HONG KONG—A leading Chinese AIDS activist fled her homeland to publish research about a growing epidemic there, she said in an interview.
Gao Yaojie, 82 and a retired gynecologist and medical professor, fled China in August and is currently writing books in the United States to expose what she calls “the truth” about AIDS in her home country.
“All my books on AIDS suffered the same fate in China. Now that I can freely express myself, I changed the original name to China’s AIDS Plague,” Gao said.
“The book is a revised edition of my 2004 book 10,000 Letters: The Current Condition of AIDS and STD Patients I Have Surveyed. When that book was published [in China], all the harsh criticism of the government was deleted, which made the editor cry,” she said.
Gao now plans to write two more books on how AIDS has spread in China and how authorities at different levels are trying to conceal it.
“I am still alive today, owing to my resolution to finish the writing of three books on AIDS in China. Fortunately, one of them has already been published and is about to be sold soon,” she said.
China’s AIDS Plague: 10,000 Letters was published by the Kai Fang Publishing Co. in Hong Kong.
Escape from China
Until May, Gao lived in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province in central China.
When her telephone was cut off by police, she said, “I knew this was my last chance to go.”
She said she felt compelled to continue writing China’s AIDS Plague, even as she traveled.
“I left Zhengzhou for Beijing, and eventually arrived in Guangdong by train after a visit to Chengdu. I spent a month in rural Guangdong and was helped by several local youths in writing the book,” Gao said.
With the help of the Texas-based Chinese rights watchdog China Aid Association, Gao secretly left China in August.
Though she had spent many years under house arrest or close surveillance, she had never thought of leaving China before, she said.
But Gao said that when she read of the arrest of rights activist Tan Zuoren in March following his work helping the families of earthquake victims in southern Sichuan province, she believed she was no longer safe.
“It seemed to me that my influence was larger than his and I might be next. I had to go abroad to concentrate on writing my AIDS books,” she said.
Disputing official claim
Gao said she was targeted because she disputed the official claim that the major causes of HIV transmission in China are drug use and sexual contact.
Instead, she attributes transmission in China mainly to blood transfusions.
“I visited so many provinces, cities, and counties, and met with thousands of AIDS patients. But I never saw a drug user and found that sexually transmitted cases accounted for less than 10 percent,” Gao said.
“There is a 100 percent certainty that transmission is occurring through blood transfusions,” she said.
The activist urged the Chinese government to seriously face the AIDS epidemic and warned against artificially lowering official statistics to cover up the problem.
She also called on authorities to launch a campaign to eliminate discrimination against patients with HIV/AIDS.
“In the future, if not properly tackled, the AIDS peril in China will be as disastrous as civil war or famine,” she said.
Life of service
Gao is well known for her writings, as well as for her visits to educate villages about HIV/AIDS prevention and work on behalf of the many children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic in Henan province.
Known as the “Number One AIDS activist in China,” Gao began her work to combat the epidemic in 1996 when she was already 69.
In 2001, Gao was awarded the Jonathan Mann Award for Health and Human Rights, and in 2003 she was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in Manila, Philippines.
In both instances she was denied permission to travel outside China to accept the awards.
In 2003, Gao was designated one of the 10 People Who Touched China in 2003 by the official China Central Television.
In September 2007, the New York Academy of Sciences gave her the Heinz R. Pagels Human Rights of Scientists Award.
In an interview during a 2007 trip to Washington, she
expressed concern that Chinese authorities would target her for
criticizing the official handling of the AIDS epidemic.
"I am very concerned that the authorities will find new ways to keep me down, when I return," she said.
"The trouble is that what happens in Beijing is very different from what happens in the localities. In local government, all they want to do is pay lip service to AIDS prevention.They don't want to actually do anything about it."
Original reporting by Zhang Min for RFA’s Mandarin service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated by Ping Chen. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.