Dr. Gao Yaojie (高耀洁, Gāo Yàojié), a retired gynecologist and public health advocate, passed away in New York on December 10 (International Human Rights Day) from natural causes at the age of 95. She brought attention to the involvement of government-approved blood-selling schemes in contributing to the rural AIDS epidemic in China.
During the mid-1990s, Dr. Gao was among the first medical professionals to link the unknown illness causing fatalities among farmers in Henan province to the unhygienic blood collection centers that were being encouraged by local governments as a means of generating income through a “blood plasma economy.” Despite efforts by local officials to conceal the scandal and disregard the numerous villagers succumbing to AIDS, Gao persisted in speaking out and even utilized her own pension to procure medication and resources for those affected. Experts approximate that at least one million farmers in Henan may have contracted HIV due to the blood trade.
Despite receiving recognition from both China and other countries for her efforts in promoting public health and fighting the stigma against HIV and AIDS, the doctor known as “the nation’s conscience” was forced to flee to the United States in 2009 due to continuous harassment and occasional house arrest by the Chinese government. Despite these challenges, Dr. Gao persisted in her work by responding to letters, maintaining communication, publishing writings and memoirs, and raising funds and coordinating the distribution of supplies and medications for AIDS patients and orphans in China. She often received assistance from young Chinese volunteers as her vision and hearing deteriorated.
Chris Buckley, a writer for The New York Times, delved into the life and accomplishments of Dr. Gao. The article covers her origins in Shandong in 1927, her mistreatment during the Cultural Revolution, her significant contribution in exposing and raising awareness about the AIDS crisis, and her later years spent in exile in the United States.
Gao Yaojie played a vital role as she witnessed the events unfolding in the villages and persistently spoke out about it, according to Zhang Jicheng, a former journalist from Henan who was one of the first to report on the AIDS epidemic in the region. In an interview, he stated that many people did not comprehend her actions, but she had already endured so much that she was not afraid to speak out.
However, the increasing influence of Dr. Gao caused concern among other Chinese government officials who saw her as a source of embarrassment, particularly due to her persistent activism. In 2007, Henan officials attempted to block her trip to the U.S. to receive an award, but were overruled by Vice Premier Wu.
In 2009, Dr. Gao relocated to the United States and started sharing her personal journey through talks and books. Her doubts about promoting condom use as a means of preventing the transmission of H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases caused frustration among AIDS specialists.
However, even those who disagreed with her stance on AIDS prevention still held a great deal of admiration and fondness for her.
During her last years, Dr. Gao resided in a West Harlem apartment where she was kept company by a group of Chinese students who also assisted in editing her written works. Although she never returned to her hometown of Henan, she expressed a wish for her ashes to be scattered on the Yellow River. [Source]
Meaghan Tobin from The Washington Post wrote about Dr. Gao and her numerous achievements, challenges, and lasting impact.
In a 2020 essay, Dr. Gao Yaojie stated, “I do not fear death. My fear lies in the possibility of the true information about the AIDS crisis in China being forgotten.”
On Monday, Chinese social media was filled with messages of grief for Gao.
She was compared to other doctors who spoke out against injustice, such as Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who passed away shortly after sharing information about the coronavirus outbreak in early 2020.
According to Lin Shiyu, a caregiver to Gao during her early days in the US and author of a book about her life, the passing of the doctor means the loss of a compassionate grandmother and a stabilizing force for the country. [Source]
Despite Chinese state media not reporting Gao Yaojie’s death, there has been a flood of tributes on Chinese social media in honor of Dr. Gao. Many have compared her to respected physicians who also spoke out against government coverups, such as Dr. Li Wenliang (1986-2020) who warned about the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and Dr. Jiang Yanyong (1931-2023) who exposed the SARS outbreak in 2003. CDT has saved various Chinese-language articles about Dr. Gao, including photo essays, personal accounts from those who knew her, and excerpts from her published works.
