Chinese officials have placed a prominent, veteran HIV/AIDS campaigner under house arrest, preventing her from traveling to the U.S. to accept a human rights award. Gao Yaojie, a retired doctor in her 80s, exposed government-supported blood-buying programs in Henan province that led to thousands being infected with HIV. Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing.
Gao was to travel to the U.S. in March to receive a leadership award for supporting the legal rights of women in China. The award is from Vital Voices, an organization promoting female leadership supported by former first lady and now Senator Hillary Clinton.
Fellow activists and friends say officials in Henan province placed Gao under house arrest last Thursday to prevent her traveling to Beijing to apply for a U.S. visa.
Gao was instrumental in exposing government-supported blood-buying programs in the 1990's that infected more than 50 thousand poor farmers with HIV when parts of untested blood were mixed together.
Edmund Settle is the HIV/AIDS program manager for the United Nations Development Program in China. He says national campaigns have raised awareness about the HIV/AIDS problem in recent years, but local officials are often more concerned that the stigma will put off economic investment.
"On the national level there's been a huge increase in national-level officials, doing a lot more in raising public awareness, visiting the villages, visiting people living with HIV in the hospitals," Settle says. "But, how does that translate on the local level is still a huge issue which needs to be addressed in China. Some provinces are more open than others."
HIV/AIDS activists are often harassed, and Settle says that the detention of Gao shows China still has a long way to go in learning how to handle the issue.
The director of the Beijing Aizhixing Institute of Health Education, Wan Yanhai, and another Beijing-based AIDS activist and friend, Hu Jia, told reporters that friends and family who try to visit Gao at home are being blocked or interrogated before being allowed in, and her daughter was under police surveillance.
Gao has received numerous awards for her years of work on preventing the spread of the disease even when the government was keeping quiet.
In 2001, Gao was barred from leaving the country to collect the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights. Two years later, authorities prevented her from going abroad to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, a prestigious honor from a Philippines-based foundation.