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.
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.”
* 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.
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.
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.