BEIJING -- At first glance, Wan Yanhai hardly seems the type to be on the cutting edge of social change in China.
The 32-year-old's office is a small teahouse in downtown Beijing, his filing system is an overstuffed briefcase, and the closest he gets to the information superhighway is an old beeper. But his shoestring operation gives him the freedom to research gay health issues, a job that would be impossible in China if he had a big office and a big budget.
Although not supported by the government -- indeed, he is sometimes harassed by the police -- Mr. Wan is relatively free to study and pursue his other interest -- helping China's fledgling gay movement to organize itself.
"Their attitude toward us now is not to bother us," Mr. Wan said. " 'Ignore and don't ask,' that's their attitude."
That is a sharp change from several years ago, when homosexuality was considered a disease and independent scholars were singled out as responsible for instigating anti-government demonstrations. Now, as China's opening to the outside world continues and its society becomes more complex, people such as Mr. Wan are forming interest groups and working on sensitive topics that the government has given up trying to control.
China's homosexuals have not gone as far as lobbying the government for a change in laws -- such as allowing gays to serve in the military or legalizing homosexual marriages -- but Mr. Wan and a loose network of about 50 other gay activists in Beijing have made headway on several projects.
Their work includes handing out literature on AIDS prevention, counseling gays who meet in parks, conducting opinion polls and writing up their research for health publications.
With help from the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which provided a $10,000 grant last year, the research is providing the first glimpses into China's gay population and its health needs.
Never strictly illegal in China, homosexuality has always been taboo, said Liu Dalin, a Shanghai-based sexologist. In traditional literature, which is full of references to male and female homosexuality, it was sometimes viewed as harmless unless it interferred with one's duty to have a family, Dr. Liu said.
"You can never find laws or proclamations that homosexuality is illegal. But no law has ever said it's legal, either, so homosexuals have always occupied a gray area," Dr. Liu said.
After the Communist takeover of China in 1949, homosexuals -- and anyone else not engaged in a prescribed range of government-sanctioned activities -- were persecuted. Stories are told of homosexuals being murdered during the Cultural Revolution, a 10-year period of chaos and stringent conformity that ended in 1976.
Today, shame still keeps most homosexuals in the closet, Mr. Wan said. It also encourages ignorance of health risks. Condom use is reported by about 5 percent of gays, according to one of his surveys.
Partly as a result of such behavior, the official number of carriers of the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, has reached 1,774, and independent experts believe the real number to be higher than 10,000.
Despite the size of the AIDS problem, the government has moved slowly to promote awareness of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Mr. Wan's former employer, the Health Ministry's National Health Education Institute, has little money for advertising and does almost no social work among gays.
As Mr. Wan sees it, this leaves an opening for his group's work. He makes regular visits to the main gathering site for Beijing's gays, Dongdan Park, and to discos that gays frequent. He distributes information and counsels gays.
The government's -- and perhaps society's -- ambivalent attitude toward his work is reflected in the harassment he still suffers. He was temporarily detained on last year's world AIDS awareness day for distributing leaflets about AIDS. A hot line he started was shut down after authorities said it encouraged immorality.
But Mr. Wan and others press on with their research. A fellow gay activist, Gary Wu, has surveyed gays in 15 cities and plans to expand his survey base to 30 cities.
"The basic conclusion I found is that they are extremely nervous and under a lot of pressure. They'd like an organization to represent them, or a dignified place to meet other than in parks, discos and toilets," Mr. Wu said.
Still barely researched is the world of Chinese lesbians, said Li Yinghe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. A Chinese newspaper carried a report last year about widespread lesbianism in Chinese prisons, but no lesbian organizations have been formed, Dr. Li said, perhaps because lesbians are not directly threatened with a problem such as AIDS.
"In general, the government is worried about homosexual organizations because China is a weak society," said Dr. Li, who has written a book, "Their World," on male homosexuality in China. "Officials are worried that gays will start demonstrating and that this will start a chain reaction leading to chaos."
Although violent change of Chinese society seems unlikely, gay organizations could be the start of a more profound development, something scholars call "civil society." The term is borrowed from the experience under communism in Eastern Europe, where independent organizations, such as trade unions and religious groups, helped undermine the Communist governments' control over daily life and led to their demise a few years ago.
Few sociologists think gay groups or other signs of civil society in China -- semi-independent chambers of commerce or underground religious groups -- are as well-organized or independent as their Eastern European counterparts of 10 years ago. But they are a sign that China is an increasingly diverse and complicated place, where the Communist Party has decided to give up trying to control everything.