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Utah researcher Shuping Wang, credited with saving thousands as China AIDS crisis whistleblower, dies at 59

Shuping Wang with her dog, Bagel. Wang was an internationally respected whistleblower who had to flee China. She died in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, at age 59.
Family photo

SALT LAKE CITY — Sometimes, at night, Shuping Wang would tap three times on the shoulder of her husband, Gary Christensen, giggling as she snuggled near him. It was a signal for the man to sing “You Are My Sunshine” to the woman who called herself Sunshine because it was a happy name and she was an exuberant person.

She was also an individual with steely resolve and a well-defined sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, as well as the fortitude to stare down authority she viewed as unjust.

Shuping Wang was a physician, a researcher — and a whistleblower whose name will forever be tied to the tragic early 1990s HIV/AIDs scandal in one of the poorest areas of China. She made enemies in the Chinese government but was credited with saving tens of thousands of lives after she exposed unsafe blood collection practices that were propelling the spread of hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS in central China.

Wang died of an apparent heart attack Sept. 21 while hiking with her husband and friends in the mountains near Salt Lake City, where she’d lived and worked for more than a decade. She was 59. She leaves behind her husband and three adult children.

Shuping Wang at Arches in southern Utah. An avid hiker and internationally known whistleblower, she died Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.
Family photo

Her story is a study in contrasts, so stunning she inspired a play called “The King of Hell’s Palace” that opened in London’s Hampstead Theatre just a week before her death. Loved ones describe a joyous woman who played pranks and laughed so loudly and infectiously that those around her couldn’t help but join in. Yet the same woman who trained Coco and Billy the cats and dog Bagel to do tricks, who ran around in rainbow-colored socks with individual bright toes, who painted and photographed beautiful nature scapes and hiked the hills on the Wasatch Front most weekends with friends, was forged by injustices she encountered early that would follow her.

Shuping Wang was born Zou Shuping on Oct. 20, 1959, in Henan Province, China, where her mother was a village physician and her dad taught math. By the time Wang became a heroine of the HIV/AIDs tragedy, she’d already experienced totalitarian cruelty. Her husband told the Deseret News she was very young when she and her siblings watched members of the Red Guard force their parents to don dunce caps and kneel on a public stage because her dad had served in the Kuomintang National Revolutionary Army. At one point, he was sent to a labor camp.

Shuping Wang and her husband, Gary Christensen, in Salt Lake City. Shuping, revered internationally as a whistleblower who called out unsafe blood practices in China in the 1990s, died Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.
Family photo

When Wang was 8, members of the Red Guard pressured her to renounce her parents. Christensen said a large, stern guard questioned and browbeat her, then another official pretended to comfort her. All she needed to do, she was told, was disown her parents. When she would not, she was exiled from school.

She was far from finished learning, so the girl would stand in the school yard, peering through the windows, to see what the teacher wrote on the blackboard, then do the homework as best she could until the day she was spotted and the blinds drawn, effectively closing her “school.” Only after her parents sent her to be adopted by an uncle who was a member of the Communist Party and she took his surname, Wang, at age 13, was she able to attend school. As an adult, she became a physician like her mom.

More problems with authority lay ahead of her. When she warned in the early 1990s that blood collection practices at a center where poor villagers sold their plasma for extra cash put them at risk of contracting hepatitis C and HIV/AIDs, she was fired. In a different job in 1995, she warned that dangerous practices could also spread the deadly viruses and used her own money to test blood samples when officials wouldn’t. The tests proved her point and efforts to silence her weren’t successful; ultimately the government adopted blood testing for HIV in 1996. But though many credit her for saving at least tens of thousands of lives, her defiance was not hailed as heroism by officials.

In an interview published by the theater in conjunction with the play she inspired, she said she’d expected officials to react quickly, with a sense of urgency, to the dangers she spotted in the blood supply. Instead, she was encouraged to alter her reports, the pressure and promise of consequences mounting. “I ran into huge troubles, which involved the power and money against the lives of the poor and powerless. I made the decision to stand up for innocent people who were infected by the severe HCV and HIV viruses.”

Shuping Wang and playwright Frances Cowhig, whose “The King of Hell’s Palace,” playing now in London, is based on Wang’s life. Wang died Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019.
Dan Wooller / wooller.com

China’s government in 2001 admitted that as many as a half-million people, most of them poor, were infected with HIV after selling their blood to the centers. But Wang’s victory was not without cost. Her first marriage didn’t survive the pressure, and for her own safety she fled to the United States. She would never see China again.

In America, Wang worked first in Wisconsin, where she met her husband. When the lab where she did research transferred some of its work to Utah about 12 years ago, Wang and Christensen moved to Salt Lake City and she became a naturalized citizen there in 2007. She was employed as a researcher at the University of Utah in the Radiology and Imaging Sciences Lab at the time of her death.

Through it all, she was an unassuming woman who was noted for being happy, according to close family friend Dr. David N. Sundwall, a professor of public health emeritus at the U. He said a shared love of public health and hiking drew them to each other.

“I don’t think her background as an internationally revered whistleblower was generally well-known,” he said, adding many friends and colleagues were probably surprised to see stories about her death in not just local media, but national and international news reports, too. “She really had the sunniest disposition, which belies her background of being harassed and intimidated out of China.”

Shuping Wang, center in this undated photo, loved the outdoors and playing pranks, and friends say they’ll miss her infectious laugh. She died Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, while hiking with her husband and pals.
Family photo

Seeing her was enough to make him happy, said Sundwall, who joked that Utah’s “life elevated” slogan described her aptly, too. “She lifted our spirits,” he said, stopping on trails while hiking to photograph flowers and scenery and fellow hikers, with whom she’d share her digital bounty later.

Years have passed since she was forced to leave, but when it was announced the play would resurrect the government’s role in allowing spread of hepatitis C and HIV/AIDs among villagers, officials visited family and friends still in China, hoping to persuade Wang to throw her efforts to stopping the play. Instead, she was vintage Shuping, her husband said. She made a public statement about what was going on — and they flew to London to enjoy the play’s premier, complete with a standing ovation that tickled and surprised her, then spent days visiting London’s public gardens.

Shuping Wang, who died Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, was renowned for her work preventing dangerous blood practices in China.
Courtesy Gary Christensen

Sundwall believes that Wang’s early public health efforts in China didn’t just help secure a safer blood supply, but “paved the way for a more open and science-based approach to public health challenges in China.”

And when the weekend hikers hit the trail, he said, she’ll be there, too, carried in their hearts.

A funeral for Shuping Wang is scheduled for Saturday at 2 p.m. with a viewing prior from noon to 2 p.m. at Larkin Sunset Lawn, 2350 E. 1300 South, Salt Lake City.