Page last updated at 00:05 GMT, Monday, 7 June 2010 01:05 UK

Chinese Aids group feels government pressure

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Aizhixing condoms
Aizhixing aims to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids in China

Every afternoon in Beijing's Dongdan park, just east of Tiananmen Square, volunteers gather to hand out free condoms.

They work for the Beijing Aizhixing Institute, an independent organisation that aims to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids.

Along with other non-governmental organisations (NGOs), Aizhixing says it has recently come under increasing pressure from the government.

Its workers complain of arbitrary police searches, new bureaucratic hurdles and general official interference.

Aizhixing's founder, Aids activist Wan Yanhai, was so worried about his own safety that he fled to the United States with his wife and four-year-old daughter.

Bureaucratic hurdles

He said the government had launched a "war" on civil society in China, limiting the activities of any organisation not controlled by its officials.

It is a charge the government has declined to comment on. The Ministry of Civil Affairs did not want to talk to the BBC about the issue.

Aizhixing - which stands for love, knowledge and action - was set up in 1994 to help vulnerable groups get access to services, such as healthcare.

It also offers legal advice, carries out research and organises programmes such as the one in Dongdan park, which is mostly used by gay men.

NGOs have been allowed to develop in China by a government that appears to recognise their positive role.

I believe the Chinese government is now launching a war against independent social forces
Activist Wan Yanhai

But they are still sometimes viewed with suspicion by the ruling Communist Party, which likes to be in ultimate control of many aspects of life in China.

Aizhixing officials said the pressure had been stepped up in recent months.

In January the authorities stopped the NGO holding a conference, tax inspectors arrived in March and the fire department has carried out three checks of the institute's offices this year alone.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing civil groups concerns new regulations detailing how foreigners can donate money to Chinese organisations.

They were issued by the State Administration of Foreign Exchange at the end of last year.

Under the new regulations, foreign foundations can still fund Chinese groups, but they have to fulfil a long list of requirements to do so.

The fear among Chinese NGOs - particularly ones such as Aizhixing that depend on foreign money - is that this will make it difficult to receive money from abroad.

Detained twice

"It will make it very hard for us in the future, but we're trying to carry on with our work," Rayila, a project manager at Aizhixing, told the BBC in an interview at the institute's offices in west Beijing.

While she was speaking, a lawyer sat beside her, an indication of just how precarious Chinese NGOs feel their position is at the moment.

In the end, it was the lawyer, Jiang Tianyong, who decided to answer the most sensitive questions about Aizhixing's problems.

He was scathing about the Chinese government.

"If there is something the government can't do, it won't let other organisations do it because it doesn't want them getting the credit," he said.

Chess players in Dongdan park
Condoms and chess are both available in Dongdan park

Wan Yanhai, the founder of Aizhixing now living temporarily in Philadelphia, went further.

"I believe the Chinese government is now launching a war against independent social forces, including the internet, NGOs, human rights lawyers, religious groups and many others," he said.

Mr Wan, who has been detained by the authorities twice before, said he fled China because he felt threatened.

He and his wife already had a one-year multiple-entry visa for the United States, but they needed one for their daughter.

They decided to apply for her visa at the US consulate in Guangzhou, in southern China, and wait for it to come through in Hong Kong. They then flew to the US.

"Here you feel more relaxed and become yourself. I have my freedom," he said by telephone from his new home.

Mr Wan is still trying to help run Aizhixing from the US, but he has no plans to come back to China in the near future.

His colleagues back in Beijing get on as best they can without him, including those in Dongdan park, who continue to hand out condoms and advice.

"This country's not like America or other places where gay people can even get married," said one man who took two packets of condoms from a Aizhixing volunteer.

"China doesn't recognise such marriages - and won't tolerate us openly. That's why we won't go to the government for help."

Unfortunately, if Aizhixing cannot secure future funding, it might have to end projects like the one in the park, and leave those it helps to fend for themselves.

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