Veteran Aids activist Gao Yaojie sets out in her autobiography to dispel false rumours about her family
Updated on Sep 07, 2008
Have another banana," says the diminutive doctor as she pushes a bunch across the table. "You must stay fit and healthy." Veteran mainland Aids activist Gao Yaojie , 81, is in Hong Kong for a week to publicise her autobiography - The Soul of Gao Yaojie. In recent years, journalists had badgered her to write her autobiography. "I was too busy. I wasn't interested. I had too much to do," she says.
And then she began to receive attacks on her weblog "about my family's integrity".
"They said I came from a poor family, that as a child I had been sold as a prostitute," she says through an interpreter. "They were attacking my ancestors, and I couldn't let them do that. I had to set the record straight. I was forced to write this book."
Dr Gao is arguably the mainland's most famous Aids activist. Twelve years ago she was called into a hospital in Henan province when other physicians grew concerned about a patient's mystery condition. The 40-year-old woman died a few days later, by which time Dr Gao had tracked her ailment to an earlier blood transfusion.
It was the start of a passionate quest that has taken her all over Henan and Anhui to hundreds of impoverished villagers who had sold their blood to unscrupulous buyers for government blood banks. The plasma was taken, but to enable the farmers to donate blood more regularly, the shared blood pool was pumped back into them, leading to an epidemic that has robbed many villages of its middle generation.
While some Henan provincial officials hate her for attracting attention to the Aids issue and, in their eyes, deterring possible investment, Dr Gao has been grudgingly recognised at a national level, as well as receiving international awards.
In March last year, Henan officials prevented her from leaving to pick up an award in the US. It became a national scandal as New York Senator Hillary Clinton called Wu Yi , vice-premier at the time, to secure Dr Gao's release from house arrest and her exit to the US.
Sitting in the offices of the Chi Heng Foundation, the Hong Kong-based charity that assists Aids orphans and was set up by her protege, investment banker Chung To, Dr Gao's face periodically creases up with laughter; at other times, she slams her hand on a pile of books or on the table to emphasise her rage at the injustice of those living in poverty or abandoned with Aids.
Asked what she thinks about the Olympics and whether they will help rights on the mainland, she answers: "Being strong in sports does not mean that the country is strong. The international community does not understand China. They haven't seen the real picture. They don't see that people are imprisoned. Hu Jia, for example, is an Aids activist who has been imprisoned. He is a very nice person who selflessly wants to improve China."
Dr Gao was offered the opportunity to go to the US for three months during the Olympics. "Other people were imprisoned, including a former patient of mine," she says. "Three members out of four of her family are HIV-positive because of a blood transfusion she received when giving birth. Her one daughter has died, the other is very ill. So she went to Beijing to petition the government and was sent to a labour camp.
"An organisation in the US said they would pay for me to go and stay for three months. But I did not want to go. I have nothing against the communists, I have no power, I am a doctor working for charity and I have not committed a crime, why should I leave my country?"
The book, she says, is one of her last hurrahs. She is tired, complains that she cannot hear as well as she used to, that her false teeth give her pain, and her stomach is permanently ailing. She lifts her blouse to show the long scar where half her stomach was removed after she was badly beaten during the Cultural Revolution.
While Dr Gao is best known for her work with Aids farmers and orphans in central China, The Soul of Gao Yaojie takes the reader through the decades from her birth in November 1927 in Shandong province .
Born into what she classes as a prestigious family, Dr Gao was a daughter of her father's fourth wife. "My father was married at 15. His first wife died at just 17 in childbirth. His second wife died at 19. His third wife was a rich lady. Her family had 600 acres of land. She died at 33, again in childbirth for her third child. My mother was my father's fourth wife. She had nine children, of whom seven survived."
Dr Gao loved the classics but studied medicine, she says, because she was an average student and that was a course she could get into. In 1954, she married a fellow doctor, Guo Mingjiu. He died two years ago from throat cancer.
While the past 12 years have been hard on Dr Gao - her children do not visit her at home as it is too difficult with the surveillance cameras and harassment - it is not the first time she has faced off against authority.
During the Cultural Revolution she was imprisoned for 13 months of a three-year sentence for assisting a woman with an abortion. Asked what she did in the labour camp, she answers simply: "Breaking rocks." She tried to commit suicide three times.
Her son, Guo Zhuo, then 14, was also jailed for three years during the early 1970s amid allegations that he had written anti-revolutionary propaganda. This was later withdrawn and Dr Gao remains convinced that he was jailed to torture her.
At one point, the guards raided her home and took her belongings. They were returned to her 10 years later and make for a pitiable list - a pair of underpants was among them.
"The list shows how poor I was. There was a plastic bowl, a blanket, some other kitchen items - I list them in the book - a cupboard with a broken mirror. And then 10 years later, I got it all back. I do not blame anyone; it was a very chaotic time."
Dr Gao has two years left on her visa, but she is concerned that this might be her last trip to Hong Kong. She lays out three scenarios for what will happen with both local and national security when she returns shortly to Henan.
"The first one is that there will be surveillance, but I just won't know about it," she says. "The second is that they will post a police officer outside my front door and make it very difficult for me to leave. And the third is that they will imprison me. But I'm ready for that. I have medicine on me at all times. If they do that to me, I'll commit suicide."
Dr Gao seems to be on the job constantly. She stares at my shoulder and concerns herself that the blemishes are a skin disease. I reassure her that they are merely freckles.
"I have never wanted to be a hero, but who sent the first Aids patients to me? And since then, I have walked a road that has no return," she writes in conclusion. "Maybe this is fate. Who asked me to be a doctor? Who makes me feel suffering when I witness it? Who lets me feel rage when I see darkness and evil?"
Dr Gao's book is available in Hong Kong in Chinese but she is very keen to see it translated into English.
It is difficult to pin her down on what she does other than work.
Music? She waves her hand dismissively. Reading? "I've read the classics, but usually I'm reading books about medicine." But she does write poetry. "I have written more than 100 poems," she says, some of which appear in her autobiography.
The interpreter explains: "They are very traditional Chinese poems, very structured, with very strict rhythms. But her topics are [based on the fact] that she feels that China is full of fakes, or the people who puff themselves up at the expense of others." She begins to read:
Some people say how great they are,
but they are like blowing chicken
feathers to the sky,
blowing up a garlic skin like a fairy,
blow it high up to the top of the cloud,
blow it big like Tai Shan [a mountain].
Blow the HIV and spread it out.
Brag about that I'm the model while you
Brag about my political achievements,
while I am bulls***ing, bulls***ing,
While her health might be fading a little, Gao Yaojie's soul burns on.