My Life of Running Away17 min read

The doctor who exposed an HIV scandal in China reflects on a life of exile – Gao Yaojie, trans. Mengyu Dong

Translator’s note: In the mid 1990s, while in her eighties, Dr Gao Yaojie uncovered a network of unsanitary blood collection and sales that eventually led to a devastating HIV outbreak in central China. As she gained international influence, the Chinese authorities briefly recognized her work before harassing her and putting her under house arrest. In 2009, Gao Yaojie left China and settled in New York with help from friends and volunteers. She has since published three books detailing her research on the AIDS epidemic. Gao wrote this short memoir about these experiences in the spring of 2020, just as the outbreak of the coronavirus hit the US. It was published on September 5 by Initium Media (paywall) and is translated here for the first time in English. – Mengyu Dong

Dr Gao in 2007

I am 93 years old. I’ve had to run away from many things throughout my life. I ran from Shandong to Henan. I ran from one part of Henan to the next, where I lived through the tough times of my prime years. It didn’t stop in Henan. When I was an 82-year-old fighting against the AIDS epidemic, I had to run away from my country. For more than a decade, I’ve lived in New York in exile, by myself. Now with America as the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, there’s nowhere left for me to run. I am old and sick. What can I do?

Running Away from the Eighth Route Army

I was born in Cao County, Shandong Province in December 1927. My family was wealthy and lived in a mansion. With more than 70 mu [12 acres] of land, our wealth was well-noted in Southwest Shandong. You can check the records of Cao County. I was my mother’s first child. Father married her after the passing of his previous wife, who gave him two daughters. The Gao Family wanted my mother to have a boy. But I was another girl, a disappointment in a traditional society that preferred sons. In order for my mother give birth to boys, they made her stop nursing me and hired a wet nurse. This gave me chronic stomach issues. I was thinner and weaker than other children of my age. Fortunately, I learned medicine and worked in healthcare, which helped me achieve longevity.

In the 1930s, the Eighth Route Army came to my hometown. In March 1939, a troop ransacked Gaoxin Township. It was led by Yang Dezhi, the head of the Hebei, Shandong, and Henan Branch of the Eighth Route Army, along with Political Commissar Cui Tianmin, and Second Division Chief Qin Jian. They detained three people from my family, including my father and my second uncle, who was unable to speak due to a stroke. My second uncle was charged with being a “collaborator with the Japanese.” At the time, the Japanese military hadn’t occupied Cao County, and my second uncle had been ill for years. How could he have been a collaborator? To get money, the troops beat them up, injecting chili water into their noses and mouths. After two weeks, the Gao Family put up 300,000 silver dollars (xianyang 現洋) to have them released. At the same time, the troops ransacked the Gao Family for clothing, furniture and food. They didn’t even leave a single grain of rice for us. In despair, my father led our family to Jiunüji Village in Liuhe Township. This was the first time I had to run away. I was 11 years old.

Running Away from the Japanese

Jiunüji is a big township. There was a market every five days, and many stores along the main street. There was a temple in town, and every market day, many believers would come from other places to worship. It was quite a lively scene. Among the residents of the township, there was the Seventh Route Army, which belonged to the Nationalist Party. They were funded by the government and did not engage in looting. The township was relatively peaceful.

We rented a small courtyard with three buildings. The three rooms in the main building housed my parents and my younger brothers. My two big sisters, two younger sisters and I shared the three rooms to the east. The three to the west were used as kitchen and storage space. In the few months that we lived there, fear dominated us every day. We didn’t dare to go out. We were afraid that others would know we were the wealthy family who ran away from Gaoxin Township and be looted.

One day we were having lunch in the courtyard when my father rushed in and said, “The Japanese devils are almost here, we’ve got to run…” My mother held my youngest brother in her arms, dragged an older one by the hand, and left the courtyard, my five sisters following along. There was chaos on the street. Everyone was running eastbound. We were pushed forward by the crowd and exited the East Gate. Suddenly, intense fire broke out from the South Gate — the Seventh Route Army was in crossfire with the Japanese devils, trying to stop them from coming in while buying us townspeople time to escape. It was even more chaotic outside the East Gate. People were running northbound now. My mother had bound feet and couldn’t keep up while carrying two boys. My father led the family through a trench that was about one meter deep. We rested in the woods, separated from the main road by only a sorghum field about 15 meters wide. We could see clearly the Japanese devils marching. There were about 300 to 400 of them, with two canon wagons. They were marching toward Chengwu County, getting ready to attack. At sunset, we heard bombing and saw yellow columns of smoke from the direction of Chengwu County. But Jiunüji was peaceful again. And we returned home with the crowd.

Running to Kaifeng

My father saw no end to the chaos and decided that we had to go somewhere far from home, to Sichuan, the base for the war against the Japanese. My mother wanted to return to Gaoxin. They argued for days and compromised — we fled to Kaifeng, the capital city of Henan Province. We had family there, in particular the Lü Family from my father’s third marriage. My father had six brothers in Kaifeng, and we were often in touch with them, so he sought their help to move to Kaifeng.

