China Exports Its Dubious Traditional Medicines

Opaque practices, superstitions abound

China is engaged in a major effort to spread Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) throughout the world as a treatment for a wide variety of ailments, aimed at forming a health industry chain to offer business opportunities in the construction of Xi Jinping’s US$1 trillion-plus Belt and Road initiative. So far, 30 overseas centers have been established in countries across the globe to promote Chinese medicine, according to recent reports quoting Wang Qi, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering and a TCM master.

“We need to take account of the shortcomings of global public health governance and give full use to the advantages of TCM, such as therapeutic techniques like acupuncture, scraping and massage," Wang was quoted as telling a domestic forum.

On the surface, this may seem like a positive development, especially in Africa, where access to quality medical treatment has long lagged that of other regions. But while the use of a variety of plants and animal parts, as well as acupuncture, has been employed as medicinal treatments in China for millennia, that doesn’t mean they are effective, and their widespread use in developing countries, particularly in Africa, may have wide-ranging repercussions on both wildlife and humans, critics say.

Beijing has in recent years pushed for international acceptance of TCM as a legitimate medical cure, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on evidence-based research. Sixteen clinical centers have been established throughout the country dedicated to creating better evidence of its efficacy and popularizing it. But the very foundation of TCM is hardly scientific. It depends on the concept of qi, a “life energy” flowing through the body along 12 channels called meridians along which are hundreds of acupuncture points.

Disease is believed to result from disruption of the flow of qi. The problem is that to date, no scientists, doctors nor health practitioners have been able to locate or measure qi. No scientific instruments can detect it. For all practical purposes, qi, the bedrock of TCM, doesn’t exist. One has to “believe” in qi, making traditional Chinese medicine by extension more of a religion than it is a science. Even Mao Zedong was dubious, once telling his physician Li Zhisui: “Even though I believe we should promote Chinese medicine, I personally do not believe in it. I don’t take Chinese medicine.” Nor was Mao alone. Communist leaders are well known for seeking treatment with western medicines when they take ill.

Nonetheless, there have been successes as Chinese researchers have adopted western methods of inquiry to test ancient remedies. In 2015, the pharmacologist Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine for deriving artemisinin from extracts of sweet wormwood, a traditional medicine, which can significantly reduce the mortality rate of patients suffering from malaria as well as provide therapeutic effects in the treatment of severe malaria, which annually takes the lives of millions across the world and debilitates millions more. There have been other successes as well. Acupuncture, the practice of inserting needles beneath the skin of suffers at certain key points along the “meridians,” is widely accepted in western medicine if the meridians aren’t. 

Some TCM practitioners have also claimed that an herbal pill, Lianhua Qinwen (LH Capsule) can speed recovery from Covid-19, though they acknowledge it can do nothing to stave it off. A study of the medicine also noted: “While it could speed up recovery, the LH capsules have not proved effective in preventing severe symptoms from developing in patients.” This capsule “could” or might speed up recovery, but it can do little else, and the test appears not to have been administered rigorously enough to determine if other medication was in use to aid in recovery.

Far too often the attempt to prove the efficacy of traditional medicine doesn’t make it out to the millions of practitioners across the country, whose beliefs are anchored in hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of what is outright superstition, and the millions of others who have moved abroad in the Chinese diaspora. Too often, where the BRI goes, wildlife gets sucked up into a vortex that feeds not just the trade in exotic meat, quack aphrodisiacs, and rare trophies, but ingredients essential to the scientifically unproven TCM business.

ADM Capital Foundation, an environmental NGO established by leaders of the London-based ADM Capital financial firm, in a report identified the traditional Chinese medicine industry “as accounting for more than three-quarters of the trade in endangered wildlife products” in Hong Kong over the past five years.

It is widely believed, for instance, that eating the brains of a monkey, a species obviously less intelligent than humans, will make them smarter. Consuming tiger penis is believed to skyrocket male virility. Tigers can have sex several dozen times a day, and if a man consumes this part of the tiger, he is believed to gain its power of function—an ancient idea called “imitative magic.”

What the traditional medicine doctor fails to mention is that each time a tiger has sex it is for less than five seconds. Rhino horns are nothing more than hardened keratin, the protein that forms the basis of hair and fingernails and has nothing to do with the power of these majestic beasts. There is no scientific basis for the belief that rhino horn powder has aphrodisiac or any other clinical efficacy. There are many animals such as moon bears maintained in terrible conditions to drain their gallbladders for medicines with no known therapeutic value.

As traditional medicine spreads across Africa along with the Belt and Road Initiative, it is far more likely that these unfounded and dangerous superstitions will spread along with it, leaving behind whatever evidence-based therapeutics are in the pipeline. The danger to already-threatened wildlife in Africa is clear, the critics say.

“Putting aside the difficulty of proving that Chinese herbal medicines work, one notion that we can confidently refute is the fallacy that herbal medicine is gentle and safe,” said John Ross, a Taiwan-based China analyst and author of a book titled You Don’t Know China: Twenty-two Enduring Myths Debunked. “Controlling dosage is problematic because the active ingredient can vary plant-to-plant and batch-to-batch. Modern medicine improves on nature by isolating and refining the active ingredients, and providing a precise dosage; it works better, more predictably, and has fewer side effects. A major failing with TCM is the loose regulation of the industry. Medicines are routinely adulterated with steroids, antibiotics, and dangerous ingredients such as mercury.”

This is backed up in a recent report by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, a US government agency, which states that “Some Chinese herbal products have been contaminated with toxic compounds, heavy metals, pesticides, and microorganisms and may have serious side effects. Manufacturing errors, in which one herb is mistakenly replaced with another, also have resulted in serious complications.”

The last thing that Africa needs right now – especially in the time of Covid-19 – is unproven cures peddled by Beijing in order to boost the images of an “ascendant” or “revitalizing” Chinese nation. It is also the last thing that endangered species such as pangolins, rhinoceros, and elephants need. And yet a bigger role is exactly what China and Chinese TCM doctors are pushing for in every corner of the planet, even places as small and remote as Seychelles.

Political agendas should have no place in global health crises and agendas, but that’s precisely what Beijing intends to do, particularly in developing countries such as those in Africa which may not have clearly set laws against the use of TCM as actual medicine. TCM is regarded with suspicion by western researchers in the US, the EU, and even in Taiwan, where it is regarded as much more of a religious belief than an empirically provable one.

The writer is a Taiwan-based academic.

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