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The Story of Chinese Doctors Overseas

By CPC Leadership Group of the National Health Commission Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2024-05-11

In December 1962, China’s Ministry of Health received a special letter from the government of Algeria through the International Red Cross; the newly independent country had sent an urgent appeal to the world for medical assistance. The Chinese government was the first to respond, announcing that it would set up a medical aid team of outstanding doctors to assist African friends. On April 6, 1963, China’s first overseas medical aid team left Beijing for Algeria. For China, this marked the start of a great international medical assistance endeavor, which has since transcended national borders, ethnicity, and skin color. For more than six decades, over 30,000 medical aid team members have carried on this mission, providing care to almost 300 million patients across 76 countries and regions. Their compassion and medical expertise have brought great benefits to local populations, and their concrete actions have effectively conveyed China’s story to the world. Earning high acclaim from governments and citizens of host countries, they have made an important contribution to the development of a global community of health for all.

I. Courage in adversity: enduring legacy of Chinese doctors

Dispatching medical teams to developing countries was a great initiative pioneered by the older generation of Chinese leaders, represented by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. It has since become a golden practice of China’s international diplomacy and cooperation. For more than six decades, Chinese medical aid teams have braved harsh and complex conditions, confronting perilous challenges such as infectious diseases, wars, and natural disasters. With an unyielding spirit, indomitable will, and tremendous sacrifice and courage, they have created one after another inspirational achievements in lands far from home.

On April 16, 1963, after a 10-day journey, China’s first medical aid team eventually arrived in Saida, a small city on the edge of the Algerian desert. The arid city suffered from water scarcity. With summer temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius and snow depth of up to one meter in winter, diseases were widespread, and the living environment was harsh. In spite of these conditions, the medical team did everything it could to serve the local community. They resourcefully fashioned their own instruments when equipment was lacking and prepared their own reagents when testing kits were unavailable. Qiu Yuehua, a member of the team, made the following note on the back of a photograph featuring a one-month-old baby, “This is one of the newborns I helped to bring into the world. The mother had tuberculosis, so the child was left in our care for feeding. It’s been almost a month now.” That year, Qiu was just 24 years old. Born in Zhenjiang, Jiangsu Province, she had never traveled further than the provincial capital of Nanjing before going to Algeria. Nevertheless, she did not hesitate when she received her mission.


Members of the first Chinese medical team to Zanzibar, hailing from Jiangsu Province, successfully completed the first replantation of a severed hand in Zanzibar, May 1966, a procedure hailed as a miracle by the local press. Premier Zhou Enlai praised the team members during a subsequent meeting with them. NATIONAL HEALTH COMMISSION

Thirty years later, yet another obstetrician-gynecologist named Xu Changzhen made the trip to Algeria. She has since traveled to Algeria on four separate occasions, spending almost eight full years in the country. When she first arrived, Algeria was in the grip of war. One day, militants attacked the hospital where she was working. One of the local midwives burst into one of her consultations and hurried her away to a room, where the midwife locked the door and urged her not to come out. When Xu spotted crowds of injured patients through the window, she shouted to the midwife, “Saving lives is more important than anything.” Realizing that she would not be dissuaded, the midwife used her body to protect her from stray gunfire as they dashed back to the operating room. Xu remembers the incident as if it were yesterday. “A doctor is a special calling,” she explained. “Like a soldier going to battle, there are times when you must step up.” Many events from the almost eight years she spent overseas are engraved in her memory. Once, when there was no aspirator available, she used her own mouth to clear the amniotic fluid and secretions from the airways of a newborn baby. Another time, a 70-year-old patient who had suffered from incontinence for over three decades sought out Xu, after having exhausted all other avenues. Xu was able to navigate the difficulties to ease the patient’s affliction. On another occasion, a pregnant woman went into hemorrhagic shock after experiencing a stillbirth. When the local doctors had lost all hope, Xu moved heaven and earth to save the woman’s life. It is no wonder that in Algeria, she is endearingly referred to as “Mother Xu.”

For over six decades, wave after wave of “Chinese mothers” like her have collectively delivered more than 2.07 million newborns in Algeria. Of these, over 10,000 were named “Sinova,” meaning “Chinese.”

