Several years ago I worked as a research reporter for the New York Times’ Beijing bureau. One of the best trips I took, alongside another reporter, was to Zhengzhou in Henan province. We were there to visit two HIV/AIDS activists—Hu Jia and Gao Yaojie.
Gao was under house arrest at the time and Hu was taking his own chances, about a year out from being sentenced to nearly four years in prison for state subversion. The four of us crowded into Gao’s little one bedroom walk-up. Gao put a kettle on and chatted about her goals for the afternoon—mailing out books and resources on HIV/AIDS to libraries across the country. I remember she had this old chocolate tin full of string and postage stamps. She just needed our help to bundle up the packages and affix the right stamps to each parcel.
Hu spoke admiringly of Gao’s work; she was a pioneer of Chinese social action, speaking out against the ignorance and intolerance that was spreading HIV/AIDS in China. We wrapped and bundled her packages. We were not bothered at all by the two dark cars parked out in the courtyard or the guys who got out, stretched their legs, lit cigarettes, tossed empty noodle boxes into Gao’s garden.
Once we had everything ready, the four of us walked downstairs again and hailed a taxi. The driver slowly navigated the Zhengzhou traffic while the plainclothes police officers puttered along close behind. We made a careful little caravan of it and everyone found parking at the local post office. Inside we got the packages organized again while the plainclothes loitered by the door, pretending to check out commemorative stamp collections or just stare out the window, blowing smoke against dirty panes.
Hu filmed the whole thing and the other Times reporter helped Gao while I was equal parts fascinated by the scene in front of me and the one all around us, not knowing if I should watch the people I was with or the people who had also come to watch the people I was with, or if I should just watch the people I was with pointedly not watch those we knew were watching us.
Now Gao has given up her life in China to live out the rest of her days in exile near Columbia University, where she continues to write about the policy imperatives still needed to control HIV/AIDS in China. But she suffers the plight of all exiles: irrelevance, obscurity, time. Hu, for his part, has remained in China. He didn’t have much choice in that. Shortly after I met him, the activist would serve nearly 4 years in prison on charges of state subversion. In July Hu was again detained, this time on the occasion of his own birthday celebration.
And I think again of all those packages Gao Yaojie prepared. And I think of the New York Times own China Daily dispatch today, all that hot air blowing across page A14: “China’s fast developing private equity market in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen will give Chinese companies huge financial firepower to make acquisitions around the world. They will then be able to acquire the innovation capability and global brands.”
But will that ‘firepower’ and ‘innovation capability’ be strong enough to safeguard the real battle—the contest of ideas that, at one time, relied on nothing more and nothing better than one old woman’s beat up tin of postage stamps?