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Today marks a new milestone in China and Africa’s growing partnership, as dozens of African Ministers of Health and high-level officials gather in Beijing for the Ministerial Forum on China-Africa Health Development. This is an historic event: it is the first time that Chinese and African health ministers have met to discuss the future direction of their collaboration, demonstrating commitment at the highest levels to jointly address health challenges.
Together, African and Chinese leaders will explore new forms of cooperation to strengthen China’s support for sustainable health solutions across Africa. They will also be joined by leaders from a number of key international organizations, including Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO); Mark Dybul, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; and Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS.
The meeting also marks the 50th anniversary of China sending its first medical team to the African continent. China began providing international medical aid long before it became a global economic power. In July 1962, after the victory of the liberation movement and the withdrawal of French medical staff, the Algerian government called on the international community for medical assistance. China was the first country to express its willingness to provide this assistance to Algeria, thereby marking the beginning of China’s provision of medical aid to other countries across the globe.
Thousands of Chinese medical personnel have since served in more than 40 African countries, providing services ranging from treatment of infectious diseases to complex surgeries. China has also partnered with African governments, the WHO and other international organizations across the continent to support anti-malaria campaigns, train African medical personnel, provide medications and construct health facilities and hospitals.
Now, building on this rich and dynamic partnership, China is exploring opportunities to contribute new resources, innovation and leadership to drive deeper health cooperation in African countries, further building this vital relationship.
At the Forum, leaders plan to identify strategies for tackling the most persistent health challenges in Africa, including malaria, HIV/AIDS, schistosomiasis, immunization and vaccine-preventable diseases. Officials will also address cross-cutting issues such as human resource capacity, joint research partnerships, domestic manufacturing capacity, and access to low-cost health products that can make a significant public health impact. Leaders will work to align China’s strengths with African needs and priorities, and invest more in country-led development.
China is uniquely poised to support Africa’s health efforts. China can draw on its own experiences overcoming many of the same health challenges prevalent in Africa today, and can share best practices for improving health care in resource-limited environments. Further, China’s low-cost, high-quality health products can provide invaluable support to Africa countries. China can also learn from Africa’s successes and best practices, such as in preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV – a challenge that China is facing today.
The kind of collaboration being discussed today demonstrates an ongoing evolution of China and Africa’s joint efforts to be more strategic and sustainable. Equally important, however, is that the core principles underpinning China and Africa’s first health engagement five decades ago—commitment to equality, respect, non-interference, co-development and experience-sharing—will continue to guide their relationship in the future.
These principles, and the relationship between China and Africa, are emblematic of changes in global governance of health and development. Partnerships between countries in the Global South, rooted in common historical experience, are bringing new resources and approaches to development challenges. They are also playing an increasingly important role as traditional donors face budgetary pressures.
As a professor, I have seen a growing number of African students at Peking University studying various disciplines and subjects, and I am currently supervising three African PhD candidates. I have also seen many Chinese students interested in learning about Africa. The growing interest in China-Africa relations among African and Chinese youth – our future leaders – demonstrates the enduring importance of partnership.
Through a half century of health collaboration, China and Africa have made tremendous progress that neither could have made alone. Working together, China and Africa can build on their achievements and pave the way for a healthier future for all their citizens.
Dr. Li Anshan is the Director of the Institute of Afro-Asian Studies and Center for African Studies at the School of International Studies at Peking University. He is also President of the Chinese Society of African Historical Studies. His work on Chinese Medical Cooperation in Africa was published by the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala, Sweden in 2011.