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Whistleblower Spotlight: Chinese Rural AIDS Activist Gao Yaojie

Posted  December 13, 2023

Gao Yaojie, a Chinese doctor who relentlessly fought to expose an AIDS epidemic in rural China in the 1990s died on Sunday at her home in New York City.   Gao was a pioneer, studying medicine at a local university in her home province of Henan, China.  She graduated in 1953 and went on to specialize in women’s health.  Gao spent much of her time on the road treating patients in remote villages and came face to face with her first patient with HIV in 1996, a woman who had been infected during a blood transfusion.  Spurred to investigate, Gao subsequently learned that a blood collection program that was sanctioned by the government and impacted largely poor farmers in rural China was the nucleus of the AIDS epidemic, and that the government was trying to conceal the crisis.

According to the New York Times, “hundreds of unscrupulous blood stations … were buying blood from villagers using methods almost guaranteed to spread infections.”  Poor farmers looking to supplement their incomes would sell their blood, and the stations would extract “valuable plasma” and then pool the leftover blood which would be transfused back into other villagers in need.  Reused needles and mixed donors’ blood, amongst other unsanitary conditions, caused rapid spread of the H.I.V. virus and other infectious diseases.  Gao worked to educate people about the spread of H.I.V. and AIDS, combing the villages to advise people about the risks and delivering aid to villagers.  She was vocal about the crisis throughout the late 90’s, pressing local media to report on the crisis, educating the villagers, and ultimately angering Chinese Communist Party officials who repeatedly tried to silence her.   By the early 2000’s, the AIDS epidemic in rural China could not be ignored and Gao was being recognized internationally for her persistent efforts to educate the world about what was taking place.   The Chinese government grew angry and embarrassed and in 2001, refused to issue her a passport to accept an award for her work by the United Nations in New York.  By 2007, Time Magazine reported, the government was still trying to silence her and put under house arrest for 20 days to attempt to prevent her from getting a Visa to leave the country. Gao was in her 70’s by then and undeterred.

Gao was no stranger to suffering, and her personal history gave her the strength to speak out and expose the cover-up she saw occurring in her province.  Gao was born in 1927 in the Shangdong province in a time of political turbulence. The Chinese Civil War had just begun, which would bring Mao Zedong and the Communist Party to power after years of deadly conflict. She survived the Great Chinese Famine and beatings from Maoist red guards during the Cultural Revolution, which resulted in lifelong stomach damage, according to the Washington Post. These hardships fueled her bravery and determination to save lives.

In 2009, after years of house arrest, Gao fled to New York, where she continued lobbying for those affected by AIDS. Thousands of miles from home she was considered a hero, and a group of young Chinese students frequented her apartment to keep her company. In a conversation with Chinese filmmakers, Gao said, “My driving thought is: how can I save more people from dying of this disease? We each only live one life.” The outspoken bravery of selfless whistleblowers like Gao Yaojie saves lives every day and reminds us of the import of speaking up when we see injustice.

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