I have been covering the harassment, trials, tribulations and greatness of China AIDS activist Gao Yaojie for many months, and I am thrilled to see China doing the right thing and allowing her to fly to the US to receive an award for her work.
A 79-year-old prominent Chinese AIDS activist is to fly to the United States as early as Sunday to receive a human rights award after she was freed from house arrest thanks to U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Gao Yaojie is to receive the Vital Voices Global Women’s Leadership Award for Human Rights in Washington in March for helping bring to light official complicity in the spread of AIDS in her home province Henan in central China, where thousands of poor farmers sold blood in the 1990s and have been infected.
To prevent her from going and embarrassing China, police in Zhengzhou, provincial capital of Henan, placed Gao under house arrest on February 1. The move sparked an international outcry.
Henan authorities relented and freed her on February 16, days after Clinton, a Democratic presidential-hopeful, wrote to Chinese President Hu Jintao and Vice Premier Wu Yi, urging them to intervene and let Gao leave for the United States.
“World pressure was too heavy. Henan was ordered by the central government (to let me go) because China did not want relations with the United States to become too tense,” the retired gynaecologist told Reuters in her Beijing hotel room.
A vice health minister paid Gao a courtesy call last week to extend the vice premier’s greetings, a sign of a change of heart.
But fellow AIDS activist Hu Jia declined to reveal Gao’s departure details in case the authorities decide to change their mind about letting her go. She plans to return in late March.
Hu Jia has faced his own misery from local authorities, and is another of my heroes.
Can we imagine just how wonderful it would be if China simply allowed people like Gao Yaojie their basic freedoms, and treated them as the heroes they are? Wouldn’t it be inspiring to see China honor people like Gao and Hu Jia and send them off to such events as China’s goodwill ambassadors, showing the world how China is becoming open and confident and a willing participant in noble international causes like AIDS awareness? Wouldn’t it be thrilling if China would…well, I think I’d better end it there. Because the questions bring tears to my eyes.
I know it was local officials who harassed her, and central officials who ended her dilemma. Unfortunately, the two are inextricably bound by a one-party system in which the central party has no choice but to tolerate all sorts of noxious behavior by local officials, upon whom they rely for keeping the system oiled. And yes, it’s getting better, and yes, I am praising China for ultimately doing the right thing. I just have to keep asking, why do they always do so many things wrong (as with SARS and AIDS and other cover-ups) before finally doing what’s right? Why don’t they do the right thing first, and show all the world how they have matured? (And for all my friends who insist on drawing parallels, yes, the US under Bush is often just as bad.)
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.