Skip to main content
Sze SQ.jpg

Sze Szeming, a key figure in the founding of the WHO, at the San Francisco conference. Photo from Sze Szeming Papers, UA.90.F14.1, University Archives, Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburg.

08:06 am | 24. September 2020

The WHO’s China Story

In the first of two articles addressing the relationship between China and the World Health Organization, an issue getting a great deal of attention in the midst of COVID-19, Qian Gang looks at the involvement of Chinese health professionals in the organization’s origins.

By Qian Gang

As COVID-19 spread worldwide in February this year, becoming a global pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) became a focus of criticism for its open praise of the Chinese government response even as clear evidence pointed to China’s early mishandling of the crisis and continued efforts to control information. Some suggested that the WHO had been subject to “outsized Chinese influence.”

In April, as US President Donald Trump announced that the US would freeze payments to the WHO over its handling of the pandemic, the White House listed a number of complaints, including that the organization “repeatedly parroted the Chinese government’s claims that the coronavirus was not spreading between humans, despite warnings by doctors and health officials that it was.”

Key Points: 

* In 1945, Dr. Sze Szeming, a young doctor and diplomat of the Republic of China (ROC), was one of three initiators of the World Health Organization. The name of the organization was also Dr. Sze’s suggestion.
 
* Throughout the history of the World Health Organization's relationship with China, politicization has been a key factor and point of debate. In 1972, the PRC replaced the ROC as a member of the WHO. 
 
* The 2006 appointment of Margaret Chan as director-general of the WHO marked the first time China had successfully elected a candidate to the top leadership position of a specialized UN agency. For the CCP, the appointment of Chan, who had served as the director of Hong Kong's Department of Health from 1997 through 2003, was a moment of triumph marking China’s deeper involvement in the WHO.

China, meanwhile, came to the defense of the organization, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying: “China will, as it always has, firmly support the work of the World Health Organization."

Behind these two words, “always has,” is a history perhaps far more complicated than readers might imagine. The relationship between China and the World Health Organization goes back 74 years. But during the first 27 years of this history (1946-1973), the Chinese seat at the WHO was held by the Republic of China (ROC), its government on the island of Taiwan under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek. Since 1973, for roughly two-thirds of the 74-year history of the WHO and China, the Chinese seat has been held by the People’s Republic of China.

Has the PRC always offered its “firm support” of the WHO and its work?

A search through Chinese media archives and historical materials to tackle the huge topic of China and its history with the WHO would seem to suggest that “firm support” for the WHO from the PRC is something seen only over the past 20 years. This article, the first of two articles addressing the relationship between China and the WHO, will explore the history of the organization; specifically, the various Chinese stories behind its founding and management. The second article will delve more deeply into the question of the politicization of the WHO, an issue that has clearly received a great deal of attention this year. A more historical view suggests, in fact, that politicization has always to some extent been a part of the history of China and the WHO.

A China Story at the WHO

Some might be surprised to learn that there is a “China story” behind the formation of the World Health Organization. That story begins, in fact, in the city of San Francisco. It is April 1945, and 37 year-old Szeming Sze, a Chinese medical school graduate from Cambridge University who for the past five years has worked at St Thomas's Hospital in London, is among the delegates attending the San Francisco Conference. This is the convention of international delegates, led by the United States, that resulted ultimately in the establishment of the United Nations.

Sze, the son of a prominent politician from the Republic of China who had served as ambassador to both the United States and the UK, attended the San Francisco meeting as a delegate from the ROC. He was working at the time for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the relief agency established in November 1943. The Chinese delegation to San Francisco was led by ROC Premier Soong Tse-ven, or “T.V. Soong,” the son of prominent businessman Charlie Soong.

Another delegate attending the San Francisco event was Dr. Geraldo Horácio de Paula Souza, a colleague of Dr. Sze's who had been invited by the Brazilian delegation.

