Shuping Wang obituary: Doctor helped expose China’s rural Aids crisis

Medical activist paid great personal price for standing up to Chinese officials on epidemic

Dr  Shuping Wang: braved the loss of her job, ostracism, assault and the destruction of her first marriage to expose the spread of Aids in rural China. Photograph: Hampstead Theatre via New York Times

Dr Shuping Wang: braved the loss of her job, ostracism, assault and the destruction of her first marriage to expose the spread of Aids in rural China. Photograph: Hampstead Theatre via New York Times


Shuping Wang

Born: October 20th, 1959

Died: September 21st, 2019

Shuping Wang, a Chinese doctor who braved the loss of her job as well as ostracism, assault and the destruction of her first marriage to expose the spread of Aids in rural China, died on September 21st in Salt Lake City. She was 59.

She died while hiking in a canyon with her husband, Gary Christensen. A preliminary autopsy indicated that the cause was a heart attack, he said. She had lived in Salt Lake City in recent years after settling in the United States.

Her death came a little more than two weeks after a stage play based on her experience as a whistleblower opened in London.

Wang worked for nearly two decades in relative quiet as a medical researcher in her adopted homeland, most recently at the University of Utah. Colleagues, she said, sometimes did not know of her dramatic past.

In the 1990s, she stood up to Chinese officials who had tried to conceal an Aids epidemic in rural China. There, the spread of HIV, the virus that causes the blood-borne disease, had been attributed to shoddy facilities that bought blood from poor farmers.

Wang was one of a group of Chinese doctors, researchers, activists and journalists who took great risks to spread information about the hidden epidemic in Henan province and other regions. She was the whistleblower who marshalled evidence of it.

“Wang Shuping was the earliest medical worker to enter the fray in the war against Aids,” Gao Yaojie, a doctor from Henan, who become the public face of efforts to expose and treat the spread of Aids there, wrote in a tribute to Wang. “For this, she suffered the most grievous attacks and pain of her life.”

Blood stations

Eventually – far too late, in Wang’s view – the Chinese authorities shuttered the commercial blood stations that had spread HIV and offered medical help to villagers who had become infected, usually after they or family members sold blood.

Wang’s pride in what she accomplished was tempered by what she and her family endured. After she took evidence of the HIV infections to officials and researchers in Beijing, her superiors in Henan assailed her.

A former medical official, she said, used a club to smash Wang’s testing lab and beat her. The local government shut the lab, leaving her without pay. Her marriage to an official who worked in the medical administration cracked under the pressure.

The play based on Wang’s story, The King of Hell’s Palace, by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, recently had its premiere at the Hampstead Theatre in London.

“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,” Wang said in a question-and-answer exchange on the theatre’s website. “I wanted to prevent disease, I didn’t care about power and position.”

Shuping Wang was born Zou Shuping on October 20th, 1959, in Fugou County, Henan. Her mother, Huang Yunling, was a village doctor; her father, Zou Bangyan, was a maths teacher who had been a soldier in the nationalist forces that were defeated by Mao Zedong’s communists.

After Mao began the Cultural Revolution in 1966 to purge China of purported enemies, Wang’s parents were attacked because of her father’s background, and her education was cut short when she was eight. She resumed school five years later, after she had left her home village and was adopted by an uncle. She took his family name, Wang, as her own.

Commercial harvesting

In 1991, after medical school, Wang began working in a plasma collection centre in Henan. Her odyssey into Aids activism began through her interest in hepatitis, another infectious disease spread through blood and other body fluids.

Henan had nurtured a boom in commercial blood harvesting, recruiting hundreds of thousands of poor farmers to sell blood for a few dollars. Wang found alarming levels of hepatitis C among the people selling blood, and she worried that HIV might also be spreading through the blood business.

A local official at first praised Wang for her detective work, but soon retreated and accused her of lacking proof. She took 55 samples to Beijing for more tests. A virology institute refused to test them unless she paid an exorbitant amount. But Wang ran into a researcher who grasped the urgency of the issue and had 16 samples tested: 13 were definitely HIV positive, three possibly positive.

“She had the courage to keep collecting and sharing evidence even when officials didn’t want information revealed,” said Zhang Jicheng, a former Henan journalist who helped uncover the spread of Aids there. “She had no official support; this was her personal choice, and she suffered for it.”

Wang moved to Beijing in 1997, where she found some protection working for a senior medical researcher. She was not the only one alarmed about the spread of Aids in rural Henan.

Gao, a gynaecologist from the province, took up the issue and became the most prominent face of the campaign to expose and end the epidemic. She won many honours and later moved to safety in New York. Wang was the quiet insider, channelling information to experts, officials, diplomats and journalists, and returning to Henan to help stricken villagers.

In addition to her husband, she is survived by three children in the United States – Sami Geng, Julie Zou and David Zou – and a brother in China, Zou Tiancheng.

Even as her life was celebrated onstage, Wang could not escape intimidation. Chinese state security officials confronted her family and former colleagues in Henan to press her to cancel the London production of the play about her, she said. She refused, and received a standing ovation at a performance.

She told the theatre in a statement, “I will still not be silenced.” – New York Times