The high cost of whistleblowing in China | Health Issues

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new York – In the early 1990s, a mysterious disease began to spread rapidly among villagers in several provinces in central China.

At that time, HIV/AIDS had already started in other parts of the world, including Europe and the United States, where the disease is transmitted mainly through sex. However, in China, people have been infected after selling their blood and plasma or receiving transfusions contaminated by the trade.

Over the next ten years, around 300,000 people in Henan province, the birthplace of the trade, fell ill – a scandal revealed by retired gynecologist Dr Gao Yaojie.

Before the eye doctor Li Wenliang sounded the alarm on COVID-19 and succumbed to the virus in early 2020, Dr Gao was a well-known whistleblower in China. His decision to expose the AIDS epidemic in China landed him in prison for the last 14 years of his life. He died last December at the age of 95 in New York.

Despite the government’s deletion (Baidubake, China’s equivalent of Wikipedia, says Gao settled overseas on social media), netizens are mourning Gao’s death on the same Weibo “wailing wall” page where he remembers Li.

Gao’s descent from national prominence to constant government persecution revealed just how brutal Beijing can be, even at a time when it was seen as opening up to the world.

“What he wanted was freedom of speech, to tell the world the truth about the AIDS epidemic in China and to preserve history,” said former journalist Lin Shiyu, who published many of Gao’s books published while in exile. US. “That’s why he fled China.”

Like what hasn’t been resolved yet the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic shows, the secrecy Beijing imposes has global consequences. Worldwide, more than 7 million people have died from the “mysterious virus” that first appeared in Wuhan at the end of 2019, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organization.

Gao didn’t want to be a critic, but a whistleblower. He was horrified when he began to see patients in Henan province with tumors that he knew were common signs of AIDS. Few were tested for HIV, even if they were found, until Gao persisted.

“As a doctor I could not ignore it; I had the responsibility to do everything I could to prevent the epidemic from spreading. However, at that time, I did not know about the mysterious forces behind the spread of HIV,” Gao wrote in his 2008 book, The Soul of Gao Yaojie. “If I had known, I would not have been brave.”

Before long, he realized that the plasma trade – especially in rural areas where poor people needed to supplement their income – had become a way of transmission. After Beijing banned many imported blood products, part of an attempt to frame the virus as “foreign” in origin, medical companies met domestic demand, which exacerbated the problem.

Even the Chinese Red Cross and its hospitals run by the People’s Liberation Army entered the growing blood business. Local officials who wanted to make a profit told the villagers that selling blood plasma was also good for their health. Many I washe has HIV because dirty needles were used again and again to draw blood.

Half of the 3,000 villagers in one county in Henan Province took advantage of the opportunity to receive blood money at that time; 800 had AIDS, Gao said in his book.

‘The legal way’

As Gao publicly fought the source of the virus’ spread and banned the blood trade as he became a local official, the government recognized his efforts. After provincial authorities jailed him in 2007, the health minister intervened to get Gao to the US to receive his reward.

Gao, with fellow campaigners Xie Lihua (left), founder and editor of Rural Women Knowing All magazine and secretary general of Beijing’s Development Center for Rural Women, and Wang Xingjuan, founder of a non-governmental women’s research organization, were identified. in the US for their work in 2007 [Yuri Gripas/Reuters]

Although “whistleblowing” is literally translated into Chinese, the concept is not new, and the right to report wrongdoing was protected in the first law of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1954. It stated that “all citizens of the PRC have the right to report orally or written about the abuse of power by the government”, according to political scientist Ting Gong in his 2000. paper Whistleblowing: What does it mean in China?

But that freedom has limits.

“In China, whistle-blowing is a government-run process,” Gong said.

Soon the tide turned against Gao and the others. Dr Wan Yanhai, a medical worker turned paramedic, was arrested in 2002 after sharing a secret government document on 170 AIDS-related deaths.

As with COVID-19, in the case of AIDS, “the underlying motivation is ideology: Beijing sees its communist system as the best in the world and the rivers are safe,” Wan told Al Jazeera in February from New York after being denied entry. returning to China since 2010. That year Wan ignored the warnings of the authorities and participated in the Nobel Peace Prize. tradition in Oslo to respect Liu XiaoboChinese dissident who died in prison in 2017.

For Gao, the international and foreign press coverage of his work only gave the Chinese authorities another reason to stop him.

After his trip to Hong Kong in 2008, the authorities guarded him and even took him away from his family. A few months later, Gao escaped with only a blood pressure meter and a floppy disk containing information and pictures of patients.

At the age of 81, Gao was China’s most senior dissident to flee. A month after his death, the famous economist Mao Yushi made a new record. Mao, whose think-tank known for promoting market reforms was shut down by authorities, shared photos on social media of his 95th birthday celebrations in Vancouver, Canada, shortly after fleeing China.

Gao continued to write books until his last days.

“He was used to running to take care of his patients. “He felt useless just writing on a piece of paper,” said Lin. However, Gao did not take his last years in exile lightly.

“The United States is not paradise,” wrote Gao, but added: “I would not have left.” [China]I couldn’t live 90 years.”

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