Beyond Brainwashing Propaganda

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Gao Yaojie, eating a dumpling with the only tooth she has, shows visitors her slides about AIDS patients in China. (Zhaoyin Feng)
Gao Yaojie, eating a dumpling with the only tooth she has, shows visitors her slides about AIDS patients in China. (Zhaoyin Feng)

Associate Editor at SAIS Washington

I have long been aware of the risk of being brainwashed by propaganda, and have sought voices beyond it. Given propaganda being biased and untrue, does the truth lie on the opposite side of propaganda?

I canceled my visit to the Statue of Liberty in New York. Instead, I went to the tourist-scarce East Harlem to meet a Chinese AIDS activist who fled China to the US for liberty.
Gao Yaojie, an 86-year-old gynecologist called “grandma activist” by the media, is well-known for disclosing scandals about the sale of blood, which has led to the rapid and wide diffusion of AIDS in the Henan province in China.

In the 1990s, rural villagers often sold their blood to blood merchants in exchange for considerable money. Some devices for collecting blood were not sterilized properly and passed the HIV virus to donors. Worse still, the collected blood was pumped into a central tank, which contaminated the entire blood reserve. When patients received a blood transfusion, the virus spread even further.

Gao, who used to work in a hospital in Henan, treated a large number of AIDS patients and discovered the contamination. She started to pay frequent visits to rural AIDS-ridden villages, providing financial aid to impoverished patients and conducting research on AIDS’ prevalence in China.

In recognittion of her contribution, she was granted a semi-official award called “Ten People Who Touch China” in 2004 by the China Central Television. However, fame did not give Gao greater research freedom but added pressure from the government, as she refused to keep silent about what she found: the local government’s mismanagement of blood trade had led to the AIDS epidemic in Henan.

In 2011, a joint UN-Chinese government report estimated 780,000 people in China are infected by HIV, with 6.6% of them infected via the blood trade. Nonetheless, Gao insists the number of HIV carriers is much larger than the reported one, and the vast majority of them caught the virus from selling blood or receiving a transfusion of contaminated blood.

“Over ten million have been infected,” she said to me adamantly during my visit.
In 2004, after suffering from house arrest and continuous harassment, she fled Henan to come to the US, where she has lived as a political refugee ever since. The current premier of China, Li Keqiang, was the party head of Henan province at that time.

Now, Gao is living alone in an apartment in a compound for low-income people in New York. A group of Chinese students visit her regularly and help compile her research articles.

Her health has been deteriorating. In addition to her deteriorating hearing, she also suffers from several chronic diseases and has only one tooth and one fourth of her stomach left.

However, she remains clear-headed about detecting people who want to “use her to meet their own agendas,” she said. Dozens of “human rights lawyers” have lobbied her to participate in anti-Chinese government activities. Gao has rejected all of them.

“I always ask them: where is your lawyer license? Whose human rights are you protecting?” She does not want to get involved in Chinese politics and be quoted as an anti-government activist. Instead, she is a fighter against AIDS and the dishonest mismanagement of the government’s response to the AIDS epidemic.

While I admire her bravery, some of her research fails the scientific method and lacks up-to-date information. Her estimates are based on statistics from 1995. Also, health problems and exile have hindered her access to new first-hand information.Despite her good intentions and unimaginable sacrifice, the limitation of her research should not be ignored.

Two students from Columbia University’s SIPA accompanied me on my visit to Gao. One of the students took my camera and deleted photos with her and Gao. I understand the fear. Photos with sensitive celebrities like Gao may lead to unwanted troubles ranging from being hunted down by the government to being used by radical oppositions.

In fact, the day before I visited Gao, I had avoided taking photos with three Chinese political refugees who were protesting in front of the UN headquarters. They claimed their properties in Shanghai were collected forcefully by the government. When they made petitions to the local government, they were beaten up and sent to labor camps. Disappointed, they flew to the US on tourist visas and applied for political asylums afterward.
When I approached them, they were talking to a tourist from Hong Kong.

“You Hong Kong people must fight the CPC’s brainwashing! Mainland Chinese are brainwashed by the party’s propaganda and don’t even dare to take photos with us.”

I did not want to take the risk of my photo appearing with stories that I cannot verify and opinions that I may not agree with. I chose to hide my mainland identity and claimed I was Taiwanese. My worries were proven valid soon.
“You Taiwanese should visit to know the CPC’s wrongdoings!” they said. The website is known for reporting unfounded rumors and radical anti-CPC opinions. It is not a news source I trust.

Media censorship blocks truth, but what is censored is not all true. The opposite of propaganda can also be biased. Unfortunately, only a few unbiased media choices are available regarding Chinese politics. Therefore, some people only listen to propaganda, and some believe in radical opposition. True stories are not completely told in both.

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