Gao Yaojie, Chinese physician and AIDS activist, 1927-2023

Gao Yaojie, Chinese physician and AIDS activist, 1927-2023

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The life of Gao Yaojie, the Chinese whistleblower who exposed official complicity behind the AIDS epidemic, has revealed the personal costs that public-spirited heroism can take in the People’s Republic of China. The activist died in exile in New York this week at the age of 95.

The AIDS outbreak that I helped highlight from 1996 onwards arose from a “blood economy” in dozens of villages in the impoverished province of Henan, northern China. This predatory trade has involved farmers seeking to supplement their meager incomes by selling blood – sometimes twice a day – at counters run by either local health authorities or illegal “blood dealers” eager to cash in on China’s growing demand for plasma.

As a cost-cutting measure, pooled blood was often pooled at a central collection point, where several blood samples were mixed in the same centrifuge. After the plasma is extracted, the remaining blood is then transferred back to the donors so they can recover and donate more. Once the centrifuges, syringes and needles were contaminated with HIV, the disease quickly spread among the local population.

Local governments in Henan supported this trade not only by licensing collection points but also through propaganda efforts. Testifying before a US Congressional committee in 2009, Gao said posters with slogans such as “Honoring Blood Donors: Healing the Wounded, Saving the Dead” were pasted on the walls of hospitals in Henan. Like water in a well. The amount remains the same no matter how much you donate. Donating blood is like replacing old blood with new blood. She added in her testimony: It is beneficial for metabolism.

Gao, who was in her 70s, was treating a patient in Henan.  She was regularly expelled from villages by authorities who denied there was any problem with
Gao, who was in her 70s, was treating a patient in Henan. She was regularly expelled from villages by authorities who denied that there was any problem with the “blood economy.” © STR/AFP/Getty Images

Estimates of the scale of the epidemic in Henan vary widely. Official data in 2004 put the number of people infected with HIV in China at 840,000, but Wan Yanhai, a former Ministry of Health official and AIDS activist, estimated in 2002 that in Henan Province alone there were about three Millions are infected with HIV.

Gao, a doctor who graduated in gynecology from Henan University College of Medicine in 1953, was nearly 70 years old when she embarked on her mission as an anti-AIDS activist. This was motivated by the human tragedies she witnessed in Henan’s villages, and the deep distrust of officials resulting from the hardships she herself experienced.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) she was beaten and paraded through the streets wearing “a papier-mache hat on my head, and took off my shoes and hung them around my neck and…”. . Forced to walk barefoot.” This ritual humiliation was her punishment for being the daughter of a former landowner – a class that Chairman Mao Zedong had denigrated as “followers of the capitalist road.” She attempted suicide after that ordeal by swallowing 30 tablets of the anesthetic chlorpromazine. “I will never forget that day, August 26, 1966,” she wrote in her book. Zhao Yaoji’s soul.

“It was my children’s cries of pain that woke me up,” she wrote in the Chinese version of her book: “I heard the cries vaguely for the first time, and I struggled to open my eyes, and I saw my three children gathered around the bed, each crying, This one calling for my mother, this one calling My Mother.” The book was translated by David Couhig, an independent researcher.

Gao shows off a book she wrote about AIDS in China, during an interview in Beijing in 2007. She moved to the United States in 2009 and never returned to her homeland.
Gao shows off a book she wrote about AIDS in China, during an interview in Beijing in 2007. She moved to the United States in 2009 and never returned to her homeland. © Greg Baker/AP

Such traumatic experiences inspired a pledge to live and help others. She delivered food, clothing, and medications to patients in “AIDS Villages” and personally financed the printing of about 670,000 public information leaflets and subsequently helped distribute them. However, her outspoken criticism of local government officials in Henan for promoting a “blood economy” and covering up the scale of the epidemic has made her increasingly unpopular in Beijing. In Henan, the authorities regularly expelled her from villages, denying that there was any problem.

In 2001, the government refused to issue her a passport to go to the United States to accept an award from a United Nations group. In 2007, 50 police surrounded her home in Henan Province for about 20 days to prevent her from traveling to Beijing to obtain a visa to receive another award from then US Senator Hillary Clinton. They later relented and Gao made the trip. In 2019, Clinton called Gao “simply one of the bravest people I know.”

After her final exile to the United States in 2009, Zhao lived in New York. She never returned to China, and grew somewhat estranged from her three children. But in her “end of life statement” in 2016, she said she wanted to be cremated and her ashes scattered “in the Yellow River as soon as possible after my death, without any ceremony of any kind.” The Yellow River runs for several miles through Henan Province.

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