WhistleblowerShuping Wang

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Born in China’s Henan province, Wang chose to follow her mother into medicine. After earning her medical degree she went into research, specializing in hepatitis. In the late 1980s, China became concerned about hepatitis — a “foreign” disease — contaminating their blood supply, so rather than continue to import blood the government set up their own blood and plasma donation centers, paying 50 yuan (about US$7.50) for a unit of blood. In the poorer areas of China, that represented a significant boost in income. But Dr. Wang, assigned to a plasma collection center, was shocked to see how the government set up the system. First, supplies would be reused. Then, once blood was collected, multiple donations of each specific type were combined together for processing. After the plasma was collected, the donors would then get back some of the collected blood cells from the pool. If one donor had HIV or hepatitis, all of the donors would be exposed to it when it was put back in their veins — and they were the most likely people to come back to make further donations.

Wang tested the plasma supply and found that more than 83 percent was contaminated with hepatitis C. She brought her findings to her superiors, and suggested collection practices must change and donor blood be tested before it or their plasma was used. She was told that doing it the right way would be “too expensive” and to go back to work. With the HIV/AIDS epidemic ramping up in the west, Dr. Wang used her own money to purchase HIV testing kits, and tested donors. She found 13 percent were infected with that, too. This time, she went over her local bosses’ heads, to the national Ministry of Health. The country’s entire blood bank system was shut down for “recertification” — the requirement to test blood for hepatitis in China began in 1993, and HIV in 1996. Local officials targeted Wang for her whistleblowing, and one official even came to her lab to smash her equipment with a club. When she tried to intercede he clubbed her, too. Power was cut to her lab, which spoiled all of her collected blood samples. By 2001, the Chinese government confirmed that more than half a million citizens in central China were infected by HIV, largely due to the poor collection practices that Wang had exposed.

Dr. Wang in her U.S. lab. Photo: the Hampstead Theatre in London, which is still working to stage the play based on Wang’s actions.

Dr. Wang’s marriage fell apart (she was married to a Ministry of Health official); she fled to the United States in 2001, and became a U.S. citizen. “I am still hoping that, one day, I will be able to apply my experience and skills to serve the Chinese people,” she wrote in 2012, but she never felt it was safe to return. Last year, while cooperating with a stage play about her whistleblowing which prevented AIDS and hepatitis from ravaging China, she discovered that Chinese officials were pressuring her friends and relatives in China to convince her to stop the play from opening in London. “The only thing harder than standing up to the Communists and their security police,” she said, “is not giving in to pressure from friends and relatives who are threatened with their livelihoods, all because you are speaking out.” But she had no regrets. “With bullying and censorship, the government has covered up the HCV and HIV epidemics in China very successfully,” but the world knows thanks to her actions. Yet, “Why, in 2019, do they worry so much about a play being produced in London, 24 years after the events it depicts?” She had remarried in the U.S., and her husband says she died on September 21, apparently from a heart attack while hiking in Utah. She was 59.

From This is True for 29 September 2019