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Poised to receive an award for fighting HIV/AIDS in rural China, Chinese activist Gao Yaojie said she feels like a failure.
Eighty years old, her face creased with wrinkles, Gao has spent the last decade of her life working to treat the sick, to slow the disease's spread, and to expose official complicity in its dispersal in her home province of Henan in east-central China.
Thousands of poor farmers have become infected with the disease after selling their blood in the 1990s at unsanitary, often state-run, clinics, making the province the center of China's AIDS epidemic.
Having handed out thousands of AIDS prevention pamphlets to passengers at bus depots, prostitutes in nightclubs and peasants in the countryside, the retired gynecologist said she felt she had not done enough.
"I constantly think that I am a failure because I have been at this work for more than 10 years, and yet AIDS is still rampant," the doctor said in an interview on Monday in Washington, where she is to receive a "global leadership" award on Wednesday from Vital Voices, a nonprofit that recognizes women leaders.
That Gao came to Washington at all was something of a feat given that local Henan officials put her under house arrest for two weeks in February to prevent her from traveling.
They relented in the face of an international outcry, including a letter from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat and U.S. presidential candidate, to Chinese president Hu Jintao and vice premier Wu Yi urging them to intervene on her behalf.
Asked why the Henan authorities did not want her to travel, Gao chuckled and said: "Oh, that's really hard for me to say...I have a feeling that my various criticisms have caused them some shame."
No senior official has been prosecuted or publicly punished for the blood-selling scandal in Henan, where such practices have now been banned.
"They are indifferent to the life and death of ordinary people and care only about their power, position, and salaries and the country's reputation," she said of the local officials, while crediting the Beijing authorities with her release.
Her harshest words, however, were reserved for people who make money off the disease by pretending to have found a cure.
"What is more frightening are these charlatans who are peddling cures," she said, grimacing. "There have been people who have said they have family remedies that go back eight generations, but, of course, AIDS has only been with us about 20 years. "
The doctor, whose feet were bound as a child according Chinese custom but were encased in black espadrilles on Monday, has seen the convulsions of Chinese history. She was purged and attempted suicide during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.
Gao said she hoped to write two more books, one about her work since 1996 to fight AIDS and the other to give voice to AIDS patients.
"I want my readers to understand the truth about AIDS patients who are innocent but who endure miserable lives and especially children, who die before even before knowing what life is," she said.
She then spoke of a couple who contracted the disease from selling blood.
"The husband died and the wife hung herself from the ceiling. Her small child found the mother hanging and grabbed her feet and pulled her (saying) 'Come down, mother. Come down," she said, speaking in a child's soft voice and clawing at her own legs. "But the woman was already swinging, stiff and dead." (Arshad Mohammaed and Paul Eckert/Reuters)