Exiled heroes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 December, 2009, 12:00am

It is a sad commentary on China that a distinguished 81-year-old retired physician who has been honoured overseas as well as in her own country should feel the need to leave the land of her birth and possibly end her days in a foreign country. Yet, Dr Gao Yaojie, a gynaecologist turned Aids activist, has just announced that she is in that predicament. Gao, who had already retired when she was asked in 1996 to see a patient with a mysterious ailment, has since then dedicated her life to fighting the spread of Aids on the mainland.

She discovered that the 42-year-old woman had Aids, and had contracted it through a blood transfusion. She found out that poor farmers in Henan province were selling their blood, which was then pooled. After the plasma had been extracted and sold to pharmaceutical companies, the mixed blood was then transfused back to donors.

Provincial officials were embarrassed by her exposure of what was going on and attempted to silence her. She was denied permission to leave China to receive awards, such as the Jonathan Mann Award for Health and Human Rights as well as the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service.

It was only after the intervention of then-senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, now US secretary of state, that she was allowed in 2007 to go to the United States to receive the Global Women's Leadership Award for Human Rights.

She has been called an Asian hero and 'Grandmother Courage' by Time magazine, and was commended by Kofi Annan when he was UN secretary general.

By all rights, she should have been treated by China as a national treasure. And yet, although she was honoured by CCTV as one of 'Ten People Who Touched China' in 2003, she has also been subjected to house arrest, intimidation and political persecution.

Now in the US, she evidently feels she cannot afford to return home because, as she said: 'If I go back to China, I risk my life.'

Political activists are routinely persecuted on the mainland but it was the plight of Tan Zuoren , who compiled a list of schoolchildren killed in the Sichuan earthquake, that proved to be the final straw for her. Tan was put on trial and charged with subversion of state power and harming the reputation of the state and the Communist Party. During his trial, other activists - including the well-known architect Ai Weiwei, who participated in designing the Beijing Olympics National Stadium - were beaten up by police and prevented from testifying.

'Look what they did to Tan Zuoren,' said Gao. 'After his detention, we are all more cautious. I'm not afraid of obstacles, but I have yet to publish a book that tells the truth about Aids in China.'

China is fortunate to have so many dedicated, idealistic and talented people who care more for their country than for their own welfare. And yet it appears that, instead of treasuring them, the government subjects them to beatings, arrests, detention and, all too often, imprisonment.

If the party would only put the people's interests above its own, it would realise that Gao and her fellow activists are precious assets, to be valued and protected, not persecuted. Such people should be listened to and respected. Instead, it seems, the central government almost always sides with provincial officials who find local activists an embarrassment. So far, no Henan official has been publicly reprimanded for the Aids disaster in the province.

And even though the government in 1998 adopted the Blood Donation Law, making the practice of selling blood illegal, it continues underground, according to Gao. 'I know my days are numbered,' she was quoted as saying. 'I could be buried on foreign soil. But I have no choice if I want to say what happens to the sick in China and how the HIV virus really spread.'

Such dedication is to be admired. Gao, and countless others like her, deserve better than exile from their homeland merely for wanting to do the right thing.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator