Feisty Aids activist cuts lonely figure in Beijing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 February, 2007, 12:00am

Gao Yaojie shrugs off family fears as she takes first step to collecting US award

For 79-year-old Gao Yaojie, the journey from Zhengzhou to Beijing yesterday was not just a one-hour flight.

It took her 20 days of virtual house arrest and a heartbreaking week to finally arrive in the capital.

Her 55-year-old son knelt and kowtowed to her on Saturday, begging her not to embark on a journey that would upset the authorities, and her brother called from Chengdu two days ago, pleading for her to pretend she was sick and cancel her US trip to receive the 2007 Vital Voices Global Women's Leadership Award for Human Rights.

She was also warned by some officials not to speak to overseas media during her trip because 'foreign journalists lied'.

With the threats still ringing in her ears and the immense pressure heaped on her relatives, the internationally renowned Aids activist was given a VIP send-off at Zhengzhou airport by senior Henan officials.

Dr Gao will make her visa application in Beijing and although her exact departure date is unknown, she will need to be in Washington DC for the award ceremony on March 14.

But Dr Gao had to fly to Beijing alone because her eldest son, a department head at a university in Henan, refused to accompany her to the capital to apply for her visa. The day after Dr Gao was told she would be able to go to the US, her son hurried to her home to kowtow - the most formal obeisance - hoping she would cancel the trip.

Her daughter, a medical practitioner, cried for an entire afternoon, but told her mother she would brace for the worst and support her.

'[My son] is under immense pressure. Not only is his work affected, even his survival is difficult,' Dr Gao said, breaking into tears every time journalists touched on the painful topic during interviews in Beijing yesterday.

So when she finally landed in Beijing with no one to help reach her bags on the revolving luggage belt at the airport, she felt more sadness than the elation that should have come with world recognition.

'I don't feel any joy and I think there will be bad consequences,' she said in Beijing yesterday. 'When my brother called me and asked me to pretend to be sick, I told him I cannot lie to the whole world.'

Dr Gao said she was anxious because her son, daughter, daughter-in-law, brother and even the editor who once published a book for her were all under of pressure.

But the feisty doctor has lived with constant stress since she set off on an odyssey 11 years ago to expose how HIV had been spread through illegal blood sales in Henan. Things became so bad that she even posted her will on her blog.

'It is so painful that I think death is better than life,' she said yesterday. 'If I am dead, then nobody can force me to lie.'

But it was still a breakthrough that international pressure had helped to persuade the central government to let her go, she said. 'It is progress. It would not have been possible 10 years ago.'

Aids activist Hu Jia said he and his wife could not bear the sight of Dr Gao staggering to catch up with the revolving belt to fetch her luggage, filled with snacks to treat her visitors, her heart and blood pressure medicine and her books to give away.

'My wife begged the security guards to let her in to help her,' Mr Hu said.

'The luggage actually moved very slowly but she was just too slow and she kept following the belt. It was quite heartbreaking to see it.'