II. Selfless contribution: epitome of international humanitarianism

The Chinese people’s love for peace and life is vividly expressed in the overseas medical assistance they have provided. For six generations, medical aid team members have passed the baton from one generation to the next, tying their personal aspirations to the advancement of healthcare in their host countries and the noble cause of promoting peace and development for humanity. Through concrete actions, they have marked one inspirational milestone after another. Some have served on multiple foreign aid missions, while others have seen several generations of their families devote themselves to the cause. Host countries have bestowed more than 2,000 national medals and certificates of honor upon team members. Tragically, more than 50 members have made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their own lives in the line of duty. Medical aid team members have simply poured their hearts and souls into serving the people of host countries, and through their selfless devotion, they have found a higher purpose in life.

In a small mountain village in Jimma, Ethiopia, Zewdie Haile devotedly guards the tomb of a Chinese doctor, which bears the inscription, “An exemplar among medical professionals, an ambassador of China-Ethiopia friendship.” The tomb belongs to Mei Gengnian, who led the first Chinese medical aid team to Ethiopia in 1974. Throughout his stint in Ethiopia, Dr. Mei worked around the clock, treating a countless number of patients. An Ethiopian official, on seeing the endless stream of people going to Dr. Mei for treatment, once quipped that Jimma had become a place of pilgrimage. However, the grueling schedule and prolonged exhaustion took a toll on Mei’s health, causing his hypertension and heart disease to flare up time and again. In August 1975, Dr. Mei tragically lost his life at the age of just 51 in a car accident while returning from a disaster relief mission. Zewdie’s father, a former patient of Dr. Mei, broke down upon hearing the news. He asked the medical team for permission to guard Mei’s tomb, a duty he faithfully carried out for the next 30 years. After his passing, his daughter took up the mantle and continued the vigil. Though Dr. Mei was gone, his spirit endured through his son. Twenty-three years after Dr. Mei’s passing, his son, Mei Xueqian, set foot on the land of his father’s final resting place as a member of the 10th Chinese medical aid team to Ethiopia. “As a doctor, I wanted to serve the local people. As a son, I wanted to visit Ethiopia to pay my personal respects at my father’s grave,” he said. Two generations have guarded the same tomb, and two generations of doctors fulfilled the same mission. There are also many other stories similar to these.

Ophthalmologist Tong Ling has served on four aid missions in Africa. In 1995, during her first tour to the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville), Tong found herself caught in the midst of turmoil. While she and four other team members were conducting a mobile clinic, civil war suddenly erupted in the region. Separated from the main medical team, the group was forced to seek sanctuary in the home of a local hospital director. The hospital director’s village was running low on both food and water and utterly cut off from communications, making for an incredibly harsh living environment. Tong and her colleagues endured hunger while mosquitoes and insects preyed on them. It was only after the civil war drew to a close that they were able to embark on the arduous journey home, thanks to the assistance of peacekeeping forces. Despite the experience, she found her thoughts constantly drifting back to the hospital where she had worked and to her colleagues and patients. In 2002, Tong, after finally gaining her family’s approval, once again joined a medical aid team bound for the Republic of the Congo. She returned to the same hospital to continue the mission that had been abruptly cut short. In the years that followed, she went on to join two more medical aid missions to Gabon, where she brought the gift of sight to many patients. “As a seasoned veteran, I want to keep making whatever contribution I can. Whenever my country needs me, I’ll be ready to answer the call at a moment’s notice.”

The legions of Chinese doctors who have made selfless contributions have brought great honor to Chinese medical teams. Through their compassionate touch, they have contributed their part to the friendship between China and Africa.

III. Saving lives and healing the wounded: solemn oath of Chinese medical professionals

For over 60 years, China’s medical teams have steadfastly performed their duties and fulfilled their commitments with consummate medical skills and outstanding moral character. In times of crisis, they have charged to the front lines, sparing no effort to save lives. They are both angels in medical coats who save the dying and aid the wounded and friendly envoys who convey goodwill. Over the years, they have carried out short-term free medical programs, such as the Brightness, Heart-to-Heart, and Smile initiatives, in over 30 countries. Each year, they relieve the suffering of countless patients by traveling to remote regions of host nations and providing over a thousand on-site diagnoses and free treatments.


