From Recipient to Resource Partner: China's Changing Role in Global Development

In 1983, I was among the first group of graduate students to study at Beijing University following the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution. It was one of the most extraordinary times of my life. A tall, beach-blonde foreigner with a good grasp of Chinese, I immersed myself in the country as it began to open up to the rest of the world. I made lifelong friends with both Chinese and "China hands" who spoke with a mix of excitement and uncertainty about the changes taking place as we traveled around the country on the hard seats of local trains.

Since then, one of the most rewarding parts of my career and life has been engaging with China. I helped found Columbia Law School's Journal of Chinese Law, opened businesses in China and even adopted a son there. Now, from trade disputes with the United States to a once-a-decade change of power among the country's leadership, China is constantly in the news. So it was with great excitement that I attended the World Economic Forum's annual "Meeting of the New Champions" in Tianjin a couple of weeks ago.

Tianjin has emerged as one of the most pleasant cities in China, with wide, clean avenues; sparkling facilities; convenient train and communications services and a progressive civic agenda. It was completely unrecognizable from the city I visited nearly 30 years ago, and the conversations I had were different, too. World leaders in business, politics and civil society gathered to discuss how to address some of the worlds' most challenging economic and development problems, and to celebrate the "new champions" among us.

Given the country's astounding social and economic changes, it shouldn't be surprising that many of those new champions are Chinese. Over the last few decades, China, once regarded mainly as an aid recipient, has become an influential partner in global health and development. This is especially true in Africa. Last spring, for example, the Chinese government committed U.S. $2 billion to support Chinese business expansion in Africa via the China-Africa Development Fund, commonly called the CAD Fund. As for health, the Chinese ambassador to Kenya reminded a Nairobi audience just last month that thousands of Chinese medical workers treat millions of African patients in dozens of hospitals and malaria treatment centers built with the support of his government.

Certainly, China's role in global development is not without controversy. Despite the rapid pace of change in China, many organizations active in global development, including the global health nonprofit that I lead, still have fundamental concerns about China's approach on issues including human rights, transparency, the lack of conditionality of aid, resource exploitation deals and corruption. The motives behind China's good works are often met with suspicion: What's in it for China? Of course, questions about historical or contemporary motivations behind aid and development efforts are fair game in assessing any country's commitments, including European and U.S. roles on the continent of Africa.

But, like the United States, China's potential as a player in global development can't be ignored. So the question for organizations like PATH is not whether to work with Chinese partners, but how to work with them. In light of the quality, strength and size of life sciences research and development, manufacturing and the pharmaceutical and devices markets emerging within China, our strategy so far has been to engage with business, academic and government partners there to bring needed products to the international marketplace.

To protect children from deadly Japanese encephalitis, for example, we worked with the China National Biotech Group (now part of Sinopharm) to conduct pivotal clinical trials of a vaccine, establish an affordable price for low-income countries, and ramp up manufacturing. Our Japanese Encephalitis Project contributed to the protection of hundreds of millions of children in India, Cambodia, North Korea and other countries.

In 2008, we transferred production of our women's condom to a commercial partner in China: Dahua Medical Apparatus Company. Today, the condom -- which protects women from unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV -- is being introduced in China. Meanwhile, we're conducting market research, building demand and working toward introduction in sub-Saharan Africa.

These kinds of partnerships provide a roadmap for China's future in global development. Our presence in China continues to grow, as do our partnerships, capabilities and opportunities to serve our broader global health and development goals. At PATH, we're aware of our differences with China in history, goals and politics. But we're also committed to do more, engage more deeply, identify new partners and explore more avenues toward lasting impact.