Public health in China has become a global concern as a consequence of the outbreak and worldwide spread of COVID-19. This article examines the historical place of China in international and global health. Contrary to prevalent narratives in the history of medicine, China and Chinese historical actors played key roles in this field throughout the twentieth century. Several episodes illustrate this argument: the Qing organization of the International Plague Conference in 1911; the role of China in the work of the interwar League of Nations Health Organization and postwar establishment of the World Health Organization; Cold War medical diplomacy; and Chinese models of primary health care during the 1970s. These case studies together show that Chinese physicians and administrators helped shape concepts and practices of “global health” even before that term rose to prominence in the 1990s, and current events are best understood in the context of this history.

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