Shuping Wang, Who Helped Expose China’s Rural AIDS Crisis, Dies at 59

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 Sept. 21 in Salt Lake City. She was 59.

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

Her death came just over two weeks after a stage play based on her experience as a whistle-blower opened in London.

Dr. 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.

She had stood up to Chinese officials who tried to conceal an AIDS epidemic in rural China, where H.I.V., the virus that causes the disease, spread through shoddy facilities that bought blood from poor farmers.

Dr. Wang was one of a group of Chinese doctors, researchers, activists and journalists who took great risks in the 1990s to spread information about the blood-borne scourge of AIDS in Henan Province and other regions. While others gained the limelight, she was the whistle-blower who marshaled evidence of the hidden epidemic.

“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 Ms. Wang. “For this, she suffered the most grievous attacks and pain of her life.”

Eventually — far too late, in Dr. Wang’s view — Chinese authorities shut the commercial blood stations that had spread H.I.V. and offered medical help to villagers who had become inflected, usually after they or family members sold blood.

ImageDr. Wang, center, at the Hampstead Theater in London at the opening of “The King of Hell’s Palace,” a play based on her experiences.
CreditGary Christensen/Hempstead Theatre

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

A former medical official, she said, used a club to smash Ms. 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 Dr. Wang’s story, “The King of Hell’s Palace,” by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, recently had its premiere at the Hampstead Theater 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,” Dr. Wang said in a question-and-answer exchange on the theater’s website. “I wanted to prevent disease, I didn’t care about power and position.”

Shuping Wang was born Zou Shuping on Oct. 20, 1959, in Fugou County, Henan. Her mother, Huang Yunling, was a village doctor; her father, Zou Bangyan, was a math teacher who had served as 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, Dr. Wang’s parents were attacked because of her father’s background, and her education was cut short when she was 8. She resumed school five years later after she left her home village and was adopted by an uncle whose family name, Wang, she took as her own.

In 1991, after medical school, Dr. Wang began working in a plasma collection center 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. Dr. Wang found alarming levels of hepatitis C among the people selling blood, and she worried that H.I.V. might also be spreading through the blood business.

CreditHampstead Theater

Her bosses scoffed. Chinese officials saw AIDS as a foreign affliction and were unwilling to accept that H.I.V. could spread among the farmers selling blood. Besides, they said, comprehensive testing for H.I.V. would be too expensive, hobbling the lucrative business in plasma and other blood products.

Dr. Wang persisted. She used her savings to buy three H.I.V. test kits and tested 408 samples for the virus. What she found stunned her: Thirteen percent of the randomly collected samples from blood sellers had the virus, an alarmingly high rate of infection.

The commercial blood stations worked cheaply, taking blood, extracting the valuable plasma and transfusing the sellers with the leftover blood parts so the stations could pay them less and they could recover more quickly to sell again. The stations’ equipment was often dirty. Worse, they often mixed leftover blood into shared tubs to be transfused into groups of blood sellers, greatly increasing the risks of cross-infection.

A local official at first praised Dr. 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 Dr. Wang ran into a researcher who grasped the urgency of the issue and had 16 samples tested: 13 were definitely H.I.V. positive, three possibly positive.

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

Even before Dr. Wang left Beijing, officials in Henan called. “You’ve stirred up an earthquake,” she said one told her.

The government quietly took steps in 1996 to close plasma collection stations and introduce H.I.V. tests. But tens of thousands of people — and possibly many more — had been infected through the blood trade, and Henan tried to keep the epidemic secret. For years they received little treatment and the tainted, underground trade in blood persisted.

“Countless families were broken apart and ruined by AIDS, leaving many AIDS orphans,” Dr. Wang wrote in 2014. “They had no one to turn to.”

Dr. Wang became a pariah among her colleagues. At one meeting, an official railed about a “guy” who had made a fuss about AIDS.

“I’m that guy from the clinical testing center you just mentioned,” she told him. “But I’m a woman.”

Dr. 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.

Dr. Gao, a gynecologist from the province, took up the issue and became the most prominent face of the campaign to expose and end the epidemic. He won many honors and later moved to safety in New York. Dr. Wang was the quieter insider, channeling information to experts, officials, diplomats and journalists, and returning to Henan to help stricken villagers.

In 2001, fleeing pressure in China, Dr. Wang moved to the United States. She later became an American citizen, took a new nickname, Sunshine, and found work as a medical research worker, initially in Wisconsin. She never returned to China.

She married Mr. Christensen, a chief financial officer at an aquarium, in 2005. They settled in Salt Lake City.

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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, Dr. 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 of the play.

She told the Guardian, “I will still not be silenced.”

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