Petite and modest, but endowed with exceptional courage and willpower, the Chinese doctor Gao Yaojie died a few days ago in the United States, where she had lived since 2009. The doctor represents the best part of modern China, the one more concerned with the well-being and progress of society than with personal gain. Like other representatives of this China – lawyers Teng Biao, who was forced into exile, and Xu Zhiyong, who is in prison indefinitely come to mind – instead of being appreciated and rewarded, she was persecuted and finally forced into exile.
Gao, a gynecologist in the province of Henan, was the person who raised the alarm about the spread of AIDS, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, in 1996, which was being ignored by official medicine and wreaking havoc throughout China. Gao ended up working with AIDS following the personal drama of one of her patients. Her work surely saved the lives of tens of thousands of Chinese.
I met her for a hurried interview in 2003, on the sidelines of an event attended by the then Chinese Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao. We talked for a few minutes in a corridor, while four or five shady-looking thugs, certainly policemen, probably from Henan, observed us menacingly a few meters away.
Her crime was that of having inadvertently bumped up against one of the sources of wealth of the party’s high officials in Henan, namely the illegal collection of blood from unsuspecting citizens, blood which they then resold for its weight in gold to hospitals that needed it: a “business” that to call vile is an understatement. Gao discovered that blood transfusions – and not just unprotected sex – were a source of the disease.
State officials in China’s provinces are for the most part greedy, presumptuous ignoramuses whose only “ideology” is that of personal profit. They are figures that all foreigners who have visited China in recent decades have come to know. They are the ones who guarantee the power of the communist “emperor” who sits in Zhognan Hai, a stone’s throw from the Forbidden City of Beijing, far from the daily life and problems of hundreds of millions of citizens. And they are the ones who need to be “greased” so they can carry on their “business”.
They are the ones who, in communist jargon, represent the “transmission belt” that guarantees that the center’s directives reach the people. They enjoy absolute power in their local areas, with the only limit being that they not disturb Beijing’s maneuvers. A deep-rooted habit of Chinese citizens in the provinces is to see local leaders as responsible for everything that goes wrong, while the emperor – who, let’s not forget, has the “mandate of heaven” – is not aware of their misdeeds and – on the contrary –is an authority to whom one can appeal in case of injustices. Naturally, this is an illusion that does not correspond in any way to reality: the corrupt, ignorant, presumptuous provincial leaders are closely linked to the top state leaders, who avoid calling them to account for the oppression they inflict on their “subjects” in every possible way.
For a short time, Gao Yaojie enjoyed a sort of immunity that prevented Henan leaders from getting rid of her quickly. They certainly would have done so if not for a series of unrepeatable circumstances.
In fact, at the beginning of 2003, the Chinese government – whose president and party secretary was Hu Jintao, and the premier was Wen Jiabao – decided to recognize the existence of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) after a clumsy attempt to hide its widespread diffusion. The recognition was owed to a small group of leaders and militants of the Communist Party of Beijing, who, taking a serious risk, convinced Hu and Wen to change their tune. Seen through today’s eyes, the first years of the Hu-Wen duo in power seem like a golden era in which it was legitimate to hope for a gradual democratization and opening of China to the rest of the world, albeit managed with extreme caution and lacking a fundamental conviction. In this atmosphere, for several years Dr. Gao was able to carry out her work of identifying AIDS sufferers and her initiatives to help them and to support the families of those who had fallen victim to the illegal blood market.
Then, the instinct for preservation prevailed among the leadership of the CCP, now largely composed of “princes”, that is, the children, grandchildren and sons-in-law of the “old” protagonists of the communist revolution, who saw – and still see – the only source of legitimacy for their almost absolute power in their exaltation of the “hard” years of Maoism, with all the tragedies they caused.
Born in 1927, Dr. Gao experienced all the tragedies China went through firsthand: the civil war, the Japanese invasion, the famine caused by the mad policies of the “Great Helmsman” Mao Zedong, and the Cultural Revolution, during which she was attacked and severely beaten. Once the short period of immunity ended, Gao was attacked in every way possible by the Henan authorities, with Beijing’s complicit silence. Having expatriated to the USA in 2009 – thanks to the sympathy she had aroused both in China and in the rest of the world – the doctor continued as best she could to work for the good of her fellow citizens and China. The large number of appreciations that have been expressed on social media by Chinese citizens is testimony to this. Forgotten, and secretly despised in the dark halls of power, Gao Yaojie is very present in the minds and hearts of many of her fellow citizens.
Cover image: Gao Yaojie visits an AIDS patient.
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