WHO 1.png

Souza and Sze Szeming at the San Francisco conference. Photo from Sze Szeming Papers, UA.90.F14.1, University Archives, Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburg.

At a luncheon in San Francisco on April 15, 1945, on the eve of the fall of Berlin to Allied forces, Sze and Souza began discussing the urgent need for the creation of an active global health organization in light of the end of the war. Their hope was that this topic could be added to the conference agenda.

Over the next few days, conversations over the dinner table developed into practical steps. Formal reports were made by various delegations, and consultations continued. The Chinese and Brazilian delegations eventually presented a joint proposal to the conference recommending that a world health conference be convened as soon as possible, and that a world health organization be established.

This is an episode in history of which very few Chinese today are aware – that the earliest advocacy for the creation of the World Health Organization come not from the United States or the Soviet Union, but from China and Brazil.

More Chinese would become involved in the World Health Organization from its inception in 1945 to its eventual founding in 1948, a process requiring more than two years of preparation.

WHO 2.png

Dr. Sze Szeming is interviewed in a 1989 edition of World Health about his role in the founding of the WHO.

The official Bulletin of the World Health Organization, which is published even today, was launched as soon as preparations for the organization began, and a Chinese version of the bulletin was also available from this time. The constitution of the World Health Organization was published in the first issue of the bulletin. Interestingly, the Chinese version of the constitution as it is available even today remains in the translation style of the Republic of China (Taiwan), quite distinct from the official translation style used in the People’s Republic of China.

The “China story” at the heart of the WHO’s founding is essentially the story of a group of Chinese medical colleagues, all with very different personal stories. In the first half of the 20th century, they comprised China’s medical elite, holding degrees from leading medical schools in the United States, Britain and Japan.

The “China story” at the heart of the WHO’s founding is essentially the story of a group of Chinese medical colleagues, all with very different personal stories.

 

The photograph below, taken by the American Bureau for Medical Aid to China (ABMAC) in the wartime capital of Chongqing, includes Shen Kefei (front row, second from left), deputy director of the Department of Health under the National government, C.K. Chu (front row, third from left), president of the government’s Central Health Laboratory, and King Pao Shan (front row, second from right), director of the Department of Health.

WHO 3.png

A photo from the American Bureau for Medical Aid to China (ABMAC), taken during World War II in Chongqing, includes key figures in the formation of the WHO.

The man standing directly behind Shen Kefei is Dr. Berislav Borcic, a Croatian physician who was director of the School of Public Health in Zagreb.

In June 1946, representatives from more than 60 countries held the International Health Conference in New York with the aim of drafting a constitution for the World Health Organization. James K. Shen was the head of the Chinese delegation, and he signed the WHO charter on behalf of China along with I-Chin Yuan, director of the Department of Health's Epidemiology Institute, and Sze Szeming.

Sze Szeming, however, made another important contribution. Many suggestions had been put forward for the name of the new organization, but it was ultimately Sze’s suggestion, "World Health Organization," that was adopted.

On July 25, 1946, 60 countries signed the WHO Constitution, marking the establishment of the World Health Organization. The news excited Chinese public health experts. King Pao Shan, a medical graduate of both Tokyo Imperial University and Johns Hopkins University in the United States, wrote in the Kuomingtang’s chief newspaper, the Central Daily News, that the WHO Constitution had special significance for China, which had yet to establish a proper health infrastructure. King, who had been involved in the response to the 1920 cholera outbreak in China’s northeast, understood the importance of multinational responses to epidemic disease. Another doctor, C.K. Chu, a graduate of Union Medical College and Yale University, wrote that infectious diseases were a chief cause of low life expectancy in China, and that solid scientific research was needed to respond to this problem.

At the core of the “China story” of the formation of the WHO lies the hope that miserable China, plagued by disease, might begin to construct a proper health infrastructure from the ruins of the war.