Members of the 21st Chinese medical team to Djibouti perform surgery on a local patient at the Peltier General Hospital in Djibouti City, March 1, 2023. The medical team arrived in Djibouti in January 2022 for a 15-month mission. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER HAN XU

In September 2011, a passenger and cargo ship capsized in the waters of Zanzibar, Tanzania. Lu Jianlin, head of the 24th Chinese medical aid team to Tanzania, immediately announced that the Chinese medical team was on standby, ready to take on rescue and treatment missions at a moment’s notice. Under challenging circumstances, the team worked at speed to develop detailed rescue and treatment plans, set up treatment groups, gather the necessary medicines and equipment, and assign dedicated staff to work around the clock before commencing a battle against death. Among the survivors, some were suffering from severe pulmonary edema, while others had wounds that had turned white from maceration after prolonged exposure to seawater. At this critical moment, medical team members worked hand in hand and did everything they could to treat the wounded. In just 24 hours, they treated over 150 individuals and saved the lives of 13 critically wounded patients. In the end, more than 400 people injured in the shipwreck gradually made a full recovery. The Chinese medical team’s rapid response and outstanding medical skills won high acclaim from the local government, hospital staff, and the general public. The president of Zanzibar personally met with the entire medical team and declared that the people of Zanzibar would always remember their noble work.

In the current era, foreign aid medical work, inspired by the spirit of Chinese medical teams, is making new strides by contributing to a vision of thriving cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative. China has launched paired cooperation partnerships with 48 hospitals across 43 countries, collaboratively established 25 specialized clinical centers, bridged hundreds of technical gaps in the healthcare sectors of host nations, and trained over 100,000 medical professionals, thus leaving behind many permanent local medical teams to serve their countries. China has also provided aid for the construction of the headquarters of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and supported the establishment of the Sierra Leone-China Friendship Biological Safety Laboratory. It has jointly undertaken research projects on malaria, schistosomiasis, and maternal and child health issues. Additionally, it has set up traditional Chinese medicine centers and acupuncture clinics in seven countries and strived to enhance the medical and healthcare development capabilities of recipient nations.

In 2021, Roosevelt Skerrit, Prime Minister of the Caribbean island nation of Dominica, took to his personal Facebook to announce the establishment of the country’s first cardiovascular department at the Dominica-China Friendship Hospital, made possible with the help of a Chinese medical team. Dr. Wu Dexi, born in the 1980s, played a pivotal role in this accomplishment. Joining the second medical aid team to Dominica in 2019, Wu extended his stay in Dominica twice during the height of the island nation’s Covid-19 crisis. Remaining on the front lines, he managed to save numerous critically ill patients. During his time in Dominica, Wu also introduced new techniques and concepts from China. His medical expertise and dedication earned him the trust and acclaim of his peers. Walking in the streets, Wu would often hear former patients calling out to him. These moments filled him with a great sense of joy. In early July 2023, thanks to Wu’s efforts, a cardiovascular imaging center and a telemedicine center were established at the Dominica-China Friendship Hospital, and four Dominican doctors from the centers were invited to China to undergo training. Even today, Wu Dexi continues to treat Dominican patients through online consultations. “I hope to cure every patient who comes for a consultation. In my view, that is an incredibly admirable endeavor. My goal is always to be a truly good doctor.”

Another truly admirable Chinese doctor is Lang Zhicun. During his four-year medical aid mission in Benin, Lang introduced new services like blue light therapy for neonatal jaundice, resuscitation techniques for neonatal asphyxia, and pediatric CPR. These efforts have saved the lives of thousands of children. Lang also led his team in establishing a China-Benin telemedicine cooperation center, which links the central hospital of Lokossa with the First People’s Hospital of Yinchuan in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, as well as a remote electrocardiogram diagnosis center. This has marked a new breakthrough in China’s overseas medical aid efforts—the guidance of live surgeries via real-time teleconsultations. This Internet Plus Healthcare initiative is a new milestone in the application and development of remote surgical guidance by Chinese medical aid teams.

IV. Boundless compassion: for the global community of health for all

A shared vision can transcend even mountains and oceans, and true compassion knows no borders. President Xi Jinping’s proposal to build a global community of health for all stems from the Chinese cultural view of the world as one family, while also exemplifying China’s sense of mission as a responsible major country in the new era. Overseas medical aid teams have truly put this concept into practice. For over six decades, generation after generation of Chinese medical aid teams have stayed true to their original mission and the ideals of international humanitarianism. With wholehearted dedication, they have served the people of their host nations, helping to develop local medical and healthcare sectors and elevating public health standards. Their efforts represent a meaningful contribution to the noble cause of world peace and development.

