On Sept. 12, following a performance of “The King of Hell’s Palace” at London’s Hempstead Theatre, the Chinese whistleblower received a standing ovation from the audience.
The play, one the Chinese government pressured the whistleblower to cancel, is based on the whistleblower’s life and tells of the spread of the HIV epidemic in eastern Henan Province in the 1990s. According to a statement posted by the whistleblower on the theater’s website, the Chinese government feared the play would “cause embarrassment” to the government “and damage the reputation of specific officials.”
In the early1990s, Henan Province had a thriving commercial blood harvesting industry where hundreds of thousands of poor farmers were recruited to sell blood for a few dollars, which contributed to the spread of hepatitis C and HIV. Dr. WANG Shuping (王淑平) was the Chinese whistleblower. She collected evidence and exposed efforts to conceal an AIDS epidemic in rural China.
Wang was one of the earliest medical professionals engaged in the war against AIDS in China. She became aware of cross-contamination of plasma bought from poor farmers at a plasma collection station ran by Zhoukou city’s epidemic prevention center. The stations’ equipment was often not sterilized properly. “Leftover” blood was often mixed in tubs and transfused back into the blood sellers so they can sell more blood more quickly.
Realizing the gravity of the situation, Wang reported the issue to officials at the local health bureau. That drew no response from the local authorities. She then reported it to the Ministry of Health in Beijing, but was asked to falsify her data about the HIV epidemic among plasma donors. She refused because she knew, if unchecked, the contaminated plasma would enable the HIV virus to decimate poverty-stricken rural communities.
Her refusal to keep quiet brought on unspeakable hardships for her and her family. It cost her marriage. Her parents were forced to don dunce caps on a stage in front of thousands of people. She was physically attacked. She lost her job.
Despite all that, Wang stayed the course in her quest to stem the bad blood issue. She defied the Chinese government not once, but twice: first by refusing to cover up the AIDS epidemic in the 1990s and then, in 2019, exposed the pressure tactics used to intimidate her throughout.
In a statement published Sept. 3, 2019, Wang said, "They pressured me to close the clinical testing center but I wouldn't give in, and then Zhoukou health bureau sent people to cut off the electricity and water supply to my lab, forcing it to discard thousands of blood samples from blood donors. Eventually, they collaborated with the Henan provincial health bureau to close the clinical testing center.
“I am an America now, and am a U.S. citizen. I tell myself that I protected vulnerable and helpless people and that I have to be strong against evil powers. I hope the play helps expose and stop the kinds of corruption and bullying Chinese doctors, health officials and AIDS activists like Dr. Gao Yaojie, Wan Yanhai and myself endured during our efforts to draw attention to the Henan AIDS epidemic of the 1990s.”
The Chinese government quietly closed the plasma collection stations in 1996 and introduced HIV- screening tests, as recommended by Wang originally. Unfortunately, by then, countless (the BBC estimates more than half a million) people had already been infected; many families were affected. And it is believed an underground trade in tainted blood continued to flourish. In 2001, the Chinese government admitted there was a serious AIDS outbreak in central China, and established a special health clinic to treat AIDS-related illnesses.
Wang was born in Henan Province in 1959. When Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution began, her parents (mother was a village doctor, father was a math teacher) were attacked for their backgrounds. At 8, her education was cut short because of the persecution. Five years later, an uncle took her away from her home village, adopted her so she could resume her education. In 1991, shortly after graduating medical school, she began work at a plasma collection center in Henan.
In 1997, Wang moved to Beijing where she found others as alarmed by the AIDS epidemic in rural Henan Province as she. In 2001, she moved to the U.S. by herself, leaving behind her young daughter and husband, and eventually became a U.S. citizen and continued her medical research work. She remarried in 2005. She never returned to China because she said she “did not feel safe.”
“I ran into huge troubles, which involved the power and money against the lives of the poor and the powerless. I made the decision to stand up for innocent people who were infected by the severe HCV and HIV viruses. I didn’t concern myself with my own fate. This is the first rule as a doctor,” Wang said in a recent interview.
On Sept. 21, she died of a heart attack while hiking in Utah with friends and second husband Gary Christensen. She was 59.
An anonymous, partisan federal employee in Washington, D.C., blew the whistle on a presidential diplomatic phone call in 2019 resulted in a namby-pamby impeachment “inquiry.” A doctor in central China blew the whistle on shoddy government practices and saved thousands of lives. Whistleblowers are not created equal!