Around June or July, 1939, our family left the Cao County Catholic church in a carriage. Around noon, we arrived at Liuheji Train Station, Where we sat on straw mats in an empty, dirty room. Four policemen came to check our luggage. My father dealt with them. Then our family boarded an eastbound train. On the train, I saw two Japanese soldiers up close for the first time.

Around sunset, the train arrived in Nanguan Station in Kaifeng. For the first time, I saw a huge dome made of colorful glass. There were two platforms and four tracks. We passed through the ticketing gate and quickly left the train station. We checked in at a rental property on Jiamiao Street, which I was told that my uncles from the Lü Family had arranged. The six uncles checked in on us regularly. Two months later, we moved to Nanjükui Street. There were a lot of bedbugs there and we couldn’t sleep well. A month later, we moved to Houjia Hutong.

In Winter 1939, we moved yet again to North Main Street. We opened a convenience store on Jingkou Hutong. It was a chaotic time, and lots of deadbeat customers refused to pay up. We lost too much money and had to close down the store. In the fall of 1943, we purchased a courtyard at No. 31 Youliangshi Street, where we settled down and opened a mill to sustain our family.

A Student Fleeing Southbound

In the spring of 1948, I was admitted to the Kaifeng Women’s Normal School. It was an intermediate vocational school, dedicated to training elementary school teachers. I thought it would be good if I could become a teacher and support myself. The school was well managed. Every month, each student received 40 kilograms of wheat and one silver dollar. I couldn’t finish my ration and sent the rest home. I was satisfied with my life and studies.

Nearing the end of the first semester, the Eight Route Army launched an attack on Kaifeng. Our school became the epicenter of the gunfight. Classmates hid underground below our dorm. Bullets and bombshells were pouring down. We didn’t know the casualties in our school. But tragically, the whole of Kaifeng City was covered by soldiers’ dead bodies and drenched in a foul smell. Just like Mencius said: “in a fight for a city, bodies fill the streets, as if someone is commanding the land to devour its own people. Three days later, the Eighth Route Army ransacked the city and left.

Schools in Kaifeng were ordered by the Henan provincial government and the education bureau to leave the city. Students rushed to sign up, fearing another battle. Our school was going southbound. My father carried a cotton quilt on a shabby bicycle to my school and said, “No one knows whether they can stay alive. Don’t worry, just go with your school!” How could I have known that was the last time I’d see my father? That evening, our headmaster Wang Shaoming and a dozen of teachers escorted the students onto a train headed towards Nanjing. Some students on the train were weeping, some sleeping, some singing sad songs. Thoughts flooded our minds. But none of us could predict the future. What was awaiting us at the end of this journey?

Two days later, the train arrived at the dock at  Nanjing’s Xiaguan District, north of the Yangtze River. We stuck together and waited to be transported to Nanjing City by boat. My classmates and I were lying on the concrete ground. I was lucky to have that cotton quilt from my father to shield me from the cold. After our school gathered in Nanjing, we went further south to Jiaxing, our final desitnation.

Our school was settled in Chiwan Township in Jiaxing. The second- and third-level students lived in Xizhen Temple. The freshmen lived in Chiwan proper. We relied on donations from the local government and people. (The food was terrible.) We ate rice porridge every day. No other dishes. We added salt and some vegetable leaves to the porridge. The students would go to the field and the riverbank to look for garlic and other wild plants. We’d take whatever we could eat to our dorm, wash it, mix it with salt, and share. I was a freshman student leader, so I remember these things clearly. 

Only a few teachers had come with us. In Chiwan, two cohorts from two different grades shared the same classrooms in one big building. One room was dedicated to physics, another to chemistry. Sometimes, one would be used for physical education, and the other for aerobics. Some students were upset and frustrated. They would cry out of homesickness. I was sad and wept, too. Then it turned into wailing.

Our teacher Yin Jinde and his wife lived with us in Jianchang. They had three children. The students had classes on the first floor and slept on the second floor.

Those who could all left. My classmates Yu Huizhang, Shi Ronghua and I, along with one other student, transferred to Songyun High School, which was following the Henan Provincial government, and enrolled as 11th graders. . Shortly afterwards, we moved to Wan County, Sichuan, and stayed in the Fucheng Law School. Finally, we could focus on our studies. The teachers were hired locally. Sometimes I had a hard time understanding their Sichuan accent. Yu Huizhang and Shi Ronghua’s fathers were both Henan provincial officials. They took their daughters to Taiwan.

I studied there for a semester. At the end of 1949, the Eighth Route Army took over Sichuan. I moved in with my fellow Shandong native Shen Pimo, the director of Wan County Red Cross Hospital. I met him when I went to see the doctor,  then pulled on my guanxi: he knew my second uncle Gao Shengjun. I heard that in the 1950s, Shen Pimo became the director of the healthcare bureau of Wan County. Then he was labeled a rightist and killed during the Anti-Rightist Campaign.

The Shen Family was wealthy, and their three children were in school. Mrs. Shen was a young woman, a homemaker. In January 1950, Mrs. Shen went to Jinan, Shandong to visit her family. I followed her, then returned home to Kaifeng.

