The old woman in the big glasses had been telling stories for more than an hour about corrupt officials in her home province, Henan, the hardships she endured during the Cultural Revolution, the people she has seen ravaged by AIDS. Then, after bringing her guests yet another cup of tea, a thought struck her.
"My problem was that I was born in China," Dr. Gao Yaojie declared with sincerity, but with a touch of mischief, too.
"If I had been born in another country, I might have been a pretty good scientist. I've got a pretty good head on my shoulders," she said.
There are roughly a million people with HIV in China -- a number that grows daily -- who can be grateful that Gao was not born elsewhere.
For years, as government officials ignored AIDS or pretended it was not spreading in China, Gao refused to play along with the lie. She traveled through Henan, gauging the spread of AIDS, and bringing comfort and educational brochures to villages where many people did not know the name of the disease that was killing them.
Now that the government has reversed course and begun confronting the disease, Gao, at 78, remains the same fierce advocate. She is calling for more help for the growing number of AIDS orphans. She continues to visit remote rural villages where, she says, the spread of the disease is growing, not abating.
Her efforts have hardly won her adulation from officials. Local security guards still sometimes shadow her, and she is occasionally forbidden from entering certain villages. Her phone, she suspects, is tapped. But if she is careful, she is also committed to her work.
"I'm not afraid," she said recently during a long interview at a Beijing hotel after she had spoken at a international AIDS conference.
"The worst that will happen to me is that I'll die, and I've seen enough of this life not to be afraid of that," she said.
Death, and bearing witness to it, is a yoke carried by any Chinese of Gao's generation. Born in a rural village in Shandong Province, Gao was a rarity, a woman accepted into medical school. In 1939 she enrolled at Henan University in the provincial capital, Zhengzhou, and she studied obstetrics until her education was interrupted by the Japanese invasion.
"I remember the indiscriminate bombing they carried out, with no particular target or object in mind, just indiscriminate destruction," she said.
Her memories of those days remain so raw that she still refuses interview requests from Japanese journalists.
The victory in 1949 by Mao Zedong (
Henan suffered enormously. Emaciated mothers and children, surviving on gruel, stumbled into the hospital. Gao gave them her food-ration tickets and anything she could muster.
"A patient from the country gave me a chicken that laid an egg every day," she recalled. "So I gave it to the most needy."
The famines eventually eased, but upheaval came again during the 1960s when Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution. As an educated physician and the daughter of a landlord, Gao said, she was classified as one of the "black elements." For months, elites were rounded up and paraded through the city. Gao said she went into hiding, living for long periods among the dead in the hospital's morgue.
She endured, but from 1966 to 1974, Gao could not practice medicine. Finally, the Cultural Revolution receded, and she returned to her practice, focusing on gynecology. She and her husband, also a doctor, had three children, along with his children from an earlier marriage. By the 1990s, she had retired.
But in 1996 a group of doctors in Zhengzhou asked her to consult on a mysterious case. It was a woman whom Gao quickly realized had AIDS. Her retirement was over.
Gao is now something of a celebrity among those fighting AIDS in China, and beyond. She followed up her diagnosis of the stricken woman in Henan by visiting different villages, where she discovered a catastrophe being kept secret by provincial officials. Sales of tainted blood during the early 1990s had caused mass infections; poor farmers and their families had sold blood at the urging of local officials to earn extra money.
Before the scope of the problem became public, Gao delivered medicines and pamphlets and helped provide for orphans. Now that China seems ready to address AIDS, Gao is continuing her work, publishing a newsletter and continuing her trips to villages.
She has also become more wary. She says quack doctors and crooks try to take advantage of AIDS patients in Henan, peddling false hope for a price. A judge recently ruled in her favor after the maker of one traditional medicine claiming to work against AIDS sued her for libel. She suspects the lawsuit was partly the work of her enemies in Henan.
"I could escape them by going to Beijing and Shanghai and settling down there," she said. "But I wouldn't be able to do my work. Who would give out the educational materials and help the orphans? So, I never know what will happen to me."
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