China Allows AIDS Activist to Visit U.S.



Published: February 16, 2007

Filed at 4:59 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON (AP) — Chinese officials signaled Friday they will allow a prominent AIDS activist who had been confined to her home to visit the United States next month, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said.

Gao Yaojie, 80, was confined to her home, worrying fellow activists who said the measure was aimed at keeping her from making the trip to the United States to accept an award from a non-profit group.

Clinton had pressed Chinese officials to let Gao travel to accept the reward from Vital Voices Global Partnership, a nonprofit group supported by Clinton, a New York Democrat and presidential candidate.

Clinton aides said the Chinese ambassador called the senator Friday to tell her Gao would be allowed to travel.

”I’m delighted to learn from the Chinese government that our request to President Hu and Vice Premier Wu that Dr. Gao be allowed to travel freely to the United States has been granted,” Clinton said in a statement.

Melanne Verveer, chair of the board of Vital Voices, said she was ”elated” by the news and called Gao ”a world-recognized leader on behalf of an issue critically important to China and the world community.”

Even as Gao was stuck in her house, a Communist Party deputy secretary praised her Monday, illustrating China’s inconsistent attitude toward whistleblowers like Gao.

Gao is believed to have angered many officials by exposing corrupt blood-selling schemes in Henan province that infected thousands with HIV.

Last week, Gao was blocked from leaving her home by plainclothes police, apparently to prevent her from applying for a U.S. visa, her family and fellow AIDS activists said.

Vital Voices human rights program director Wenchi Yu Perkins said last week the group was talking to contacts in China to ”understand what is happening.”

Gao had refused government demands that she decline to pick up the award.

Although never charged with any crime, Gao has been detained under similar circumstances at least twice before.

In 2001, she was refused a passport to go to Washington to accept an award from a U.N. group, and in 2003 she was prevented from going to the Philippines to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service.

Gao’s activism was deeply embarrassing to provincial officials who had tried to squelch all reporting on the illegal blood-buying schemes. They were assisted in part by a central government that has only recently begun to candidly discuss its AIDS problems.

Gao has distributed medicine and information booklets, cared for AIDS orphans and hosted those battling AIDS in her modest apartment.  

Fear of international embarrassment appears to be the motivation for stopping Dr. Gao from going to Washington. Indeed, the doctor has received past recognition in China. She was given a “Ten People Who Touched China in 2003” award from the government’s television network. But she was prevented from traveling outside China to receive awards in 2001 and 2003.

Wenchi Yu Perkins, human rights program director with Vital Voices Global Partnership, said the group had protested Dr. Gao’s detention to an official at the Chinese Embassy in Washington. The embassy official praised Dr. Gao’s work on AIDS. “He also stated that Dr. Gao was in poor health and unable to travel to Washington,” Ms. Perkins said by e-mail. “We know from sources close to Dr. Gao that she has repeatedly expressed her desire to travel to the U.S. to receive Vital Voices’ award.”

Mr. Bequelin and others say they think that officials were alarmed at the potential of Dr. Gao meeting Senator Clinton. Dr. Gao said she believed that the Washington ceremony, as well as her blog, were to blame for her detention. She said

Zhengzhou’s former police chief, Yao Daixian, had gone to her apartment and personally warned her not to “communicate with foreign journalists.”

She recalled his saying, “These people are liars, and you must consider the negative influence it will bring on our country.” Mr. Yao, now director of the Zhengzhou Communist Party’s organization department, also addressed the young woman cooking and doing other tasks for Dr. Gao.

“He told her to love the country, the party, the government,” the doctor said. The woman quit.

Citizens in China understand where boundaries exist in society, and most do not cross them. But Dr. Gao has always trampled across.

In her youth, she was a rare woman admitted to medical school. She survived Japanese bombing raids during the 1940s and worked delivering babies as an obstetrician in the 1950s. When the famines of the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1960 unleashed mass starvation, Dr. Gao sometimes gave her food ration tickets to emaciated women.

During the violent class struggles of the Cultural Revolution from 1965 to 1975 she was labeled a “black element,” a term for members of the former ruling class or rightist intelligentsia. In a 2003 interview, she recalled surviving one night during that era by hiding among the bodies in a hospital morgue to avoid Red Guards.

Her involvement in AIDS began when she learned that H.I.V. was silently spreading through Henan in the 1990s. A government-endorsed blood-selling campaign had led to the infection of thousands of farmers. She traveled to villages to provide medical care and free informational brochures to people who had no idea why they were dying.

She also spoke out against local officials trying to cover up the crisis.

Her status came up on Thursday at the regular news briefing by the Foreign Ministry. “Please ask the local government about this,” the spokeswoman responded.

A spokesman with the propaganda office of the Zhengzhou Communist Party refused to give out a number for Mr. Yao, the former police chief. He referred the call to the city government’s press office. A spokesman there seemed startled when asked if Dr. Gao was under house arrest.

“What?” he answered. “That sounds very unlikely. We have not been informed of such a thing. But please be assured if we have any information we will inform you in time.”

A final call went to the press office of Henan Province. It had more information. “Did you read the newspaper?” a provincial spokesman said. “Our provincial officials have paid her a visit to see how she’s doing and wish her a happy New Year. I will look into it and get back to you.”

His response came quickly: a faxed copy of the Henan Daily story.

Dr. Gao said her restrictions had been loosened a bit. Her telephone was reconnected this week. Her family can visit her. She can step outside her apartment building for some air. But she can go no farther. Police officers remain posted. A group of AIDS advocates tried to visit her Wednesday but were turned away.

“Luckily I am still clear in the mind, or I could have been fooled by the government into speaking for them, telling untrue tales,” she said. “It does not matter to me at all whether I can go pick up the award.

“I think my absence at the ceremony will be more influential than me being there.”

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