This wish was shared by doctors from around the world. It is worth noting, in fact, that a great many doctors at the time had a special personal connection to China. From the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 through to foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, foreign doctors often visited China on missions to treat the sick and wounded, and to establish better standards, procedures and institutions for health. Croatian doctor Andrija Štampar, president of the First World Health Assembly and a key figure in the formation of the WHO, was one such physician.

WHO 4.png

Andrija Štampar (left), president of the First World Health Assembly, and George Brock Chisholm (center), the WHO's first Director-General. Image available from Croatia.org under CC license.

Andrija Štampar and Berislav Borčić, a director of the School of Public Health in Zabreb, were both deeply involved in the introduction of Western standards of public health to China. Štampar worked for several years in China in the 1930s, keeping a detailed diary of his time there. While in the country, Štampar and Borčić focused on such areas as the creation of bacteriological and other laboratories, the establishment of institutions for disease prevention, and quarantine procedures for maritime trade – there being a global concern at the time that poor sanitation in Chinese ports posed a threat even to European and American ports. In this work, they followed the objectives set at the time by the Health Organization of the League of Nations, and its medical director, Polish doctor Ludwik Rajchman, who had also visited China.

The involvement of global health experts like Štampar, Borčić and Rajchman provides a sense of the atmosphere at the time of the WHO’s creation, in which there were many Sinophiles working in the field. Geraldo Horácio de Paula Souza, the Brazilian doctor who had accompanied Sze Szeming at the conference in San Francisco, even specialized in the study of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

WHO 5.png

Andrija Štampar (at far right) pictured in the 1930s in Lanchow, China, as we worked to set up a public health service. Image from Croatia.org available under CC license.

On June 24, 1948, the WHO was formally established in Geneva. The Chinese representatives were China’s deputy minister of health, Jin Baoshan (金宝善), Qi Shounan (戚寿南), dean of the School of Medicine at Central University (who went by the English name S.N. Cheer), and Winston W. Yung (容启荣), who headed up the Epidemic Prevention Department of the Ministry of Health.

Unfortunately, the world had changed dramatically during the two-year period of the creation of the WHO. By June 1948, the Cold War was well underway. In China, civil war was raging. Few people had time to properly note at the time the historic significance of the WHO’s establishment, and its potential impact on health in China. 

A History of China and the WHO
April 1945
Szeming Sze, a Chinese medical school graduate from Cambridge University attending the the San Francisco Conference as a delegate from the Republic of China, and Brazilian Dr. Geraldo Horácio de Paula Souza propose the formation of an active global health organization.
June 1946
The International Health Conference is held in New York to draft a constitution for the World Health Organization. James K. Shen is head of the Chinese delegation, signing the WHO charter on behalf of the Republic of China, along with I-Chin Yuan, director of the Department of Health's Epidemiology Institute, and Sze Szeming.
June 24, 1948
The WHO is formally established in Geneva. The Chinese representatives are China’s deputy minister of health, Jin Baoshan, Qi Shounan, dean of the School of Medicine at Central University, and Winston W. Yung, who headed up the Epidemic Prevention Department of the Ministry of Health.
1948
Rong Qirong, a medical graduate of Yenching University and Peking Union Medical College, becomes a member of the WHO Executive Board and WHO representative to the Federation of Malaya, Singapore and Brunei.
May 12, 1950
Zhou Enlai sends telegrams to the UN secretary-general and the WHO director-general stating that "[the] Central People's Government of the People's Republic of China is the only legal government representing the Chinese people." Zhou demands that the “bandit Chiang [Kai-shek]” be expelled from the WHO.
July 1950
The Republic of China withdraws from the WHO, unable to afford WHO membership fees and wanting to prioritize membership fees to the United Nations.
1950
C.K. Chu, a former ROC representative to first World Health Assembly, travels from Hong Kong to take up his post as director of the Public Health Administration Section of the WHO. Before leaving Hong Kong for Geneva, Chu first meets with Zhou Enlai in Beijing.
May 1966
Sze Tsung Sing, a former professor of medicine at the University of Hong Kong and a staff member at the WHO in Geneva, is expelled from Switzerland on suspicion he has been spying for the Chinese Communist Party.
1966-1976
Many influential medical professionals in China, including C.K. Chu and Sze Tsung Sing, are persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and forced to do labor in the countryside.
1975
Arthur W. Chung, a Chinese-American doctor who returned to China in 1949 and subsequently had his US passport confiscated, defects to the United States while in Geneva serving out his final months as the WHO's assistant director-general.
November 2006
With strong support from Chinese President Hu Jintao, Margaret Chan, a former director of Hong Kong's Department of Health, is appointed director-general of the WHO, marking the first time China nominates and successfully elects a candidate to the top leadership position of a specialized UN agency.
January 2017
Xi Jinping pays a visit to the World Health Organization and Director-General Margaret Chan during a trip to take part in the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

