The Whistleblower

It was late spring almost two years ago when I hopped in my car in Montana and drove 530 miles south along the shadows of the Rockies to Salt Lake to meet a whistleblower who may have saved my life. The drive from Missoula to Utah is breathtaking at times, meandering through massive valleys of spectacular mountain ranges like the Pioneers and the Sawtooths, and in spring its vast landscapes fill with wildflowers. 

By the time you cross into Utah, the snowcapped Wasatch range takes over. I’ve read that 85 percent of Utah’s population lives within 15 miles of these mountains, a number that included Wang Shuping, the woman I had come to meet. 

I’ve thought about Wang Shuping every day since the coronavirus outbreak started in Wuhan, China and began to spread around the world. More than two decades ago, in the mid-1990s, she sounded the alarm on a different outbreak that killed tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people in China. In return, she was hounded out of her home country and harassed by the government she dared challenge until the end of her life.

There’s been a lot of discussion in our current moment, facing a global pandemic, about the SARS crisis in China a generation ago, but almost nothing about the crushing of dissent around the country’s AIDS epidemic a decade earlier. They are all part of the same strain of a government intent on controlling information at all costs.

Wang Shuping’s life began about as far as one can imagine from Salt Lake, with its stunning mountain views and devout Mormons – who forever tried to convert her. She was born in southern Henan province at a time when that part of China was undergoing deep political upheaval and resulting poverty. Wang studied science and medicine and eventually got a job as a researcher for the local government, monitoring the health of blood plasma donors in system that was about to explode. She discovered a building AIDS epidemic, spreading like wildfire through the government-run plasma system. She didn’t issue a public warning; instead she took her evidence and concerns to the proper channels – first local, then provincial, then finally to the central government in Beijing.

You can read her entire story here, in her own words. When she wrote that piece, few knew Wang’s identity as the Henan AIDS whistleblower. Though she had uncovered an epidemic and got the China’s paid plasma donation system shut down, she stayed mostly in the shadows, quietly slipping out of China to create a new life in the United States as a medical researcher.

By the time I met Wang two years ago, she had taken the English name Sunshine, which suited her perfectly. She had remarried, an American she met while working in the Midwest, and delighted in her two cats and tiny white poodle. But as we stayed up talking late into the nights I spent with her, it was clear what happened in Henan was never far from her mind. She had just been waiting for someone to come along and ask her about it. 

Her concerns were deep – that China had not learned its lessons from AIDS or later SARS, about the importance of being open and transparent in public health crises. She feared that the hunger for wealth and power would override health when it happened again. And she was certain it would happen again. She also warned me that the US was setting up a similar time bomb. You can read more about that here

A little over two weeks ago, a man who must have been very similar to Wang Shuping in his dedication to public health,  died from the coronavirus in China. Li Wenliang was a doctor who back in December tried to ring the alarm among his colleagues and peers about a dangerous new illness in Wuhan. For his trouble, Li was threatened by the police and ordered to stop spreading information. We now know what he said was true and lives might have been saved if he had been listened to rather than silenced. 

This is how it goes with whistleblowers. There seems to be an idea that these people, very often ordinary citizens driven to challenge extraordinary power structures, are lauded and made into heros. The truth is usually much different. They are hounded, harassed, doxed and brownbeaten for as long as the powers they challenged decide. 

In Wang Shuping’s case, the harassment quieted for a number of years. It began again in earnest again last year when a stage play about her life opened in London. On Sept. 9, Wang issued a statement about how the Chinese government was trying to get her to stop the play, “The King of Hell’s Palace,” by threatening her friends, family and colleagues in China. She was especially worried about her daughter.

“In China, pressurizing and punishing relatives and co-workers of people who say things that the Chinese government doesn't like is common,” she wrote. “The Government steps up pressure bit-by-bit. If you don't give in after a few warnings, they start threatening your family, friends and colleagues.”

Twelve days after that statement, while hiking with her husband and some friends in the Wasatch mountains near Salt Lake, Wang suffered a sudden, massive heart attack and died. She was 59 years old and had spent more than half her life refusing to bow to Chinese government power and suffering the consequences for it.

It’s only been a few months since she died, but Wang Shuping never saw the impeachment of President Donald Trump, a process sparked by a whistleblower. She didn’t see the coronavirus spread like fire through China and into the world. But she knew, as long as governments crush information vital to public safety, something like this would happen again.