ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
In Central China, an elderly AIDS activist is preparing to travel to the U.S. to receive an award from a non-profit group. It's quite a reversal to fortunes for the 80-year-old retired doctor. Until last Friday, he was under house arrest. In recent years, China's government has begun facing up to the spread of AIDS.
But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, local governments are often less forthcoming.
ANTHONY KUHN: Last week, Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party's vice secretary of Henan province, went to pay his Chinese New Year's respects to Dr. Gao Yaogie. The official Henan Daily newspaper reported that he brought gifts and flowers. He thanked her for her many years of contributions to the fight against AIDS. Speaking by phone from her apartment, Dr. Gao gave a slightly different account.
Dr. GAO YAOGIE (AIDS Activist, Beijing, China): (Through translator) I asked, didn't the police downstairs stop you? He replied, no. What police? There aren't any police. He wouldn't admit it.
KUHN: Gao says that since February 2nd, she's been confined to her apartment by as many as 50 policemen. Their apparent aim was to keep her from traveling to the U.S. to receive an award from Vital Voices, a non-profit group that works with women leaders. The group's board of directors includes Sen. Hillary Clinton. Fellow AIDS activist, Hu Jia, who is under house arrest in Beijing, says Dr. Gao is considered a pioneer in her field.
Mr. HU JIA (AIDS Activist, Beijing): (Chinese spoken)
KUHN: He went into the countryside to investigate, he says. She used all the money she got from lectures and awards to educate people about AIDS, to care for AIDS patients and AIDS orphans. I doubt you'd find another person in China like her.
In the mid-1990s, Dr. Gao helped to expose a major public health crisis. Thousands of poor Henanis farmers became infected with the HIV virus after selling their blood at government-backed local collection centers. Gao says Henan officials treated the epidemic as a state secret to be covered up, and they saw her as a thorn in their side.
Dr. GAO: (Through translator) I think they feel that I got in the way of their political achievements and their official careers. Otherwise, why would they put me under house arrest? What law did I break to warrant mobilizing all these police?
KUHN: China's ambassador to the U.S. informed Senator Clinton that Dr. Gao was too ill to travel. Senator Clinton then wrote letters to China's President Hu Jintao and China's top official in charge of health. Wenchi Yu Perkins is director of Vital Voices Human Rights Program.
Ms. WENCHI YU PERKINS (Director, Human Rights Program, Vital Voices): As the honorary co-chair of Vital Voices, Senator Clinton is deeply concerned about Dr. Gao Yaogie's not being allowed to come to the U.S. We all believe that her coming to the U.S. will provide a great opportunity for everyone to learn from her.
KUHN: The Clinton letters seem to have helped. On Friday night, the Henan Vice Party Secretary Chen Quanguo was back in Gao's apartment, saying the local government would respect her wishes about receiving the award. Gao herself remains focused on the AIDS issue.
Dr. GAO: (Through translator) What happens to me is not important. What is important are all those people's lives. If this disease keeps on spreading and people keep dying, what is the Chinese nation to do? Is it something we can just cover up?
KUHN: Before the good news came, Gao said perhaps people would learn more about her if she were forbidden from going to the U.S. to collect her prize. Now perhaps she can have it both ways.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
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