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An 80-year-old AIDS activist who Chinese authorities have repeatedly blocked from going abroad left Monday for the United States to receive an award from a group supported by U.S. senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Gao Yaojie, a retired gynecologist, said she was still constrained by fears of reprisals when she returns home if she spoke too critically about China's AIDS epidemic while visiting the United States. ''I feel confused and I am in a dilemma,'' said Gao at Beijing International Airport before boarding a flight to Newark, N.J. ''If I don't tell the truth, I lie to the people in the whole world. If I tell the truth I am worried that I will be detained.''
She didn't say specifically what issues she thought were taboo, but Gao embarrassed the government by exposing blood-selling schemes that infected thousands with HIV in the 1990s, mainly in her home province of Henan. Operators often used dirty needles, and people selling plasma, the liquid in blood, were replenished from a pooled blood supply that was contaminated with HIV.
The Chinese government and the United Nations say China's problem of tainted blood had largely been brought under control. Last year, only about 5% of new reported HIV infections were blamed on blood selling, which has been banned, or tainted transfusions, the Health Ministry says.
But the legacy of the problem, which was initially covered up by the government, persists. Surviving victims say they have not been adequately compensated for their suffering and are unfairly discriminated against. Many children orphaned by the epidemic lack adequate care, Gao says.
In 2001, Gao was refused a passport to go to Washington to accept an award from a U.N. group, and in 2003 she was prevented from going to the Philippines to receive the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service. This month, she was kept under virtual house arrest for about 20 days as authorities tried to keep her from coming to Beijing to arrange a visa for the United States.
Gao said local authorities repeatedly warned her against going abroad and for weeks dozens of plainclothes police were stationed outside her apartment to prevent her from leaving. They relented, informing her February 16 that she was free to travel.
International pressure, including separate appeals from Clinton and human rights groups, helped convince the authorities to let her go, she said. The decision marked a rare turnaround for Chinese authorities, who have become increasingly open about the country's AIDS epidemic in recent years but remain suspicious of independent activists, whom they frequently detain and harass.
She was traveling to the U.S. with a fellow activist and was to attend an awards ceremony given by Vital Voices Global Partnership on March 14 in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, the discrimination faced by China's AIDS orphans was the subject of a short documentary, The Blood of Yingzhou District, that on Sunday won an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary. The filmmakers Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon told reporters at the awards ceremony in Los Angeles that the Chinese government has become much more open and transparent about the AIDS situation over the last four years but that ignorance about how the disease is spread remains a serious problem.
Yang told the Shanghai Daily newspaper earlier this month that she would apply after the Oscars to have the film shown on Chinese television. She said she was hopeful it could help reduce the stigma such children regularly face. (AP)