The Shanghai-ist’s website is http://shanghaiist.com/. Doug Ireland may be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/.