Tributes to Pioneering Public Health Advocate and AIDS Whistleblower Dr. Gao Yaojie

Retired gynecologist and public health advocate Dr. Gao Yaojie (高耀洁, Gāo Yàojié), who exposed the role of government-approved blood-selling schemes in fueling China’s rural AIDS epidemic, died of natural causes in New York on December 10 (International Human Rights Day). She was 95 years old.

In the mid-1990s, Dr. Gao was one of the first doctors to make the connection between the then-mysterious disease killing farmers in Henan province and the unsanitary blood collection stations that were being promoted by local governments as a way to drum up cash via a “blood plasma economy.” As local authorities attempted to cover up the scandal and simply ignored the many villagers dying of AIDS, Gao continued to speak out, and even used her pension to purchase medicine and supplies for those who fell ill. Experts estimate that at least one million farmers in Henan alone may have contracted HIV as a result of the blood trade.

Despite receiving both Chinese and international accolades for her work in promoting public health and reducing the stigma of HIV and AIDS, the doctor who some have called “the nation’s conscience” was forced to flee to the U.S. in 2009 after years of government harassment and intermittent house arrest in China. In the years that followed, Dr. Gao continued her work by answering letters and keeping up an active correspondence, publishing writings and memoirs, and fundraising and organizing deliveries of supplies and medications for AIDS patients and orphans in China—often with the help of young Chinese volunteers who assisted Dr. Gao as her sight and hearing worsened.

The New York Times’ Chris Buckley provided an extensive history of Dr. Gao’s life and work, from her birth in Shandong in 1927, her persecution during the Cultural Revolution, her key role in unearthing and publicizing the AIDS epidemic, to her final years in exile in the U.S.:

“Gao Yaojie was crucial, because she saw what was happening in the villages and kept talking and talking about it,” Zhang Jicheng, a former journalist from Henan who was among the earliest to report on the AIDS outbreak there, said in an interview. “Many people didn’t understand why she did it, but she’d already been through so much that she wasn’t afraid.”

[…] But Dr. Gao’s growing prominence bothered other Chinese officials, who regarded her as an embarrassment to them, especially when she refused to stop her campaigning. Henan officials tried to prevent her from traveling to the United States in 2007 to collect an award, only to be overruled by Ms. Wu, the vice premier.

Dr. Gao moved to the United States in 2009 and began giving talks and writing books about her experiences. Her skepticism about promoting condoms to prevent the spread of H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases irritated many AIDS experts.

But the reservoir of respect for her led even critics of her views on preventing AIDS to regard her with affection.

[…] In Dr. Gao’s final years, in a West Harlem apartment, a group of Chinese students helped keep her company and edited her writings. She never returned to Henan, but she said she wanted her ashes to be taken there and scattered on the Yellow River. [Source]

Meaghan Tobin of The Washington Post described Dr. Gao’s many accomplishments, trials and tribulations, and the legacy she leaves behind:

“I am not afraid of death,” [Dr. Gao Yaojie] wrote in a 2020 essay. “What I am afraid of is that the real information on the AIDS epidemic in China will be forgotten.”

Chinese social media was awash with posts mourning Gao on Monday.

Some likened her to other whistleblowing doctors who refused to stay silent, including Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who died within weeks of spreading the news about the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.

[…] Lin Shiyu, who cared for Gao early in her time in the United States and wrote a book about her life, said that, with the doctor’s passing, “we have lost a kind grandmother and a ballast stone of the nation.” [Source]

Although Gao Yaojie’s death was not reported by Chinese state media, there has been an outpouring of tributes to Dr. Gao on Chinese social media, with many comparing her to widely admired whistleblowing physicians such as Dr. Li Wenliang (1986-2020), who was reprimanded for alerting the public to the emerging coronavirus pandemic in 2020, and Dr. Jiang Yanyong (1931-2023), who publicized the government coverup of the SARS outbreak in 2003. CDT has archived a number of past and present Chinese-language articles about Dr. Gao, including photo essays, numerous personal stories and remembrances from those who knew her well, and excerpts from Dr. Gao’s published works.

In the article Three Doctors,” WeChat blogger 敏敏郡主 (Mǐn Mǐn Jùnzhǔ, “Princess Min Min”) pays tribute to Dr. Gao and the two other truth-telling Chinese physicians:

The reason I’m writing about these three doctors [Drs. Gao, Li, and Jiang] in today’s article is because all of them spoke the truth at certain critical junctures.

[…] Dr. Gao Yaojie said, “I think it’s acceptable for a person to remain silent, but it is absolutely unacceptable to lie.”

