This article focuses on one particular and under-investigated dimension in the study of social policy – crisis events and their special function in promoting and shaping social protection programs. Crises are usually regarded as negative social events that tempestuously challenge the pre-existing socio-economic order, triggering social conflicts and disruption, either temporarily or in a more enduring fashion. However, social crises may also foster new opportunities for social investment, public finance expansion and welfare state building after the outbreak of a crisis and even during the post-crisis period. This article first examines the SARS pandemic and analyzes its developmental trajectory, reconstructing the national debates and discourses on the negative consequences and lessons learned in the SARS and post-SARS period. I argue that this crisis event revealed many loopholes in the Chinese public health system, constituting a powerful driving force for rebuilding the medical insurance system and health governance in China, and strengthening public discourse on welfare state responsibility. Second, I explore how, during the COVID-19 pandemic, scholars and experts have constructed the ‘short board’ of Chinese social policy, calling for further social policy reforms to narrow the gaps in health protection resources among social classes and to eliminate the fragmentation of health resource distribution.