As the Kuomintang government retreated to Taiwan in 1949, and the Chinese Communist Party proclaimed the founding of the PRC, the country’s medical professionals were scattered around the world. Some went to the United States (or remained there), including both Sze Szeming and S.N. Cheer. Others stayed in mainland China.

For a time, Shen Kefei served as president of Shanghai’s Zhongshan Hospital. During the Cultural Revolution, he was criticized and struggled against, branded a “bourgeois academic authority” and an “American lackey and minion.” Shen passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1972, and was finally rehabilitated by the CCP in March 1978, his ashes laid to rest in the Longhua Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetery in Shanghai.

Kin Pao Shan, the public health expert who studied medicine in Japan and the United States, served in the 1950s at head of the Department of Health at Beijing Medical College, and as executive director of the Red Cross Society of China. In 1957, as Mao Zedong launched the widespread purge of intellectuals known as the Anti-Rightist Movement, Kin became the most infamous “rightist” in the medical and health sector. On August 24, 1957, an article in the People's Daily alleged that he had criticized the central government for not being preventive in its thinking about health. Kin was again persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, and was finally rehabilitated in 1978.

But still other Chinese medical experts went on to work directly at the World Health Organization.

Chinese Faces at the WHO

Ever since the formation of the WHO, there have been Chinese faces among its leadership. In the organization’s early days, the WHO drew a number of senior officials from the ranks of the National Government's health department. In 1948, China's representative to the first World Health Assembly, Rong Qirong (容启荣), served as a member of the WHO Executive Board and was the WHO representative to the Federation of Malaya, Singapore and Brunei. I-Chin Yuan (袁贻瑾), one of the three Chinese representatives who signed the WHO charter, became director of the WHO's Tuberculosis Resource Office.

All of these officials worked in a private capacity as experts, and they did not represent the Republic of China. But of course they maintained close relationships with their homeland. Yuan eventually returned to Taiwan, where he was a professor at National Taiwan University. Beginning in 1948, I.C. Fang, who was the former deputy director of the Department of Health in the Nationalist Government, served as deputy director of the WHO’s New York office, as well as director of the organization’s field operations section.

By the time the World Health Organization was formally established, the Cold War had already begun. Cold War ideological divisions cast a long shadow over China’s relationship with the WHO. Ever since the founding of the People’s Republic of China was declared on the Chinese mainland, the question of who can represent China at the WHO has been a matter of contention.

On May 12, 1950, Zhou Enlai sent telegrams to both the secretary-general of the United Nations and the head of the WHO, stating emphatically that "[the] Central People's Government of the People's Republic of China is the only legal government representing the Chinese people." He demanded that the “Chiang [Kai-shek] bandit” then serving as China’s representative at the WHO be expelled. The World Health Organization did not respond to Zhou's telegram. Adding to the drama, however, was the fact that Taiwan’s Kuomintang government had announced its decision just a few days earlier, on May 5, to withdrawal from the World Health Organization (Siddiqi, p. 110).

