Six decades on, Chinese medical teams weave heartfelt melody of friendship between China and Africa
The healing touch
Published: Jan 11, 2024 09:33 PM
Editor’s Note:

Friendly exchanges between China and Africa have enjoyed a long history and have deepened in recent years, covering various fields such as politics, economy, and culture. The Global Times is launching a China-Africa Rhapsody series, aiming to showcase the profound human connections and development visions between the two peoples by sharing the true stories of Chinese people in Africa and African people in China. From touching stories of China-Africa cooperation to exciting collisions of youthful ideas, to debunking fallacies concocted by some Western sources about the China-Africa collaboration, this series hopes to promote closer cooperation and deeper understanding between the peoples of China and Africa. 

The first installment in the series shines a spotlight on the nuanced history of China’s medical aid teams in Africa over the last 60 years. During this time frame, China has dispatched medical professionals to 76 countries and regions worldwide, providing medical care to 290 million patients and earning widespread acclaim from the international community. Four groups of Chinese healthcare workers who contributed to various phases of aid in Africa shared with the Global Times their efforts in weaving together a lasting tapestry of friendship between China and Africa.

Spirit of pioneers

In 1963, under the direction of Premier Zhou Enlai, a medical team consisting of 24 doctors primarily from Central China’s Hubei Province was dispatched to Algeria, marking the beginning of China’s history of sending medical aid teams abroad. Among the first group were doctors from the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Over the next 60 years, successive groups of doctors from this hospital have been sent abroad, applying their skills with “the silver needle” to bring health and well-being to the people of Algeria.

On April 6, 1963, the first batch of 13 medical team members bound for Algeria boarded a train en route to their new mission. Xu Xianze, a 29-year-old laboratory technician from Hubei Provincial Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine, was the youngest member of the team. 

Despite having somewhat prepared psychologically before departure, the challenging local conditions exceeded his expectations. “The food was very unfamiliar,” recalled now 89-year-old Xu. “What was even more unsettling was the tense situation; we even experienced a coup [in Algeria] at that time.”

Local medical conditions were rudimentary, with high rates of disease and mortality. Cataracts were a common ailment that proved difficult to treat, but the medical team, employing a combination of traditional Chinese and Western medicine, successfully treated patients. 

Word quickly spread among the local population. Patients with back and knee joint pains experienced rapid relief through acupuncture treatment. For example, Xu used acupuncture to treat an amputee soldier who had suffered from phantom limb pain for years. The miraculous effects of acupuncture spread far and wide, and the Algerians referred to the form of Chinese medicine treatment as the “Chinese magic needle.”

During its two-and-a-half years in Algeria, the Chinese medical team treated over 370,000 individuals, performed over 3,000 surgeries, delivered over 1,000 babies, and did not register a single medical mishap. Chinese doctors became the “most honored guests,” frequently invited to attend local weddings and honored with presidential audiences twice.

After several generations of diligence, traditional Chinese acupuncture is now widely embraced in Algeria. Since the initial deployment of this medical team from Hubei, over the last 60 years, the province has sent a total of 3,706 medical aid workers to Algeria and Lesotho, treating a cumulative total of 27.57 million outpatients, and performing 1.75 million surgeries. 

Hubei Province holds the distinction of being the earliest and most prolific province in sending medical aid teams abroad in China, leaving behind a lasting legacy of China-Africa friendship and making historic contributions to enhancing ties with countries in the Global South.

Xu Xianze during his work in Algeria Photo: Courtesy of Xu

Xu Xianze during his work in Algeria Photo: Courtesy of Xu

A father and son tale

From the longstanding friendly exchanges between China and Africa, there are numerous heartwarming stories, and a particularly moving one in the 60-year history of medical aid teams to Africa - a father and son's tale.From the longstanding friendly exchanges between China and Africa, there are numerous heartwarming stories, and a particularly moving one in the 60-year history of medical aid teams to Africa – a father and son's tale.

Doctor Mei Gengnian, from Central China’s Henan Province, served as the leader of the first batch of medical aid teams to Ethiopia in the 1970s. He dedicated himself to providing medical services to the local people, earning their respect and affection with his professional expertise and selfless contributions. Through treating numerous patients, Mei forged a strong bond between the people of China and Ethiopia. 

Tragically, as he was concluding his foreign aid mission and about to return home, he was involved in a fatal car accident after finishing a task, losing his life. 

In 1998, a special visitor went to Mei’s grave – his eldest son, Mei Xueqian. 

Now retired, Mei Xueqian was a cardiovascular surgeon at the Anyang People’s Hospital in Henan. From 1998 to 2000, he was part of the 10th batch of medical aid teams sent to Ethiopia. “My father made significant achievements in Ethiopia. For me, I wish to complete his unfinished legacy.”

During his mission, Mei Xueqian utilized the team’s advantages to introduce several new technologies and projects in thoracic surgery, esophageal cancer treatment, and gastrointestinal tumor removal. This helped fill the technological gaps in recipient Ethiopian hospitals and assisted in the training of local technical teams. 

The diligence and professionalism of Chinese doctors received recognition from the local community. Among the memorable individuals Mei Xueqian encountered was Ethiopian Minister Mulatu Teshome, who had studied in China for several years, spoke fluent Chinese, and frequently visited the medical team. Mei Xueqian later learned that Mulatu had become the President of Ethiopia in 2013.

Reflecting on the changes in the era and China’s development over the last 25 years, Mei Xueqian expressed his sentiments. “In 1998, China did not have many advanced medical technologies and equipment to offer to Africa. Acupuncture was the most welcome form of treatment. At that time, we encountered some relatively advanced Western medical concepts and technologies in Ethiopia, which were helpful to our own improvement,” Mei said. “Now, with China’s gradual economic strength and development, aid to Africa is strengthening and deepening step by step. Ethiopia has hospitals aided by China and advanced medical equipment provided by us.”

