Chinese AIDS Activist Faults Her Country

The Associated Press
Monday, March 12, 2007; 7:36 PM

WASHINGTON -- Gao Yaojie shakes her head, stabbing hard at the air with her forefinger, when asked if the Chinese government is helping fund her efforts to expose the country's AIDS problems.

"Not even a dime," the 79-year-old AIDS activist said Monday in an interview with The Associated Press.

This is a message some Chinese authorities were reluctant to have Gao deliver in the United States. Officials had repeatedly blocked her from going abroad until finally allowing this trip after her case received widespread media attention.

Gao says the government is beginning to understand the enormity of the AIDS problem. The retired gynecologist, speaking through an interpreter, praised Chinese President Hu Jintao for allowing her to travel to Washington to receive an award Wednesday night honoring her work. She also praised high-ranking health officials.

But despite many changes in government attitudes, she says, "sometimes they support me; sometimes they don't." She is tenacious in her efforts, using her own money, and that from foreign awards she has received, to pay for her work.

Officials, she said, should "face the reality and deal with the real issues _ not cover it up."

In the 1990s, Gao embarrassed the government by exposing blood-selling schemes that infected thousands with HIV, mainly in her home province of Henan. Operators often used dirty needles, and people selling plasma _ the liquid in blood _ were replenished from a pooled blood supply that was contaminated with HIV. Provincial officials initially covered things up.

The Chinese government and the United Nations say China's problem of tainted blood has improved. But surviving victims face discrimination and say they have not been adequately compensated for their suffering.

Gao has also faced difficulties because of her activism.

In 2001, she was refused a passport to go to the United States to accept an award from a United Nations' group. In 2003 she was prevented from going to the Philippines to receive a public service award.

Last month, authorities kept her under virtual house arrest for about 20 days to keep her from traveling to Beijing to arrange a visa for the United States.

Gao says she persists in her work because "everyone has the responsibility to help their own people. As a doctor, that's my job. So it's worth it."

Gao says she is 80 by Chinese calculations. By Western calculations, she says she is 79.

© 2007 The Associated Press