Without a close reading of history, it is difficult to understand the embarrassment suffered by Taiwan at the time. Along with the KMT's defeat by the Communists, it had lost the trust of the United States and had been almost completely abandoned. The KMT’s first reason for withdrawing from the organization was about finances (Siddiqi, p. 110); it felt that it simply could not afford WHO membership fees. The priority in Taiwan instead was to devote its limited financial resources to membership fees at the United Nations. At the same time, the government in Taiwan pledged to the WHO that it would continue to cooperate with the organization and members states on health issues to the fullest extent possible.

It was a time of great tension for Chiang Kai-shek, during which an attack on the island by Communist forces was imminent. But Chiang ultimately would have North Korean leader Kim Il Sung to thank for a transformation of circumstances. On June 25, 1950, just over a month after the KMT’s withdrawal from the WHO, Kim launched a brazen attack on South Korea. The US Seventh Fleet entered the Taiwan Strait, marking Taiwan’s return to the Western camp. Chiang was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Korean War.

For three years from this point, there was no Chinese representation at the WHO, neither from the KMT nor from the PRC. Taiwan's withdrawal from the organization notwithstanding, however, the WHO appointed I.C. Fang as its regional director for the Western Pacific in 1951. The WHO’s work covered six regions, including the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. Fang's position was a crucial one, and he held it for 15 years, a period during which Taiwan benefited most from the WHO.

WHO 78.png

Doctor C.K. Chu, former director of the KMT’s National Institute of Health in Chongqing, pictured around 1946. Photo from Columbia University, not under copyright.

But few doctors from China were genuinely loyal to the government in Taiwan. In 1949, C.K. Chu, who attended the first World Health Assembly as a representative of the Republic of China, did not move to Taiwan with the Kuomintang government. For a brief time, he lived in Hong Kong, and in 1950 was hired by the WHO as director of the Public Health Administration Section. After receiving his letter of appointment, Chu traveled to Beijing, where he indicated to Zhou Enlai through the Ministry of Health that he was willing to return to work in China, and inquired whether he should accept the WHO position. Premier Zhou’s response was that he felt Chu could make a greater contribution to the motherland by joining the work of the World Health Organization.

In May 1950, Chu took a flight from Hong Kong to Europe, taking up his post at the WHO in Geneva. He was joined in the city two years later by Professor Sze Tsung Sing (施正信), a colleague with whom he had worked during the Anti-Japanese War, who had been hired by the WHO as an officer in its social and occupational health unit.

C.K. Chu worked at the World Health Organization for 14 years. When the Soviet Union rejoined the organization in July 1955, much of Chu’s work involved introducing the public health experiences of the Soviet Union, including in Eastern Europe, to poorer countries. During this time, he maintained close contact with the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Switzerland, and every other year spent much of his vacation time in Beijing.

It is not known what specific work C.K. Chu might have done for the CCP while working at the World Health Organization. But we can glimpse the CCP’s attitude toward Chu by noting that after his retirement in 1963, he returned to Beijing and was immediately admitted into the Party. In December 1963, he was appointed by the State Council as vice-president of Beijing Medical College. The year after, he was appointed a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the country’s political advisory body that brings officials together with key actors outside the party.

Chu’s warm reception once back in Beijing, and his close involvement with the Party, might also have had something to do with the bizarre experience of Sze Tsung Sing, who remained back in Geneva.

On May 15, 1966, Taiwan’s Central Daily newspaper reported that a Chinese staff member of the World Health Organization in Geneva had been expelled on suspicion that he was a spy for the Chinese Communist Party. That staff member was Sze Tsung Sing.

A graduate of the Hong Kong University of Medicine, Sze had studied at the University of London and at Johns Hopkins University. In 1948, he was appointed to a professorship at the University of Hong Kong.

