Theses Doctoral

Socialist Medicine and Maoist Humanitarianism: Chinese Medical Missions to Algeria, 1963-1984

Zou, Dongxin

As China was recovering from disease, starvation, and death that resulted from the authoritarian policies of the Great Leap Forward, Chinese officials looked outwards to “heal” Africa. From 1963, a steady trickle of Chinese doctors and nurses arrived in Algeria, providing health care for rural and suburban communities, before expanding their care throughout the continent of Africa. This dissertation explores the experiences of the medical mission workers in Algeria during the first two decades of China’s medical aid program. It documents the rise of a globalizing China in the post-colonial world through the highly significant, yet heretofore overlooked, medical and humanitarian networks between Chinese provincial health institutions and Algerian medical facilities. It shows that the exchange of medical technology, drugs, and practices between China and Algeria crossed not only physical borders, but also boundaries between different systems of medicine and visions of development.

Amidst the geopolitics of the Cold War, Chinese medical aid formed an alternative model of postcolonial international health care intervention in Third World countries. Central to this model was what I call “Chinese socialist medicine,” a body of hybrid medical knowledge and socialized health care delivery. Chinese socialist medicine not only challenged medical elitism by devising new, egalitarian approaches and ethical models, but also heavily relied on improvised medical technology and “scientized” acupuncture, which crossed epistemological boundaries between Western and Chinese medicines. Using a combination of Chinese, Arabic, and French textual and video sources, oral interviews, and clinical observations, this study analyzes the mobilization of human resources to Algeria, the application of mixed technologies of biomedicine and Chinese medicine, efforts to build medical supply infrastructure to manage local health problems, and China’s ambitions to transplant Chinese socialist healthcare ethics and ideals to Algerian communities. During this process, China’s socialist medicine emerged as a hybrid and flexible product of Maoist ideals for social welfare and internationalism. It constantly redrew its boundaries in Algeria by competing with medical missions from other socialist countries and recruiting local health actors to its enterprise.

The dissertation argues that China’s medical aid in the form of socialist medicine was a channel for the projection of China’s soft power in global health governance. It demonstrates that medicine and internationalism were integral to China’s political history in the Mao period. Mao’s China was hardly “xenophobic” or inwardly focused, but rather tangibly connected with the rest of the world by flows of people, ideas, materials, and technologies. Socialist China during this era was in fact committed to building its global presence through networks of soft power, including humanitarian aid and medicine. Resting at the intersection of Cold War politics, the history of medicine, and global humanitarianism, the dissertation shows that China’s medical missions served as an ideological and methodological alternative in postcolonial health management within the global South.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Lean, Eugenia Y.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 30, 2019