U.S. News

Freed China AIDS activist off to U.S

BEIJING (Reuters) - A 79-year-old prominent Chinese AIDS activist is to fly to the United States as early as Sunday to receive a human rights award after she was freed from house arrest thanks to U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Prominent Chinese AIDS activist Gao Yaojie, 79, gestures during an interview in Beijing February 24, 2007. Gao is to fly to the United States as early as Sunday to receive a human rights award after she was freed from house arrest thanks to U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Picture taken February 24, 2007. REUTERS/Benjamin Kang Lim

Gao Yaojie is to receive the Vital Voices Global Women’s Leadership Award for Human Rights in Washington in March for helping bring to light official complicity in the spread of AIDS in her home province Henan in central China, where thousands of poor farmers sold blood in the 1990s and have been infected.

To prevent her from going and embarrassing China, police in Zhengzhou, provincial capital of Henan, placed Gao under house arrest on February 1. The move sparked an international outcry.

Henan authorities relented and freed her on February 16, days after Clinton, a Democratic presidential-hopeful, wrote to Chinese President Hu Jintao and Vice Premier Wu Yi, urging them to intervene and let Gao leave for the United States.

“World pressure was too heavy. Henan was ordered by the central government (to let me go) because China did not want relations with the United States to become too tense,” the retired gynaecologist told Reuters in her Beijing hotel room.

A vice health minister paid Gao a courtesy call last week to extend the vice premier’s greetings, a sign of a change of heart.

But fellow AIDS activist Hu Jia declined to reveal Gao’s departure details in case the authorities decide to change their mind about letting her go. She plans to return in late March.


In 2001, Gao was barred from leaving China to collect the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights. Two years later, Chinese authorities prevented her from visiting Manila to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service.

Asked why provincial authorities initially barred her from leaving, Gao said: “They’re afraid I would expose the truth.

“Blood transfusions fueled the spread of AIDS, not sexual transmission as they claim,” Gao said.

Gao was among the first to expose a scandal in Henan in which people sold blood to unsanitary, often state-run health clinics, making the province the center of China’s AIDS epidemic. No senior official has been prosecuted or publicly punished.

Blood-selling schemes have been banned in Henan but are not uncommon in the southwestern provinces of Sichuan and Guizhou, southern Guangxi, eastern Anhui and northern Hebei.

As of October, China had officially recorded 183,733 cases of HIV, including 12,464 already dead. But many people at risk are not tested, and some experts fear the real number is much higher.

Henan health authorities have asked Gao to water down her story when she speaks during her U.S. visit, but she was adamant.

For a woman whose feet were bound -- according to ancient custom -- when she was 5 until 11, Gao has come a long way.

Gao, who speaks Chinese with the heavy burr of Henan, is well-known in China and received warm local media coverage until her unflinching criticism became too much.

She wrote books and material warning people of the risks of blood-selling, making her a target of local authorities fearful of the social stigma and political sensitivity surrounding


Gao has also helped 164 AIDS orphans find new homes.

The prestige has come at a price. Her son and a brother begged her not to go, ostensibly due to official pressure.

“I have mixed feelings. I don’t know how they will treat me after my return,” she said. “I’m better off dead than alive. If I’m dead, everything will be fine,” said Gao, who was purged and attempted suicide during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.