In his autobiography, Sze writes that during the early stages of his time at the World Health Organization, he dared return only to Hong Kong when on leave. Later, however, he made four trips to mainland China. At that time there were Chinese working in a number of positions at international organizations in Geneva. Sze writes: "The Chinese Consulate in Geneva often screened movies and invited us to watch them. On National Day and during other festivals, we were always invited to their receptions. We organized a volunteer study group among six families that were hosted by different families in rotation every two weeks. The content was about domestic current affairs, analyzing the situation, and so on.”

For a time, this all seemed to Sze to be quite harmless, according to his account. But this suddenly changed. “In the spring of 1966, the thunderbolt came straight down on my head. The Swiss high authorities believed that I had committed a crime against Swiss national security. They ordered me to leave Switzerland immediately."

As Taiwanese newspapers reported Sze crimes in what they labelled “a case of espionage,” the doctor had “supplied political information about people from the Republic of China living in Switzerland or passing through to others contacting him in Switzerland” (Central Daily newspaper, May 15, 1966.)

“In the spring of 1966, the thunderbolt came straight down on my head. The Swiss high authorities believed that I had committed a crime against Swiss national security. They ordered me to leave Switzerland immediately."

 

Sze Tsung Sing’s return to Beijing coincided with the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution. None of those in China with a connection with the World Health Organization were spared from persecution. In 1968, C.K. Chu was imprisoned in the "cowshed," a term applied in China at the time to ad hoc prisons set up by various groups to jail those branded as class enemies. Sze Tsung Sing was abused and harassed by Party-backed rebel groups. Once a CCP spy in the eyes of the West, he suddenly found himself being branded a Western spy by the revolutionary masses. The situation for these health professionals in China did not improve until the improvement of US-China relations in the early 1970s.

Finally, on May 10, 1972, the PRC replaced the Republic of China as a member of the World Health Organization.

WHO 8.png

An article in the May 14, 1972, edition of the CCP’s People’s Daily newspaper reports that the PRC has gained membership to the WHO, replacing the ROC.

C.K. Chu and Sze Tsung Sing were both transferred to the Foreign Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Health to take part in preparations for China's entry into the World Health Organization. Chu attended the 1973 World Health Assembly as an advisor to the Chinese delegation. Sze, meanwhile, attended a meeting of the WHO’s Western Pacific Regional Committee as an advisor to the Chinese delegation. Together, the two elderly physicians participated in the welcoming and sending off of WHO officials. On June 1, 1973, the World Health Organization appointed PRC doctor Arthur W. Chung as its assistant director-general.

The lives and careers of both C.K. Chu and Sze Tsung Sing experienced ups and downs. But the fate of Arthur W. Chung is even more legendary. The son of Chinese immigrants to the United States and an American citizen born and raised in Los Angeles, Chung had returned to China in 1949 in hopes of participating in the building of the New China. His American passport was subsequently confiscated. For many years, Chung worked at Beijing Friendship Hospital, where he was vice-president. But he was harshly treated during the Cultural Revolution, and for a two-year period he was sent off to do labor in the countryside.

For two and a half years, Chung seem to faithfully perform in his duties at the WHO in Geneva. But one day toward the end of 1975, letters arrived simultaneously at the office of the WHO’s director-general and at the Chinese Embassy in Switzerland. They were farewell letters from Arthur W. Chung. The doctor from Los Angeles had run away.

As assistant director-general of the WHO, Chung had hoped to use the organization to promote China's health service. This, however, was at odds with the goals of the PRC’s Ministry of Health, according to Chung’s autobiography, which wanted to use the WHO as a political arena to influence developing countries. Preparations were apparently underway to have Chung transferred back to China. But Chung had other ideas. He established contact with the Americans and asked for assistance in returning to the United States.

After the Cultural Revolution, one person the CCP felt might be a strong candidate to serve in a high-level position at the WHO was Ma Haide (马海德), or George Hatem, a Lebanese-American physician who had come to China in the 1930s, eventually joining the Chinese Communist Party and becoming an advisor to the Red Army. After 1949, Hatem became the first foreigner to obtain Chinese citizenship.

