Gao Yaojie
Gao Yaojie AFP

A dissident doctor who became China's most outspoken and celebrated AIDS campaigner, spending years under government pressure before finding refuge in the United States, has died at the age of 95, a long-time supporter told AFP.

Gao Yaojie, who dedicated her retirement to helping AIDS patients and orphans, passed away in New York City on Sunday, Andrew Nathan, a prominent China expert who managed her affairs in the United States, confirmed.

"She had been frail for several years and spent all but a few minutes a day in bed," he told AFP, but added that her health had been stable and her death was "sudden and unexpected."

She died at home on International Human Rights Day, said Nathan, who is a political scientist at Columbia University.

Gao moved to New York in 2009 after years of harassment by Chinese officials believed to be nursing grudges after she exposed a cover-up of the true extent of the AIDS epidemic in central Henan province.

She was among the first doctors to hear about the mysterious disease that was killing villagers in the mid-1990s, and realized huge numbers of poor farmers had contracted AIDS or HIV by selling blood in unsanitary government-approved collection schemes begun a decade earlier.

As the local authorities tried to keep the scandal quiet and refused to give any help to the villagers, Gao began buying basic medicine and supplies using her pension to help the sick.

Experts estimate at least one million farmers in Henan alone contracted HIV/AIDS in the blood trade.

Gao became one of the most vocal campaigners in publicizing the plight of the AIDS sufferers, and received international recognition for her work, though for years authorities refused to issue her a passport and often put her under surveillance.

China finally admitted to the crisis in 2001 -- and in 2004 honored Gao with an award.

But in 2007 Chinese officials placed her under house arrest to stop her from traveling to the United States to receive an award from then-US senator Hillary Clinton.

The officials eventually relented after intervention by Clinton and then-Chinese president Hu Jintao.

In 2019 Clinton posted a photo on Facebook of herself visiting Gao in New York, calling her "simply one of the bravest people I know."

Chinese social media has been flooded with comments paying tribute to Gao, who appeared on a list of top searches on the Baidu search engine.

"She was a great person," one user on the Weibo social media platform said.

"It's a pity that she died in a foreign country for political reasons," they added.

"She said 'one cannot live only for oneself'," another wrote. "Will some bureaucrats be ashamed?"

Another compared Gao to whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, who died from Covid in early 2020 after officials silenced his efforts to warn others about the deadly disease, triggering a public outcry.

"When I see Dr Gao, I also think of Li Wenliang," they wrote.

Noting that Chinese state media largely did not report her death, they said: "We don't have journalists, we don't have media, we don't deserve too many good people."

Gao said in 2007 that "the largest part" of HIV transmissions in China occurred "through the blood trade."

"The epidemic is different in China from anywhere else because I have spoken to AIDS groups here in the United States and they say it is mostly transmitted through sex and intravenous drug use," she said.

Gao was of the dwindling generation of people who became an adult before the Communist Party took over in 1949.

Because of her parents' background as landlords, the former gynecologist was demoted and forced to clean hospital bathrooms for eight years during the Cultural Revolution.

"I went through a lot of hardship. That's why I help others. I feel sorry for them," Gao told AFP in 2004.