As one often quoted saying puts it, “While others fled in the face of Ebola, the Chinese came because of it.” For Chinese doctors, this is the highest praise they could receive. In 2014, an Ebola outbreak hit West Africa, with the mortality rate exceeding 60%. When many nations were evacuating their personnel and the world was speaking of Ebola in dread, 16 Chinese medical teams consisting of over 1,200 medical personnel marched against the tide to the front lines. They treated upwards of 800 patients, provided public health training to over 13,000 participants, and came to be recognized as true friends by their host nations. Their selfless acts marked a moving chapter in the friendship between China and Africa in the new era.

Academician Wang Zhenchang, an expert in medical imaging, was among those who marched against the tide. He led the 24th medical aid team to Guinea, which was composed of 19 medical personnel from Beijing Friendship Hospital. The team conducted research and studies on the front lines on several occasions and devised prevention and control measures tailored to Guinea’s circumstances. They also provided training for a large cohort of public health professionals and carried out a slew of highly impactful medical support operations before successfully concluding the team’s 18-month deployment. Wang still hasn’t quite moved on from the experience of that critical mission. At the time, the Sino-Guinea Friendship Hospital, where his medical team was stationed, had already seen nine Ebola infections, six of which had proved fatal. “The strain was immense,” said Wang, “so much so that we all drafted wills before leaving home because we simply had no idea what would happen over there.” Yet admirably, “Not a single team member backed out of the mission—we were all determined to stand with the Guinean people come what may. We pressed ahead and achieved our goal of winning the fight without a single infection.” Their outstanding efforts earned the team members Guinea’s National Order of Merit and the UN’s South-South Award.

Thanks to the efforts of a succession of Chinese medical aid teams, the second phase of the China-built Sino-Guinea Friendship Hospital has been completed and put into operation. The hospital has also entered a paired hospital cooperation program and is on track to become fully information-based. In terms of diagnostic and treatment capabilities, management levels, and competitiveness, the hospital has taken a remarkable leap forward and developed a contingent of local medical personnel who have strong Chinese language skills, familiarity with Chinese culture, and outstanding medical expertise. All this has helped Guinea initially realize its goal of ensuring serious medical conditions can be treated domestically without the need for patients to travel abroad.

In 2020, in the midst of a once-in-a-century global pandemic, China overcame the immense challenges of its own epidemic response to rapidly deploy 38 teams of epidemic experts to 34 countries so as to unreservedly share its response experience. It was the first country to declare that its Covid-19 vaccines would be made available as a global public good, and it has provided over 2.2 billion doses of vaccine to more than 120 countries and international organizations. This was the most concentrated and extensive emergency humanitarian assistance effort in modern Chinese history.

“I have an affinity for Africa and know the local situation, so I was a perfect candidate to go there.” At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Wang Junhui, who previously led a team to Africa during the Ebola epidemic, volunteered for duty. As a team leader, he and the rest of his team of epidemic experts successively traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, and São Tomé and Príncipe, covering a total distance of 35,000 kilometers in the space of a month. When Wang returned to the hospital where he had once worked, his former colleagues and friends greeted him with cheers, declaring that their worry was immediately swept away by the arrival of an old friend. “At that moment, I felt the pride of being a Chinese doctor, but I also recognized the heavy burden on my shoulders,” Wang explained.

Heroes never descend from the sky; those who step up are ordinary souls just like us. During their journey, the medical expert group endured not only the immense stress and fatigue of a grueling workload but also the risk of infection. Yet not one of them retreated in fear, let alone bargained over the workload and conditions.

Today, Chinese medical teams are operating in 115 medical facilities across 56 countries and regions around the world. Almost half of them are stationed in remote and challenging areas. Perhaps the local people in those places do not know the faces behind the masks of those who treat them, but they clearly recognize the five-star red flag emblazoned on their medical coats. What’s more, they know that these are Chinese doctors and that they are part of a force known simply as the Chinese medical team.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 2, 2024)