Since the AIDS crisis began, various groups have been accusing governments of a cover-up—and in rural China, some of those rumors turned out to be true.
The Chinese government understandably feared the international AIDS crisis, and when it became known that the virus was blood-borne in 1985, China banned the importation of blood products from other countries; before tests were developed, contaminated blood was a huge problem for anyone in need of a transfusion or other blood products. There, however, the reuse of bags, needles, and tubes put donors in danger, too. In a perfect storm of risk factors, people in the poorest rural areas were dependent on the “plasma economy”—a government-backed campaign, run from 1991 to 1995, that encouraged people to sell their blood—for extra money, and nearly everyone was doing it.
In April 1996, Dr. Gao Yaojie, then sixty-nine, was already retired when she was called to consult on a challenging case; after ovarian surgery, 42-year-old Ms. Ba was not recovering as she should be, and among other symptoms had developed unusual lesions. When routine tests failed to find a cause, Gao insisted on testing her for HIV. Other doctors scoffed; according to the government, AIDS was a foreigners’ disease, only seen in those who had promiscuous sex and did illegal drugs.
Gao had her tested anyway—and found she was HIV-positive, yet her husband and children were negative. Gao investigated where Ms. Ba could possibly have gotten infected, and realized the only possible source was the blood transfusion she had received post-surgery from a government-run blood bank.
She immediately realized the problem was deadly serious; Gao wrote later, “If the blood in the blood bank carried the AIDS virus, then these victims would not be a small number.”
She immediately went into action, going into nearby villages and testing people, gathering data, and launching a one-woman educational campaign regarding the risks of blood transfusions to both donor and recipient. For many, however, it was too late; she found villages where nearly half the residents had AIDS, with no options for medical treatment and very little idea what was killing so many or how it spread.
Worst of all, when Gao and others tried to get health officials to do something, the government told them to be quiet; to this day, the official data on how many became HIV-positive and died are near-unanimously considered much too low.
Despite the government’s attempts to cover up the situation, in just a few short years it became impossible to hide the number of people who were sick and dying; in 2000, the few stories written by Chinese reporters about the AIDS crisis and its connection to the plasma economy were picked up by international media. The Chinese government did finally ban paid blood donation and made an effort to shut down unlicensed blood collection clinics, but it was far too late for untold thousands of those infected with HIV and other blood-borne diseases. Moreover, because the middlemen in the plasma economy had gotten very rich off of it, many continued illegally.
Additionally, although Gao had been right, authorities continued to threaten her and those she had inspired to help, all for doing what the government should have done, and largely still wasn’t. Many other volunteers stopped their efforts, but Gao refused, no matter what the cost.
It’s only in the last few years that China officially admitted that AIDS is its number-one cause of death compared to other contagious ailments. Officials have allowed fairly open reporting of the epidemic that entered via the drug trade, yet remain relatively tight-lipped about those who became infected due to the plasma trade; it’s not by chance that there’s no way to find out how many HIV infections are linked to it.
To protect both herself and her family, after Gao’s husband died, she fled to America in 2009; she now lives in a tiny apartment in Harlem, New York, where she continues to write about the epidemic in China. She has published eight books on the subject and is working on a ninth; only one has been translated into English.
The reason she writes, she told BuzzFeed, is to leave a record for the future. “I want to stop, but I cannot,” she said. “I am too old. I feel powerless to all things. The purpose of writing these books is to ask for justice for the victims and leave it for the later generations to judge. It is also a mental comfort for me.”
Not only was the government never held accountable for what the plasma trade caused, but those in charge of the areas hardest hit have risen to some of the government’s highest positions. Even in June 2013, state-run media were forbidden to report on the state of those rural villages devastated by the epidemic; others, including foreign media, are continually threatened if they try to investigate, and AIDS patients in rural areas like Henan are intimidated into silence. Doctors and other AIDS activists have been imprisoned for their efforts, causing many, like Gao, to flee to other countries.
China does finally offer health care, including antiretroviral drugs, to its HIV-positive citizens free of charge, and makes an effort to educate the public about how the virus is transmitted; those in Henan also receive monthly financial support. However, it’s not enough, especially considering that the drugs still aren’t easy to get, only being available once a month at government dispensaries. Many go to Beijing every December 1, World AIDS Day, to plead for more aid and recognition—despite the routine harassing and detainment that can happen before they even begin the trip.
Refusal to allow media discussion isn’t the only way the government still tries to keep the ongoing AIDS crisis quiet. In 2012, orders were given to families in four counties to demolish their family cemeteries; all told, three million tombs were ordered to be moved to public graveyards. Likely not coincidentally, all of those ordered cleared were in the rural regions that had been hit the hardest by AIDS.
China is still a country where failing to honor one’s ancestors is believed to bring generations of bad luck; though many fields were cleared of the mounds of earth that mark traditional graves, over Chinese New Year in February 2013, laborers home for the holiday rebuilt almost a million of them, some piled even higher than before. Proving that mass protest can sometimes work even in China, the government left the new graves alone.
The fields in Henan are now marked with thousands of fresh graves, as if those buried there had only just died—all thanks to the Chinese government’s desire to conceal a scandal.