The severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis in China revealed not only the failures of the Chinese health-care system but also some fundamental structural deficiencies. A decentralized and fragmented health system, such as the one found in China, is not well-suited to making a rapid and coordinated response to public health emergencies. The commercial orientation of the health sector on the supply-side and lack of health insurance coverage on the demand-side further exacerbate the problems of the under-provision of public services, such as health surveillance and preventive care. For the past 25 years, the Chinese Government has kept economic development at the top of the policy agenda at the expense of public health, especially in terms of access to health care for the 800 million people living in rural areas. A significant increase in government investment in the public health infrastructure, though long overdue, is not sufficient to solve the problems of the health-care system. China needs to reorganize its public health system by strengthening both the vertical and horizontal connections between its various public health organizations. China's recent policy of establishing a matching-fund financed rural health insurance system presents an exciting opportunity to improve people's access to health care.