Shuping Wang: Whistleblower who exposed HIV scandal in China dies

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Photo of Shuping WangImage copyright
Hampstead Theatre

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“Speaking out cost me my job, my marriage and my happiness at the time,” Dr Wang said

A whistleblower who exposed HIV and hepatitis epidemics in central China in the 1990s, potentially saving tens of thousands of lives, has died aged 59.

Dr Shuping Wang lost her job, was attacked, and had her clinic vandalised after she spoke out.

She died in Utah in the US, where she moved after the scandal.

A play inspired by her life is currently running in London, with the playwright calling her a “public health hero”.

Dr Wang never returned to China after leaving, saying it did not feel safe.

Why did Dr Wang speak out?

In 1991 in the Chinese province of Henan, Dr Wang was assigned to work at a plasma collection station. At the time, many locals sold their blood to local government-run blood banks.

It wasn’t long before she realised the station posed a huge public health risk.

Poor collection practices, including cross-contamination in blood-drawing, meant many donors were being infected with hepatitis C from other donors.

She warned senior colleagues at the station to change practices, but was ignored and according to her own account, was told that such a move would “increase costs”.

Undeterred, she reported the issue to the Ministry of Health. As a result, the ministry later announced that all donors would need to undergo hepatitis C screening – reducing the risk of the disease being spread.

But because of her whistleblowing, Dr Wang said, she was forced out of a job.

Her seniors said her actions had “impeded the business”. She was transferred, and assigned to work in a health bureau. But in 1995, she uncovered another scandal.

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Hampstead Theatre

Dr Wang discovered a donor who had tested HIV positive – but had still sold blood in four different areas.

She immediately alerted her seniors to test for HIV in all the blood stations in Henan province. Again, she was told this would be too costly.

She decided to take things into her own hands, buying test kits and randomly collecting over 400 samples from donors.

She found the HIV positive rate to be 13%.

She took her results to officials in the capital, Beijing. But back home, she was targeted. A man she described as a “retired leader of the health bureau” came to her testing centre and smashed her equipment.

When she tried to block him, he hit her with his baton.

‘I’m not a man. I’m a woman’

In 1996, all the blood and plasma collection sites across the country were shut down for “rectification”. When they re-opened, HIV testing was added.

“I felt very gratified, because my work helped to protect the poor,” she said. But others were not happy.

At a health conference later that year, a high-ranking official complained about that “man in a district clinical testing centre [who] dared to report the HIV epidemic directly to the central government”.

“He said, [who is] the guy – how dare he [write] a report about this?” Dr Wang told the BBC’s Woman’s Hour in an interview earlier this month.

“I stood up and said I’m not a man. I’m a woman and I reported this.”

Later that year, she was told by health officials that she ought to stop work. “I lost my job, they asked me to stay home and work for my husband,” Dr Wang said.

Her husband, who worked at the Ministry of Health, was ostracised by his colleagues. Their marriage eventually broke down.

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Hampstead Theatre

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A scene from The King of Hell’s Palace

In 2001, Dr Wang moved to the US for work, where she took the English name “Sunshine”.

In the same year, the Chinese government admitted that it faced a serious AIDS crisis in central China. More than half a million people were believed to have become infected after selling their blood to local blood banks.

Henan, the province that Dr Wang had worked in, was one of the worst hit.

The government later announced that a special clinic had been set up to care for those suffering from Aids-related illnesses.

Several years later, Dr Wang re-married and moved with her husband Gary Christensen to Salt Lake City, where she began working at the University of Utah as a medical researcher.

But her past followed her. In 2019, she said, Chinese state security officers made threatening visits to relatives and former colleagues in Henan, in an attempt to cancel the production of a play inspired by her life.

She refused, and the play titled “The King of Hell’s Palace” premiered at London’s Hampstead Theatre in September.

Dr Wang died on 21 September while hiking in Salt Lake City with friends and her husband. It’s thought she may have had a heart attack.

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Dr Wang with playwright Frances Ya-Chu

“Speaking out cost me my job, my marriage and my happiness at the time, but it also helped save the lives of thousands and thousands of people,” she had told the Hampstead Theatre website in an interview just one month before her death.

“She was a most determined, relentless optimistic and most loving woman,” wrote her friend David Cowhig after news of her death.

“She chose the English name Sunshine for a reason. Perhaps her exuberance and love for the outrageous – made possible [the] perseverance she had.”

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