On May 26th, the Stanford China Program brought together an esteemed panel of public health experts, noted for their successful collaborations with institutions in China, from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health; University of Michigan Medical School; and the Yale School of Public Health. These scholars gathered together for a private virtual panel, titled “Healing Ties: Future Medical Collaborations between U.S. and China amidst COVID-19,” to comment upon how geopolitics is shaping their institutional cooperation with their counterparts in China. They were asked by the host, China Program faculty member, Prof. Matthew Kohrman, to reflect upon optimal ways in which both countries’ scientific communities can deploy skills and strengths amidst tense intergovernmental ties; and the most advantageous path forward for health collaborations between the two countries.
Giving concrete examples from their own institutional experiences, these panelists came remarkably close to consensus in their main conclusions. Three perspectives, in particular, stand out from their remarks. First, all three presenters highlighted health science advances in China, especially since SARS, and that, as a consequence, scientists there are no longer inclined to present themselves as merely recipients of medical knowledge from the United States. They expect to be equal partners in a two-way relationship. U.S. and China, our panelists further explained, have therefore entered into a new and unfamiliar stage of defining a new equilibrium in their relations. Secondly, all panelists described the need and challenges of conceptually separating government from scientist when fostering their U.S.-China collaborations. Despite harsh rhetoric in the geopolitical sphere, these experts spoke of public health communities in China that still eagerly seek out and desire collaborative relationships with their counterparts in the U.S. All emphasized the importance of personal relationships based on mutual respect and growing trust, built slowly and steadily over time, as having been critical for the success of their collaborative projects in China.
Perhaps most surprisingly, all three panel members expressed deep optimism for the future of U.S.-China health science exchanges. Drawing from their own real-life experiences working closely with their Chinese counterparts, they acknowledged current political head winds. Yet, all three panel members agreed that public health collaboration can and ought to be a productive path forward for these two countries. They expressed hope – increasingly rare in the Sino-U.S. geosphere these days – that working on issues like public health as much as climate change, which transcend borders, can generate concrete benefits that hold the promise of defusing political tensions and creating “healing ties.”