Chinese Medicine: Fraud or Oriental Magic?

Chinese traditional medicine output is expected to hit as much as U$550 billion (US$89.3 billion) by next year, with the government proposing a batch of projects designed to promote the high-tech wedding of western and traditional medicine.

The problem is that there is no real evidence that traditional medicine is anything more than a multibillion dollar patent medicine industry with little actual efficacy for patients.

The phrase “Traditional Chinese Medicine” is hard to find in the newest edition of the Chinese textbook Internal Medicine (Nei Ke Xue, 內科學). Traditional Chinese medicine is sometimes considered by the Chinese themselves as an aid to relatively minor ailments including upper respiratory infections and others, but there is absolutely nothing in the textbook about blood diseases, the endocrine system, diabetes, or even rheumatic diseases.

“When our family gets really sick, we turn to western medicine,” one young woman told Asia Sentinel.

Yet TCM is far from dead. Earlier this month, the 10th International Conference & Exhibition of the Modernization of Chinese Medicine & Health Products was on at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center. Exhibitors from Hong Kong, Mainland China and abroad, as well as TCM researchers and Hong Kong citizens, presented or witnessed the modernized fruits of this traditional practice.

Built on a history of thousands of years, TCM holds that the body’s vital energy (Qi,氣) circulates through channels, called meridians, that have branches connected to bodily organs and functions. There are five elements in human bodies – metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Traditional Chinese medicine claims to balance these five elements to make people healthy. The practice includes various forms of herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage and exercise (qigong, 氣功).

But, for instance, said Marcello Costa, professor of neurophysiology at the department of physiology at Flinders University in Australia, in a local article on TCM’s effectiveness: “None of these ideas have any basis in science.”

As long ago as 1912, the newly established Sun Yat Sen government released the “New Education Act of The Republic of China,” which did not mention Chinese medicine as a branch of education and only encouraged the development of Western medicine, sending up giant waves of argument about Chinese medicine’s validity.

Nonetheless, a full 101 years later, at the Hong Kong Traditional Chinese Medicine exhibition, sponsored by Hong Kong’s Trade Development Council, the audience crowded a booth promoting “magnetic wave therapy.” an instrument emitting magnetic waves to imitate acupuncture.

The therapist, according to the brochure, “can assess the health condition of the body according to the level of pain felt in the different acupoints in the palm of the hand, and detect any potential disease within the body and helps organs and systems to function properly by magnetizing the body fluid.” As if the craziest dreams of molecular biologists had finally come true.

Arguments between Western and Chinese medicine believers resemble those between Darwinists and creationists. While Western practitioners point out that there is no scientific basis for TCM, believers insist that it works beyond the edges of modern medical science under the guidance of “Oriental wisdom.”

Nevertheless, the Chinese public still has general confidence in acupuncture, patent drugs for common colds and external-use for pain and swelling from injuries.

Whether or not there is any basis to it, the Hong Kong government made traditional medicine an official part of the Hong Kong health care system since 1997, with its legal status officially confirmed under the Basic Law.

Compared with the mainland, Hong Kong has a more advanced testing and certification system for traditional medicine, and many players in the industry believe the territory is a convergence point for Oriental and Western cultures.

But then, at the recent TDC exhibition, the exhibitors run the gamut of believability. A Ms. Miyake flies to Hong Kong, gracious in a kimono as she represents a Japanese company producing enzyme products, which, they claim, can produce “anti-aging and lustrous skin.”

Mulberry leaf tea is also presented, featured with hypoglycemic effects. The company doesn’t really relate to Chinese medicine, Miyake says, but the products are made of natural herbs and good for people’s health, which share the symbol of oriental wisdom.

Herbal products have become a rising trend. Despite non-Chinese manufacturers, considerable Hong Kong and mainland enterprises also depend on producing herbal health products, which are classified as “food” thereby falling outside of strict pharmaceutical ordinances. Suffering from minor health problems or simply wanting to keep healthy, the public resorts to these products since “even if they don’t work, they won’t hurt,” as a buyer said.

That may not be true. The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products regulatory Agency (MHRA) issued a notice in July 2013 that it planned to halt the sale of Chinese patent drugs this year. The Swedish National Food Agency also found extremely high levels of arsenic in Niuhuang Jiedu Pian, a herbal supplement purported to cure fevers, and warned other European Union countries that it constitutes a serious health risk.

There is also deep concern in other countries as poachers harvest rhinoceros horns, tiger penises, bear claws and gall bladders and other animal parts which have been proven to have no therapeutic effect whatsoever but which an increasingly rich Chinese population demands for imagined male potency and other cures.

Nonetheless, the economic motivation behind the TCM industry is strong in Greater China. Mainland sales reached RMB423 billion in 2011, with a 24 percent compounded annual growth rate over 2003-11, vs. 21 percent for western medicines.

Encouraged by the market boom, the Chinese government announced an ambitious attempt in 2007 to bring traditional medicine into line with modern standards, expand basic and clinical research, and improve the testing and developing of remedies for export.

Such support was apparent at the TCM Exhibition in Hong Kong. Wang Zizhong, a director of Trade Department of Jilin Province, has attended the exhibition annually since 2005. He is here to help TCM enterprises and raw material producers in Jilin cooperate with Hong Kong manufacturers.

“Jilin is famous as a major producer of TCM raw materials such as ginseng, deer antlers, and Oviductus Ranae [dried fatty tissue found near the fallopian tubes of tree frogs],” Mr. Wang says, “TCM is one of the pillar industries of Jilin. We look to export our products to Hong Kong or even abroad.”

The political environment for TCM was much gloomier decades ago. In 1929, under the Republic of China, committee members of the Ministry of Health agreed unanimously that the practice of medicine requires knowledge of pharmacy, anatomy, physiology, pathology and microbiology. Without any such knowledge, Chinese doctors were ruled as not qualified for medical practice, devastating their livelihood and triggering protests by traditional practitioners.

The Republic of China retreated to Taiwan in 1949. Chinese medicine did not. It has now been given recognition by the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine, established to develop the industry. By 2015 industry output is expected to exceed RMB550 billion (US$89.3 billion). They propose a batch of projects for “development of high-technology TCM” and “the promotion of the fusion of Chinese and Western medicine”.

In China, the war between supporters of Western and Chinese medicine has never ended. In 2006, Fang Zhouzi, a well-known popular scientific writer campaigning against pseudoscience and fraud in China, together with university professor Zhang Gongyao, waged an opinion attack against TCM. As it always goes in the world of Chinese netizens, the opinion attack escalated into a war of mutual abuse and ended with both sides hating each other even more.

On the other hand, as a special kind of stocks that only exists in Mainland China, TCM plate is witnessing increasing buys as the Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connection drawing near.

What would you like to taste? The pills or the shares?

Chen Yajiao is an Asia Sentinel summer intern.