Ma Haide, China’s communist American doctor

Shaanxi province, where Shafick George Hatem, alias Ma Haide, joined Mao Tse-tung

Shafick George Hatem, better known under his Chinese name Ma Haide, the American doctor of Lebanese descent who in the 1930s was the first Western physician to examine Mao Tse-tung, was born on September 26th, 1910 in Buffalo, New York as the first child of Nahoum Salaama Hatem and Thamam Joseph.

Both of his parents were first generation immigrants from Lebanon. As Maronites, they belonged to an Eastern Catholic Church founded in the 4th century and whose first patriarch was Youhana Maroun or John Maron (628-707).

From 1923 to 1927 Hatem attended Greenville High School in North Carolina, the same state where he completed his premedical course at Chapel Hill. After clinical training at the American University of Beirut (AUB), the former Syrian Protestant College, he earned his doctorate at the University of Geneva, once a Calvinist institution.

While in Switzerland, through fellow students Hatem got very interested in China and its social development after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in 1921 in the French Concession in Shanghai.

That’s where he arrived on September 5th, 1933 after a month-long trip from the Italian port of Trieste and quickly changed his name to Ma Haide. With some borrowed money, he opened a medical practice to treat venereal diseases and offer basic health care for the poor.

In a metropolis of extreme inequality, Hatem met three people who would further shape his ideas: American journalist and feminist Agnes Smedley (1892-1950), New Zealand-born gay writer Rewi Alley (1897-1987) and Soong Ching-ling (1893-1981), a heavily Westernized Christian who sympathized with communist ideology, and the widow of the Father of the Nation Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925).

In the summer of 1936, Hatem closed his little clinic and with the help of local Communists travelled to Mao in Bao’an, in the central province of Shaanxi. He wanted to provide medical service to those troops fighting Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek in the ongoing Chinese Civil War.

Hatem was accompanied by American journalist Edgar Snow, whom at his own request in 1937 didn’t explicitly mention him in the first edition of Red Star Over China, the quite one-sided book that most influenced Western views about Asia in the 1930s. He instead is portrayed as a western-trained doctor who determined that Mao was not dying of some mysterious disease, as rumored at the time.

When the Second Sino-Japanese War started on July 7th, 1937, Hatem sent requests to organize the recruitment of foreign medical personnel to assist those Chinese facing the Japanese invaders. He often traveled to the frontlines of the conflict and treated both soldiers and civilians.

Hatem then took on an additional role as the personal physician of CCP leaders. Since March 1938 he helped another Western leftist, Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune (1890-1939), to organize medical services from Yan’an, also in Shaanxi, where Mao’s new headquarters were located.

It’s nowadays officially celebrated as the birthplace of the revolutionary movement that culminated in the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949.

In 1940 Hatem married Chou Sufei (born 1920), a Chinese actress who had fled from Shanghai when the Japanese occupied it. Their son Chou Youma (born 1943) is the current Director of the Ma Haide Foundation that mainly assists leprosy patients and their families.

The United States Army Observation Group, commonly known as the Dixie Mission, spent several months there from July 1944 on as the first US effort to establish official relations with the People’s Liberation Army. «Doc Ma» Hatem obviously was a source of great surprise.

After the Communists had defeated Chiang Kai-shek, Hatem became a public health official. The first foreigner to be granted citizenship in Red China in the 1950s, he retained his American passport into the 1960s.

Despite holding a position of trust and authority as well as his reputation as the most loved American in China, Hatem was denounced during the infamous Cultural Revolution (1966-76) as a “bourgeois lackey”.

Despite the abominable crimes committed by those he enthusiastically supported for over 50 years, which caused dozens of millions of innocent victims, no words of remorse from him are recorded.

For his life-long efforts to eliminate certain illnesses, Hatem received the prestigious Albert Lasker Award in 1986. He died on October 3rd, 1988 in Peking and was buried at the Babaoshan Revolutionary Cemetery, at the time the main resting place reserved for revolutionary heroes and high government officials.


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