China From the Inside

Power and the People
Women of the Country
- Program Description
- Opinion: Population
- In Depth: Activists
- Discussion
- Related Links
Shifting Nature
Freedom and Justice
Interactive Map
China-U.S. Quiz
About the Series
Behind the Scenes
For Educators

Gallery of Women Activists
Dai Qing: Journalist-turned-environmentalist Hou Wenzhuo: Human rights activist Wu Qing: Champion of people's rights Xie Lihua: Advocate for rural women Dr. Gao Yaojie: AIDS education activist Nominate another female Chinese activist

Dr. Gao Yaojie

AIDS education activist

Dr. Gao Yaojie

Dr. Gao Yaojie, a former gynecologist now in her eighties, came out of retirement in 1996 when she was asked to help diagnose a woman whose case stymied other doctors but who Gao realized had AIDS.

But it wasn't just that Gao could spot AIDS before many of her colleagues could -- she also discovered that AIDS was spreading due to unsafe blood collection and transfusion practices, and that local government and businesses benefiting from the trade in blood had instigated a cover up. Thousands were unnecessarily infected, and in certain central Chinese villages where poor farmers supplemented their income by selling their blood to illegal blood banks, as many as 65 percent of the villagers became infected with HIV. Victims in these "AIDS villages" were given neither compensation nor medical assistance, and they left behind orphans when they died. Journalists and doctors were banned from investigating the crisis. By the time the government ultimately recognized the problem, an estimated 65,000 people had contracted AIDS from blood-selling -- a figure activists like Gao believe could be much higher.

News Update:
On February 1, 2007, the Chinese authorities placed 79 year old Dr. Gao Yaojie under house arrest and cut her phone off. Friends report she was preparing to leave for the U.S. to attend a prominent event where she would receive an award from a nonprofit group promoting empowerment of women and girls. Similarly, in 2001 she was blocked from attending another international award ceremony recognizing her work on AIDS.

Gao, a plucky and outspoken woman who survived persecution during the Cultural Revolution, launched a one-woman AIDS education program. She produced leaflets, paid for with her own money, and she visited AIDS villages to distribute medicine and arrange for the adoption of orphans.

Even now, years after the central government finally acknowledged that blood selling was a problem, Gao is still sometimes persona non grata: she told China from the Inside that in many places, villagers are rewarded with a 500 yuan prize (US $60) for reporting her presence in the area to local authorities who don't want word to spread that AIDS is in their area.

In May 2001, the Global Health Council awarded Gao a prestigious international award, the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights, but Chinese authorities forbade her to travel to Washington D.C. to accept it. By 2003, the government was acknowledging AIDS as a problem, and she was allowed to give a brief lecture at an international AIDS conference in Beijing.

Gao does not mince words when speaking about the blood-selling practices that created an epidemic: Corrupt and dishonest officials who covered up the AIDS crisis are, she says, traitors to their country: "When the Japanese controlled China, some people worked for them and said exactly what the Japanese wanted to hear. These people harmed their own nation. The people who tell lies today and those who worked for the Japanese are not really any different. Those officials who encouraged blood selling should be in prison, or even executed. Look: we've had a blood transfusion law for ten years! How can they still encourage the illegal blood trade? What are these vampires doing in power, why are they still alive?"

In addition to her 2001 award from the Global Health Council, Gao received the 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service.

NEXT: Nominate another female Chinese activist
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