Visiting scholar Wan Yanhai was forced to leave his home in China when his work in AIDS awareness and prevention brought negative attention from the Chinese government. Now living in the U.S., Wan’s personal experiences have opened the door for another research subject, this time looking into the dangers that result from a government targeting and monitoring at-risk populations.

Wan’s career in public health and human rights advocacy began when, as a medical student in the 1980s, he was first introduced to issues related to HIV and AIDS. In 1994, he founded the Beijing AIZHI Action Project, an organization focused on AIDS, mental health, and human rights resources that served gay and lesbian communities, ethnic minorities, sex workers, migrants, drug users, and those infected through blood transfusions.

The organization’s work soon drew attention from the government, which placed pressure on Wan until he was forced to leave China in 1997. He returned a year later, but spent the next several years traveling between Beijing and the U.S. In 2002 he was detained in China after bringing attention to a village in Henan Province where residents had been infected with HIV due to poor government oversight of blood transfusions. Wan then spent another year in the U.S., only to return to China in 2003. Most recently, Wan came back to the U.S. in 2010, after tax and fire department officials began investigating his organization.

“When you advocate for human rights, you report violations to the national media and you meet with embassy people and you get funding from outside organizations,” Wan says. “And you criticize or challenge the government. This time, the situation is changing rapidly; it’s more serious and a real risk. So we have all applied for green cards to stay in the U.S. for a longer time.”

As part of his most recent return to the U.S., Wan was selected into the Scholars at Risk Network (SAR), an international network of universities that promotes academic freedom and human rights. SAR places professors, lecturers, researchers and other intellectuals who face threats in their home countries in temporary academic positions with network universities. In return, scholars engage in teaching, research, and lecturers at their host universities, while raising awareness of current threats to academic freedom.

Through SAR, Wan was placed as a visiting scholar at the University of Richmond from April to August. During his fellowship, Wan proposes to research and write two reports on how China monitors specific populations — one looking at a variety of populations, such as mentally ill patients, religious leaders, ethnic minorities, human rights lawyers, people who are active online, terrorists, and former prisoners, and the other focused specifically on drug users. Wan aims to show how these security systems are detrimental not only to the people being monitored, but also to the government organizing such programs.

“When you monitor so many people and hear what they say, and hear so many hostile conversations, you might become even more nervous,” Wan says. “China developed these systems in theory to protect themselves, but the result could be that the system is going to harm and destroy them, just like a human immuno disease.”

Before arriving at Richmond, Wan decided to look for any existing connections to University faculty and discovered that Vincent Wang, associate professor of political science, brought a group of faculty members to visit Wan’s organization in 2007. Wan contacted him and the two have collaborated on research, and Wang made arrangements for Wan to speak for classes and student organizations about his experiences in China.

Now halfway through his placement at the University, Wan has had the freedom to pursue his research and looks forward to using the results to raise awareness about the effects of China’s security and police systems.

“I have less stress, so I can now do more work here than when I was in China,” Wan says. “I want to push people to work on human rights. I want them to understand what a democracy, and an environment that protects human rights, could look like.”