Brave Chinese Doctor Begins Difficult Journey

As the elderly doctor showed the newly stamped U.S. visa on her Chinese passport, the expression on her wrinkled face was more of anxiety and worry, not excitement or joy.

"It is my first time to go abroad, but I have mixed feelings about it," Gao Yaojie told ABC News during her stay in a Beijing hotel before her scheduled departure.

The retired gynecologist will be traveling to Washington, where she will be among a handful of women around the world to be honored on March 14 by Vital Voices Global Partnership, a non-profit advocacy group supported by Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

"Many people think I should be very happy when I get the visa. But I actually feel so much pain," Gao said with a tinge of emotion.

She gained international recognition for exposing an AIDS outbreak in central China due to blood-selling schemes that infected thousands of farmers with HIV in the 1990s. She is also known for her dedication to educating people on AIDS prevention and caring for the orphans of AIDS victims, a personal crusade that she financed with her own funds.

Because of her devotion, she is viewed by many Chinese as a heroine worthy of awe and admiration.

"If I tell the truth when I am in the U.S., Chinese officials will not be able to take it," she said, "especially those from Henan province."

But Gao hastened to add, "I am already 80 years of age and I cannot lie to the people around the world."

Then, with a firm voice, she emphatically said, "I want to tell the truth about AIDS in China."

The province of Henan in central China is where Gao's family lives. It is also the place where her 11-year odyssey as an AIDS activist started when she discovered villages of poor farmers who became victims of the deadly virus after they sold their blood for money during a government-sponsored drive to increase the supply in blood banks.

The petite widow is deeply aware of the price she has to pay for her courage to speak the truth about AIDS. She recalled how she was placed under surveillance by local officials afraid of bad publicity about AIDS in their areas, how she was warned not to discuss the spread of AIDS with journalists, and how police agents monitored all those who visited her home.

But it was the recent invitation for her to travel to the United States that turned her life upside down. She vividly recalled how she was placed under house arrest in early February to prevent her from going to Beijing to pick up her visa, how the Chinese policemen who stood watch outside her apartment prevented even her own son and daughter from entering, and how her phone line was cut off to prevent any contact with the outside world.

She recounted how a string of local officials took turns visiting her at home, each one seeking to convince her to beg off from attending the award ceremony. They suggested that she use her old age or poor health as possible reasons to explain her inability to travel abroad.

Under such intense pressure, Gao agreed initially to give up her trip, but she did not want to use any pretext to explain herself. If she couldn't go, it was simply because she was not allowed to leave the country.

This was the third time she has encountered this situation. In 2001, Gao was refused a passport to go to the United States to accept an award from the Global Health Council, a non-profit organization focused on health issues. In 2003, she was not allowed to travel to the Philippines to receive the Ramon Magsaysay award for public service, given only to outstanding Asians.

But with the intense international media spotlight this time and the personal letter to President Hu Jintao by Hillary Clinton, one of the leading Democratic presidential candidates, the Chinese government finally did a rare turnabout last week and allowed her to travel abroad.

"I think it is a sign of progress," she said. "That would never have happened 10 or 20 years ago."

But Gao still had to deal with the concerns in her own family. Upon hearing about her decision to travel, her 52-year old son, a department head in a university, knelt before her and pleaded with her not to proceed due to his fear of possible reprisal on the family. When she described what her son had to go through, Gao broke down in tears and said slowly, "What makes it more painful is that I have put my family under a lot of pressure."

Even her brothers and sisters expressed their worries about her trip. She recalled telling them, "If you don't want me to go, then I will not go. But the government cannot force me not to go. I must make my own choice."

And so she chose to go and attend the award ceremony in Washington. Despite their fear of adverse consequences, her brothers and sisters relented and respected her decision.

Her hope is that the same international pressure that brought about the lifting of her travel ban will also be able to protect her family for any possible reprisal.

The day after she arrived in Beijing, the Chinese government sent its deputy health minister with another senior official to visit Gao in her hotel room and wish her well on her trip abroad. The deputy health minister even expressed the government's desire to cooperate with her on AIDS-related projects when she returns from her U.S. trip.

But while Gao listened attentively to the deputy minister's pitch for cooperation, she was not encouraged by the government's new efforts on AIDS.

"I am very disappointed," she told ABC News. "The AIDS problem is not under control at all. It's is nice to hear the government's efforts, but they are only touching the surface. They don't really go to the root of the AIDS problem."

Though she is still pessimistic about the prospects of keeping China's AIDS crisis under control, she has no plan to give up her commitment to her work. Gao was a prominent gynecologist when she retired 17 years ago, and she could have spent her retirement in quiet solitude. Instead, she has found her fulfillment in her work on AIDS prevention and care, expressing her determination to continue with it till her last breath.

What keeps her going? She has a simple and direct reply: "I am a doctor and my duty is to save lives. I can only live once."