Home» News» News» People»

Xie Zheng: A life dedicated to humanitarian work and global public health

JUN . 16 2020
Peking University, June 16, 2020: Xie Zheng, associate professor in the School of Public Health at Peking University, passed away on the 4th of June at just 41. In October of 2018, Xie was diagnosed with lung cancer and after a nearly two-year battle she died of the deadly disease. Xie was a treasured member of PKU and the international community through her work with the World Health Organization. Her attentiveness and compassion as a teacher and mentor, her contributions to international and domestic public health, and her personal qualities of selflessness and optimism will be greatly missed by all she positively impacted.

Xie Zheng

Xie graduated from the PKU Department of Sociology in 2007 after completing a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a doctorate over the course of 10 years. From the very beginning of Xie’s time at Peking University she was a model of excellence. After every class she would come to the teacher for clarification of anything she wasn’t completely clear about. Xie always had outstanding results and was at the top of her class. Her commitment to excellence continued throughout her university career. Her master’s and doctoral supervisor Qiu Zeqi commended, “Xie never cared what other people thought of her, because the only thing that concerned her was reaching the standards she set for herself.” During these formative years, Xie also made many lifelong friends. Upon learning the devastating news of her death, Xie’s roommate Xu Minmin shared these touching words, “She left this world in the prime of her life. The memory of her smiling face will be forever engraved in our minds, a smile that captured her youth, a smile that we will never forget.”

Xie (left) as a student on the PKU campus during her studies
After graduating, Xie went on to work in the PKU School of Public Health, where her teaching and supervision inspired countless students. One student commented, “She was like an older sister to all of her students.” Her rigorous supervision style spoke to her desire to see the full potential of each and every student. Whenever Xie read over a student’s work, she would pay careful attention to every detail. During this time, Xie also completed a second master’s degree in International Public Health at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, UK. Even as Xie’s health began to decline, she always gave a hundred percent to her work.

Xie (front) and her students at PKU
In 2012, the PKU School of Public Health established the first Department of Global Health which Xie was one of the initial members. She worked there right up until her tragic death. Liu Peilong, founding director of the Department, praised, “Xie was one of our earliest members, and she became an integral member of our team very quickly.” Xie successfully established the Health Development Central Agency through which garnered crucial international support from the China-UK Global Health Support Programme.
In this role, Xie became a major proponent for research into the fight against malaria in Africa, actively advocating to bring China’s research into malaria prevention strategies to the world stage and securing crucial international support. Through this work, Xie was recognized by the WHO’s Global Malaria Programme, which in June of 2018 invited her to work in the program for global malaria control and eradication.
In 2014, Xie established China’s first overseas base for public health in Malawi, a landlocked country in southeastern Africa. Leading up to its establishment, Xie took many of her students to conduct field work in Malawi, giving students an opportunity to engage with the local population. Xie continually strived to pass her passion for international humanitarian work onto her students. Without her, the established base of operations may not have been possible. Xie’s humanitarian work was never finished, and she was always flying between a number of African countries to help on the ground. The success of Peking University’s Malawi Research and Cooperation Base was in large part a result of Xie’s continued hard work. After seeing the disastrous effects of malaria in many countries across East Africa and their lack of medical infrastructure, Xie felt a strong sense of duty. After one of her visits, Xie commented “Malaria has taken the lives of too many African newborns. The more I saw, the more I felt that I needed to be doing more.” Following this, Xie diverged from her usual research to begin to consider how artemisinin, a chemical discovered by PKU alumna Tu Youyou and used in drugs against malaria, could be utilized in developing countries to fight against the disease. Xie began to work directly to assess how the compound could be applied in China’s malaria prevention efforts abroad.


  Xie inspects Malawi’s health care facilities with President of Peking University First Hospital Liu Xinmin

Xie’s diagnosis of cancer did not put a stop to her work. In July 2019 she began to participate in forums on how factories in China could better work with the World Health Organization to distribute malaria drugs in Africa, all the while undergoing chemotheraphy. One of Xie’s colleagues, Meng Qingyue, commented, “Xie deeply believed in the importance of international humanitarian work; members of the international global health community, researchers, and educators could not overstate this fact.” After Xie’s passing, the First Lady of Malawi and the World Health Organization sent a letter to Peking University to express their condolences. Xie will not only be sorely missed by her friends, colleagues, and students at home but also by all the people overseas whose lives she fought so hard to improve.

Xie had an ongoing commitment to her work in public health. During her final months, she even offered up her consultation in the fight against the COVID-19 outbreak. Due to her unabating passion for her work and sunny disposition, it was easy to forget about Xie’s ongoing battle with cancer. As a leading expert in public health, Xie shared her real-world experience to aid the government in its response to the ongoing pandemic. She even agreed to appear on TV to guide on public opinion and provide expert analysis of the measures adopted by countries around the world in their response to the pandemic. It was with a heavy heart that Professor Liu Peilong revealed that Xie had been hoping for China to host this year’s UN Convention on Biological Diversity, seeing the current pandemic as an opportunity to gain greater understanding of biological pathogens. Xie’s loss will be felt not just by those close to her but also by the wider international community. 

Xie during her live broadcast for CCTV 4
Xie loved to wear Hello Kitty clothing. She always strived to push her students to achieve their dreams. She was a perfectionist, and she was a cornerstone of the PKU School of Public Health. Taken from the world far too young, Xie lives on through all the students she inspired and in all the positive change that she created in her lifetime. “Xie Zheng, you left this world a brighter place, and we couldn’t be prouder to have had a classmate like you,” Xie’s classmate Shi Han wrote.
Written by: Jacob Tomkins
Edited by: Zhang Jiang, Huang Weijian
Source: School of Public Health, PKU Health Science Center, PKU News, China Women's News