Dr. Jiang Yanyong said, “Although it can be exceedingly difficult to speak the truth and to say what one really feels, I will persist in telling the truth. It is far easier to spout falsehoods and mouth empty platitudes, but I am determined never to lie.”

Dr. Li Wenliang left us these words of caution: “There should be more than one voice in a healthy society.”

There are no superheroes in this world, just ordinary people willing to take a stand. Gao Yaojie, Jiang Yanyong, and Li Wenliang are three such ordinary heroes who once illuminated our world with their decency and integrity. [Chinese]

Veteran journalist and current-affairs blogger Zhang Feng penned a powerful WeChat essay expressing his personal gratitude to Dr. Gao for the many lives she saved due to her indefatigable advocacy and willingness to speak truth to power:

Some people go to blood banks to sell blood because they need money for their children’s tuition fees. When my brother and I were both in college, there were two years when we couldn’t afford to pay our tuition. If it hadn’t been for Dr. Gao’s tireless campaigning that made [those unhygienic] “blood-donation stations” a thing of the past, my dad might have taken that path and gone to sell his blood.

My point is that everyone in Henan, at least, ought to remember Dr. Gao, because her efforts reduced suffering to some extent, the kind of suffering that hits close to home for all Henanese—and that’s not mere rhetoric, but a statement of fact.

The blood-borne transmission of AIDS in Henan was the biggest local disaster since the so-called “three years of natural disasters” [the Great Famine of 1959-1961]. Henan should place a bronze statue of Dr. Gao in [the provincial capital of] Zhengzhou to commemorate her for eternity, and also to remind us about those who once thwarted and persecuted her. [Chinese]

Current-affairs and popular-science blogger Xiang Dongliang published a WeChat article praising Dr. Gao for her integrity and courage. He notes that her greatest contribution was her willingness to “air China’s dirty laundry in public,” an approach for which she was much criticized, but which helped put an end to dangerous blood-retransfusion practices and allowed those suffering from AIDS to receive desperately needed domestic and international assistance and medical care:

All too often, those who insist that “a family’s dirty laundry should not be aired in public” do not intend to solve the problem behind closed doors. They prefer to simply punish the person or persons who pointed out the problem, because it seems the easiest and least-costly “solution,” at least in the short term.

What befell Dr. Gao Yaojie is a typical example of this brand of lazy political thinking. Although the truth about those blood-selling “AIDS villages” was as clear as day, local governments refused to admit that blood transmission was the primary vector for the spread of AIDS in their communities, nor would they accept responsibility for the lack of oversight and chaotic management of blood donation stations and the sale of blood products. They just wanted Gao Yaojie to shut up.

To prevent Gao Yaojie from going abroad to receive an award and speak out publicly, they even threatened her relatives into submission.

Pushed into a desperate situation, Dr. Gao Yaojie was left with no other choice but to emigrate abroad and sever ties with her closest relatives, her own flesh and blood. In the end, this tireless advocate for the well-being of hundreds of millions of her countrymen and women ended up dying alone and far from home. 

[…] And so I dedicate this article to Dr. Gao Yaojie, for whose integrity and courage I hold the highest respect. [Chinese]

Many ordinary citizens wishing to commemorate Dr. Gao also left messages on Li Wenliang’s Wailing Wall, the comments section under Dr. Li’s final Weibo post:

岁月如刀L: Dr. Gao Yaojie—who was honored as one of 2003’s “Ten People Who Touched China,” alongside [pulmonologist] Dr. Zhong Nanshan, [astronaut] Yang Liwei, and others—passed away in the United States.

水底的自留地: Dr. Li, after seeing the news about Gao Yaojie’s death, I thought of you. Both of you were whistleblowers, and had a deep and abiding love for this country.

雪野Zhu: Dr. Li, Dr. Gao Yaojie is in heaven now, too. You must know her, right? But studying medicine won’t save the Chinese people. [From a quote attributed to Lu Xun.] [Chinese]

A WeChat photo essay from 理想国imaginist (lǐxiǎngguó imaginist, “Utopian Imaginist”) draws a parallel between Dr. Gao’s enduring legacy and the asteroid that was named after her

On April 20, 2007, the International Astronomical Union named asteroid 38980 after Gao Yaojie. […] Her kindness and persistence are much like that asteroid. Even when we cannot see her light amidst the darkness, it will always be there to illuminate future generations. [Chinese]

CDT’s Wailing Wall archive (Chinese and English), and the Weibo comments above, compiled by Tony Hu.


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