Fleeing Abroad in Old Age

In March 2009, I received a call from the French Embassy in China, telling me that France had nominated me for the annual “Women’s Human Rights’ Award.” I didn’t quite hear them, and said, “I am going to Shanghai in mid-April to attend a ceremony hosted by Southern Weekly. We could meet up and talk about it then.” Okay, they said. Unfortunately, the ceremony, commemorating “Activists for the Chinese Dream”, was postponed, and  I didn’t get to go to Shanghai.

I Had No Choice But to Leave

Around 9 a.m. on May 6, I had a strange feeling. My phone was down again. I couldn’t make or receive calls. So was my computer. When I went out to buy lunch, I noticed many strangers in my residential compound. They had a strange look on their faces. It was just like in February 2007, right before I went to America to accept an award. I didn’t have lunch or put in my dentures. I only took my harddisk. (There were three book drafts on it, and I couldn’t give those up.) I placed the disk in my pocket and went out the back door of the compound. It was all because of what I had done for the AIDS patients, I couldn’t just abandon them. In March 2007, I went to America to claim an award by the “Vital Voices Global Women’s Leadership Award for Human Rights,” and important, powerful people tried to convince me to stay to live out the autumn of my years. I declined and insisted on returning to China. How could I have anticipated my life [under house arrest] over the next two years?

Nearing the end of my life, I wouldn’t have left my home unless there was no other way around. I had nowhere to turn. I only wanted to leave the documents (the three books about the AIDS epidemic) for the younger generation. On this vast land, among this sea of humanity, where could I call home?

I was in my eighties and had trouble walking. I overcame great difficulties to reach Chengdu, thenGuangzhou. I lived in a village there and spent all my time editing my books. It was close to a university town. Many volunteers and college students came to help me. Every day, two or three people came to help type up my drafts. It provided great solace for me. I wept often and my mind was never quiet — it was not that I did not want to go home. I could not go home because I had revealed the AIDS epidemic.

I had to keep speaking up for the AIDS victims. In the past, I had supported my actions out of my own pocket. I didn’t dare to take anyone’s money. Even when I could not refuse other people’s kindness, I insisted on returning the money later. In August 2000, Mr. Wan Yanhai from the Beijing NGO Aizhixing came to Zhengzhou twice to give me money, 28,000 yuan in total. Two years later, in the winter of 2003, I wired him 30,000 yuan — including interest.

It was my duty as a doctor to speak up for the AIDS victims. Why attack me, defame me, and spread rumors about me? Why prevent me from doing my work? They went as far as offering an award of 500 yuan to report me and stop me from going into the AIDS villages. So many of the books and clothes that I sent to underdeveloped regions disappeared. My phones were always shut down. I was constantly followed. It was unbearable!

I thought for a long time and cried countless tears! I weighed the pros and cons: if I died quietly, the documents I had would be buried for good. No one would know about what happened. So I decided to leave. I asked a friend in Hong Kong to call a friend of mine overseas. In mid-July, I got in touch with people in America. By late July, I was getting my paperwork together. Some friends asked a Chinese organization in America to help me leave China.

Forced to Settle in America

Some college students saw me off at the airport. One of them gave me a note at the gate and said: “Grandma, please read after you board the airplane.” I took a picture of the note to remember it. On August 7, the plane took off from the Guangzhou Baiyun Airport. After three connections, I arrived in the US. I felt a big relief. A fellow countryman from Shandong took me into their home and took good care of me. I lived there for six months. And I very much appreciated their help.

In March 2010, I became a visiting scholar at Columbia University and moved to an apartment in New York. I was mostly confined to my apartment, spending all my energy completing my books.

Everyone has to face their end eventually. It was not death that I feared, but the possibility of the truth about the AIDS epidemic in China being buried. I left so that the AIDS patients would not have died in vain. All three of my books were published, and I edited a new version of my memoir, The Soul of Gao Yaojie.

Since 2009, I’ve been away from my country for more than ten years! My family  have either passed away or are separated from me. Living in a strange land, I have had trouble settling in and learning the language. There are many Chinese people here from every walk of life. No one understands, which only compounds my predicament. During the long nights, I feel like a heartbroken sojourner!

I am old and sick. I’ve been on medication for a long time. My hearing and eyesight have deteriorated. I feel fatigued and sleepy. I stumble around in limping steps. I’m not strong enough to socialize anymore. I can only work on my books to pass the last years of my life. What’s worse is that my lung condition has had me bedridden and reliant on oxygen. But I still want the world to know my story of running away. I know I don’t have much time left. On the Eve of the Chinese New Year in 2019, missing my children, my bones and flesh, I wrote a poem:


My night is your daylight.
When I miss you, you are falling asleep.
At ninety-two, my longing is timeless.
I think of your faces as children,
Your lively, restless movement,
Your sugar-sweet voices calling out.
These happy moments from long ago
Now linger. ∎

This article was published in Chinese on September 5 2020 by Initium Media.