In her post titled “Three Doctors” on WeChat, blogger 敏敏郡主 (Mǐn Mǐn Jùnzhǔ, also known as “Princess Min Min”) honors Dr. Gao and the two other Chinese doctors who bravely spoke the truth.
The motive behind discussing Drs. Gao, Li, and Jiang in this article is because each of them spoke honestly during pivotal moments.
Dr. Gao Yaojie stated that while remaining silent may be acceptable, lying is absolutely unacceptable.
Dr. Jiang Yanyong stated, “Even though it may be extremely challenging to speak honestly and express one’s true feelings, I will continue to tell the truth. It is much simpler to spread lies and use empty words, but I am committed to never deceiving.”
According to Dr. Li Wenliang, a healthy society should have multiple perspectives and opinions.
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]
Zhang Feng, an experienced journalist and blogger who writes about current events, wrote a moving essay on WeChat to thank Dr. Gao for her tireless efforts in advocating for the truth and saving countless lives.
Certain individuals visit blood donation centers to exchange their blood for money in order to cover their children’s educational expenses. During our time in university, my brother and I faced two years where we were unable to afford our tuition fees. Thanks to the determined efforts of Dr. Gao, who advocated for the closure of unsanitary blood donation centers, my father did not have to resort to selling his blood for financial aid.
My argument is that all individuals in Henan should recognize the contributions of Dr. Gao, as her actions have lessened the extent of suffering that affects all Henan residents. This is not just a rhetorical statement, but a factual one.
The spread of AIDS through the blood in Henan was the most significant tragedy in the region since the “three years of natural disasters” (referring to the Great Famine of 1959-1961). It is suggested that a bronze statue of Dr. Gao be erected in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital, to honor her legacy and serve as a reminder of those who opposed and mistreated her.
Xiang Dongliang, a blogger who focuses on current events and popular science, recently wrote a WeChat post in praise of Dr. Gao. He commended her integrity and bravery, highlighting her willingness to expose China’s problems to the public. This approach received criticism, but ultimately led to the cessation of harmful blood retransfusion practices and allowed those with AIDS to access necessary aid and medical treatment both domestically and internationally.
Frequently, individuals who believe in keeping family issues private do not have the intention of resolving the underlying problem in private. Instead, they opt to punish the individuals who brought attention to the issue, as it appears to be the simplest and most affordable solution, at least in the immediate future.
The situation of Dr. Gao Yaojie is a prime instance of this type of apathetic political mindset. Despite the undeniable evidence regarding the “AIDS villages” where blood was sold, local authorities refused to acknowledge the role of blood transmission in the spread of AIDS. They also refused to take accountability for the inadequate supervision and disorganized operation of blood donation centers and the sale of blood products. Their only desire was for Gao Yaojie to remain silent.
In order to stop Gao Yaojie from traveling abroad to accept an award and share her views publicly, they went so far as to intimidate her family into compliance.
Given no other options, Dr. Gao Yaojie was forced to leave her home country and cut off contact with her immediate family. Ultimately, this determined activist for the betterment of millions of her fellow citizens passed away in solitude and in a foreign land.
I would like to honor Dr. Gao Yaojie in this article, as I have the utmost admiration for her integrity and bravery. [Chinese]
Numerous regular individuals who wanted to honor Dr. Gao also posted remarks on the Wailing Wall of Li Wenliang, the section for comments below Dr. Li’s last 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.
At the bottom of the water: Dr. Li, upon hearing about Gao Yaojie’s passing, you came to mind. You and she were both brave individuals who spoke out against injustices and possessed a strong affection for our nation.
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 photo essay on WeChat by 理想国imaginist (lǐxiǎngguó imaginist, “Utopian Imaginist”) compares the lasting impact of Dr. Gao to the asteroid 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]
The archive for CDT’s Wailing Wall, containing both Chinese and English content, and the Weibo comments above were compiled by Tony Hu.