Exposing the AIDS Epidemic and Living in Self-Exile
Dr. Gao Yaojie, a prominent Chinese doctor and activist known for her role in exposing the AIDS virus epidemic in rural China in the 1990s, passed away on Sunday at the age of 95 at her home in the United States. Dr. Gao’s courageous efforts to bring attention to the virus outbreak, which was estimated to have infected tens of thousands, brought embarrassment to the Chinese government and forced her to live in self-exile for over a decade in Manhattan, New York.
A Legacy of Activism and Government Pressure
Confirmation of Dr. Gao’s death came from Columbia University professor Andrew J. Nathan, who had her legal power of attorney and managed some of her affairs. Dr. Gao became China’s most renowned AIDS activist after speaking out against blood-selling schemes that resulted in thousands of HIV infections, particularly in her home province of Henan in central China. Although her contributions were begrudgingly acknowledged by the Chinese government, she faced significant pressure and opposition.
Recognition and Relocation
Dr. Gao’s work received recognition from international organizations and officials. In 2009, she moved to the United States where she continued to advocate for AIDS awareness through talks and books about her experiences. In a previous interview, Dr. Gao expressed her determination to withstand government pressure, stating that “everyone has the responsibility to help their own people. As a doctor, that’s my job. So it’s worth it.” She firmly believed that Chinese officials should confront the reality of the AIDS crisis instead of attempting to cover it up.
Uncovering a Catastrophic Method
As a roving gynecologist, Dr. Gao frequently traveled to remote villages, providing medical care to patients. It was in 1996 that she encountered her first HIV patient, a woman who had contracted the virus through a transfusion during an operation. Dr. Gao discovered that local blood banks were using unsanitary needles and pooling leftover blood for future transfusions, which greatly contributed to the spread of viruses like HIV. Although no national survey was conducted at the time, it is estimated that tens of thousands were infected.
A Life of Sacrifice and Opposition
Dr. Gao went above and beyond to deliver food, clothes, and medicine to ailing villagers affected by the AIDS epidemic. Her outspokenness captured the attention of local media and ignited the anger of local governments that supported the reckless blood banks. Officials repeatedly attempted to prevent her from traveling abroad, where she was being celebrated for her work.
International Recognition and Personal Struggles
Despite facing numerous obstacles, Dr. Gao’s efforts were recognized by international organizations and received awards. However, the Chinese government consistently obstructed her travel plans. In 2001, she was denied a passport to attend an award ceremony held by a United Nations group in the U.S. In 2007, Henan officials placed her under house arrest for nearly three weeks to prevent her from obtaining a U.S. visa to receive another award. Eventually, the central government overruled these actions, allowing Dr. Gao to leave China.
A Remarkable Life and Legacy
Gao Yaojie was born on December 19, 1927, in the eastern Shandong province of China. Growing up during a tumultuous period, including a Japanese invasion and a civil war, she pursued medicine at a local university in Henan. Throughout the Cultural Revolution, she faced persecution from Maoist “red guards” due to her family’s previous social status. Dr. Gao remained critical of Mao even in her later years.
Remembering Dr. Gao Yaojie
Following news of her passing, Chinese social media platforms were filled with messages of condolences. While some individuals criticized her decision to move to the U.S. and her stance against the Chinese government, many recognized her unwavering dedication to AIDS patients and praised her as a person of conscience.
Mistreanu reported from Taipei, Taiwan. Associated Press researcher Wanqing Chen and writer Ken Moritsugu in Beijing contributed to this report.