If Hatem were to join the World Health Organization, the thought was that he might serve as deputy director-general, or even as director general (as Halfdan T. Mahler, the DG at the time, was due to end his term in 1978). But we are told through the recollections of two former Ministry of Health officials that Hatem refused a foreign posting without reservation, preferring to continue his work on leprosy prevention and venereal diseases in China.

 

Since Arthur W. Chung, many Chinese have served in senior leadership positions at the World Health Organization, but the most prominent has been Margaret Chan, appointed in 2006 as director-general. Chan’s appointment marked the first time China had nominated – she had received a letter of recommendation directly from Hu Jintao – and successfully elected a candidate to the top leadership position of a specialized UN agency. For the CCP’s official People's Daily newspaper, this was a moment of triumph marking China’s deeper involvement in the WHO. "Since Margaret Chan's election,” the paper reported, “the central government has greatly prioritized and energetically supported [the organization.]”

WHO 9.png

An article announcing Margaret Chan’s election as director-general of the WHO appears in the November 10, 2006, edition of the People’s Daily.

Chan, who was born and raised in Hong Kong but also held a Canadian passport, had served as director of the SAR’s Department of Health from 1997 through 2003, covering a time when the region grappled with an outbreak of H5N1 avian influenza and the 2003 SARS epidemic. Her time at the head of the WHO, which lasted more than 10 years, ultimately resulted in “sharply divided opinions” about her tenure. An independent review of the organization’s handling of the 2014-2015 Ebola crisis in West Africa, which killed an estimated 11,000 people, was highly critical. One of its authors said of Chan: “Her heart is in the right place, but she has stumbled, and stumbled badly at times.”

But in China, critical news regarding Chan’s leadership of the WHO could not be found in the media. Instead, the story was about the growing closeness of China and the WHO. The following picture, which appeared in the People’s Daily in January 2017, marks what is perhaps the most harmonious moment in the history of China-WHO relations.

WHO 10.png

The January 19, 2017, edition of the People’s Daily showing Xi Jinping visiting the WHO.

The picture shows Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, visiting the WHO in Geneva on January 18, 2017, during Xi’s trip to take part in the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Xi Jinping’s keynote speech at Davos was also, in retrospect, a high point for China in its relations with the West. In his conclusion to that speech, during which he was applauded by political and business elites from around the world, Xi said: “History is created by the brave. Let us boost confidence, take actions and march arm-in-arm toward a bright future.”

The positive reception Xi Jinping received at Davos, as he presented himself as a champion of globalization and open markets, seems unthinkable today. China now faces mounting opposition from many countries, including EU member states, over its apparent efforts to exploit the COVID-19 crisis and a range of other longstanding concerns.

One issue that has drawn attention in Europe and the US is China’s revival in the midst of the pandemic of the idea of a “health Silk Road,” which in January 2017, during the same Davos trip and under the WHO leadership of Margaret Chan, led to the signing between the WHO and China of a memorandum of understanding linked to Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. In Chinese state media coverage at the time, Chan was quoted as saying that “the WHO would like to enhance cooperation with China under the Belt and Road Initiative to improve the health of the people along the route.”

The events of 2020 have perhaps inevitably cast initiatives like this in a new light. But this more recent history between China and the WHO is a subject to be addressed in a future article.

24. September 2020
Author
Qian Gang

Qian Gang is a veteran Chinese journalist and media scholar whose career spans the reform era. Starting his journalism career in the late 1970s at a reporter for the People’s Liberation Army Daily, Mr. Qian was later managing editor of Southern Weekly, a leading professional newspaper of the reform period. He is currently co-director of the China Media Project, a research and fellowship program in partnership with the University of Hong Kong's Journalism & Media Studies Centre.