This 86-year-old woman is fighting to expose the truth behind China's AIDS epidemic
A frail, 86-year-old Chinese woman living with an in-home caretaker in a tiny West Harlem apartment eats only rice and bean porridge and speaks no English, yet she has become one of the most prominent forces in the fight against AIDS. She desires the simplicity of living out the rest of her years alone and in peace. Who would have thought that her activism would make her a public enemy to the Chinese government?
In 1996, Gao Yaojie, at age 69, was a retired gynecologist. She was called out of retirement to get her advice on a troubling case. A woman in the Henan province of China, Ms. Ba, had undergone ovarian surgery, but was only getting worse. She had a bloated stomach, a high fever, and lesions on her skin. From her previous work, Gao knew that AIDS had entered the Henan province and requested that she be tested for AIDS. All the other doctors dismissed her request, citing that there were only a few cases that occurred. Gao insisted. The results came in.
Ms. Ba had AIDS. Doctors were at a loss because Ms. Ba’s husband and son tested negative for AIDS. Gao dug up more information and found that the infection came at the time of a post-surgical blood transfusion. The source of the transfusion blood happened to be the government blood bank.
Ms. Ba passed away in the next few weeks with no available treatments. Her husband slept by her tomb for weeks in mourning. With this incident branded into her memory, Gao began a crusade for the truth about the AIDS epidemic in China. Through the years, she compiled more and more frightening data by mostly traveling through rural areas and running blood tests. Villages were seeing infection rates of at least 20% and all the villagers were kept in the dark about how AIDS spread.
Gao knew the government’s dirty secret and began speaking publicly. As others rose to the occasion and inspired volunteers came to aid, her supporters gave her the nickname of “AIDS Granny.” As time passed, the government took squandering her righteous efforts to a new level. Gao was threatened, had photos of AIDS patients confiscated, and was blocked from speaking. At one point, a mayor offered a 500 yuan bounty on her head.
In 2007, Gao planned on flying to the U.S. to receive an award from the Vital Voices Global Partnership, an organization co-chaired by then senator Hillary Clinton. The Chinese government even pushed Gao’s son to plead for her not to fly out to the U.S. The government barred her from leaving, until the then U.S. ambassador to China, Vice Premier Wu Yi, the highest-ranking woman to ever serve in China’s communist party government, and Hillary Clinton used their powers to allow Gao to come to the U.S.
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In 2009, Gao’s husband passed away and she fled China and situated herself in New York. She has written and published numerous books, most of which are in Chinese about AIDS and her experiences. Though she prefers a life of solitude, she continues to write to share those stories that the Chinese government has stifled.
”In my view, one should not live simply for himself or herself but should think of others. An owl is born to eat mice, and a dragonfly is born to eat mosquitoes. Man should also be born to do something. I think everyone should pay for society, instead of gaining benefits by doing harm to the public or others,” Gao said. Spoken like a true warrior.