Henan Province has traversed a glorious half-century in the field of medical aid to foreign countries. Since 1973, Henan has actively undertaken the task of dispatching medical aid teams, sending a total of 67 batches comprising 1,364 medical team members to countries such as Ethiopia, Zambia, Eritrea, and Kuwait. Over this period, they have provided medical services to 7.25 million people in recipient countries, performed over 55,000 surgeries of different kinds, trained more than 8,900 local medical personnel, and introduced over 1,900 new technologies and projects.

Beacon of hope in pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the dedication of healthcare professionals became a beacon of hope. In early 2020, as the world grappled with uncertainty, Chinese medical teams bravely stepped forward to stand firm on the front lines of medical assistance and pandemic control.During the COVID-19 pandemic, the dedication of healthcare professionals became a beacon of hope. In early 2020, as the world grappled with uncertainty, Chinese medical teams bravely stepped forward to stand firm on the frontlines of medical assistance and pandemic control.

Yuan Shuai, Deputy Chief Physician at the Hebei Chest Hospital in North China’s Hebei Province, was among those who answered the call. From June 2020 to January 2023, he was among the 19th and 20th batches of the Chinese medical team sent to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), working continuously for 31 months.

On June 8, 2020, Yuan and his team took off, becoming the first medical team to complete their mission handover during the pandemic in a timely fashion. “Each of us carried over 100 kilograms of medical supplies for epidemic prevention,” he remarked.

Despite challenging conditions, upon arrival in the DRC, the medical team swiftly followed embassy arrangements, initiating epidemic prevention campaigns, and establishing telephone and online consultation services. All these efforts helped fortify the first line of defense against COVID-19.

According to Yuan, the medical team also conducted the “Bring Medical Services to the Most Hard-hit Villages” initiative. At weekends, team members utilized their time off duty to bring Chinese medical services to the poorest and most remote rural areas, providing consultations for over a thousand people. 

“Sometimes, we even went into forests to provide medical care to local villagers,” Yuan told the Global Times. “When I saw the children in those villages, especially those suffering from malnutrition, I felt that what we were doing was still far from enough,” he said.

In the long days and nights in the DRC, Yuan was not just a doctor in the medical team; he was a versatile figure, seamlessly switching between roles and leveraging his abilities and selfless spirit. During the aid period, he was on call twice, took on multiple emergency assignments, and established additional medical points.

In 2021, as the global pandemic raged on, Yuan, as a member of the medical team aiding the DRC, participated on the “Spring Seedling Action,” assisting in administering over 13,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

Since 1973, Hebei Province has undertaken the crucial mission of sending medical teams to the DRC. Over the last half-century, Hebei Province has dispatched 21 batches, totaling 544 medical team members, reflecting not only the honorable task assigned by the Party and the country to Hebei Province but also a profound manifestation of the China-Africa friendship.

Yuan Shuai with local children in Democratic Republic of the Congo Photo: Courtesy of Yuan

Yuan Shuai with local children in Democratic Republic of the Congo Photo: Courtesy of Yuan

Mission continues

The year 2023 marked the 60th anniversary of China’s dispatch of medical aid teams to Africa and the 55th anniversary of the Beijing medical aid team. The story of aiding Africa continues, with the 30th batch of medical aid medics led by the Beijing Anzhen Hospital arriving in Conakry, Guinea, on the evening of September 5, 2023, taking over the mission from their predecessors and dedicating themselves to West Africa.

“It is a great honor and source of pride to represent China in carrying out medical aid missions in Guinea!” As the leader and the backbone of the medical team, Song Xiantao expressed the tremendous pressure, not only to advance the aid mission but also to ensure the safety of the team members.

“Although we have our medical skills, we are limited by local conditions, and many tasks cannot be carried out as planned. We can only do our best under the existing conditions,” Song said. Despite the challenging conditions, the team members actively demonstrated initiative, self-reliance, and adaptability. 

With rudimentary medical facilities where the level of medical expertise varies, some basic principles of trauma treatment are not scientifically followed. Song’s teammate, Doctor Lin Yunhua from the urology department saw local doctors directly using mineral water to rinse open wounds. 

“I am worried about these incorrect clinical practices and the lack of aseptic concepts,” expressed Song Xiantao. In the hot and humid tropical climate of Guinea, during each surgical procedure, team members not only perform operations but also patiently teach local doctors the key steps of surgery and perioperative management.

Due to chaotic local traffic conditions, accidents and incidents causing head and brain injuries are frequent, resulting in a high incidence of conditions such as craniocerebral trauma. In the three months since the medical team has been stationed in Guinea, they have successfully treated multiple complicated, severe, and critical cases, completed many incredibly difficult surgeries, and received widespread praise from the local government and embassy. 

Some of the treatments have rewritten local medical history. For example, on November 14, 2023, medical personnel from the China-Guinea medical team successfully treated a 14-year-old with a severe head injury due to a traffic accident. Even on a global scale, such surgeries are extremely challenging, with a high mortality rate. In Guinea, there was no previous successful treatment precedent for such a case.

“Technical assistance is undoubtedly important, but the inheritance of concepts is even more enduring," emphasized Song. 

Moreover, in October 2023, the Chinese-Guinea Friendship Hospital started a Chinese language training class, and the medical team also became ambassadors of Chinese culture.

“We are the healers of the people, and this journey carries the earnest expectations of our homeland, bearing the glorious mission of saving lives and helping the wounded. I will do my best to lead everyone in successfully completing this medical aid mission!” Song proudly declared.