Beijing Peddles Billion-Dollar ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’ Industry in Australia

A Chinese man takes a closer look at a Chinese medicine on display at a booth during a Hea
AP Photo/Andy Wong

The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, boasted on Monday of an “academic symposium” held this weekend to promote Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in Australia.

Chinese state media has regularly advertised TCM, which generates billions of dollars a year for the regime, as the answer to fighting the Chinese coronavirus. The core of TCM is the belief in qi, the sum of the various energies flowing through a person. Two opposing forces, yin and yang, must be balanced for a person to be healthy. TCM practitioners diagnose diseases as imbalances in qi and use practices like acupuncture, herbal teas, and exercises known as tai chi to restore balance.

Animal rights activists condemn TCM practice for creating lucrative and abusive wild animal trades, as some TCM practitioners claim rare ingredients like pangolins, rhinoceros horn, and tiger and bear organs can help restore qi balances. Some scientific studies have suggested that consumption of pangolin, a species of anteater native to Asia, may have led to the current pandemic.

Despite the fact that consumption of animals used in TCM may have caused the pandemic, the People’s Daily highlighted remarks by Zhang Boli, the president of the Tianjin University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, aimed at an Australian audience this weekend.

“What’s more important is that TCM is able to reduce the ratio of severe cases turned from mild ones, which is significant,” Zhang reportedly said during the symposium, promising that TCM can “reduce the duration of fever, cough and feebleness, improve the lung CT image, lift the number of lymphocytes and lower inflammatory mediators.”

The Global Times, another Chinese communist propaganda outlet, published a glowing profile of Zhang last week, crediting him with a TCM boom within the Communist Party’s borders. Zhang reportedly promoted the use of TCM to heal victims of the 2003 SARS outbreak and has returned to make similar claims against the Wuhan coronavirus (SARS is also a Chinese coronavirus).

Zhang and the other doctors attending noted that they did not recommend TCM to prevent a coronavirus infection and that they believed it worked in combination with “Western” medicine, meaning scientific medical practices. The use of medicine in combination with qi practices allowed TCM practitioners to declare the success of their methods, but does not result in data that proves the TCM treatments did anything for the patient, especially if patients in the West see similar positive results with the drugs in question while not using TCM.

The head of the Tasly Holding Group, a corporation that, the People’s Daily claimed, “established an international sharing platform of TCM,” said at the event that he hoped that the virus would create a favorable climate “to forge a long-term mechanism for global exchanges on TCM through the internet.”

Another Tasly executive, Ven Tan, proclaimed, “now is the best time to combine TCM with Western medicine.”

The Communist Party, which controls all industry in the country, has a vested interest in promoting TCM. Some estimates place the value of the global TCM market at $121 billion; CNN reported, citing the Communist Party, that China expects to be making $430 billion a year on TCM by the end of 2020. While China had succeeded in convincing major Western corporations, like Nestle, in the past, the steep rise in potential profits in the market coincides with the World Health Organization (WHO) – run by longtime Chinese Communist Party ally Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus – endorsing TCM last year, much to the chagrin of medical doctors (Tedros is not a medical doctor).

“If unproven methods are claimed to be useful then we are risking the health of the patients,” Dan Larhammar, president of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said in November. “Nobody has been able to define a meridian or acupuncture point. No one can say what diameter an acupuncture point has, or how deep it is in [the] skin, whether point same size over body. It’s still totally unknown — and most likely, [an] explanation for that is they probably don’t exist.”

Skeptics have sounded similar alarms for years. In 2017, an article in the Economist dismissed TCM as “state-sponsored quackery,” noting that its resurgence was largely the product of Mao Zedong, believed to be history’s deadliest dictator, blindly believing in the powers of balancing qi. A year later, Forbes published a piece predicting that the WHO’s increasingly positive language towards TCM would result in people dying. The Forbes piece also noted the outsized impact of TCM on endangered species:

Here’s what TCM really looks like: the horrific slaughter of the last remaining rhinoceroses in Africa in order to hack off their horns, which are sold to become part of elixirs that some people mistakenly think confer strength, virility, or other health benefits. Last year, National Geographic ran a heart-wrenching photo essay showing some of the awful results of rhinoceros poaching in Africa; take a look at these photos here.

TCM also looks like this: black bears kept in grotesquely cruel “farms” with a permanent tube inserted into their abdomens so that their bile can be harvested. Despite a growing movement to end this inhumane practice (see this NY Times story), it persists today, with thousands of bears kept in cages so small they can barely move. No one can view photos such as these and say that TCM is a good thing.

And TCM is behind the slaughter of the last remaining wild tigers, which are virtually extinct now in Asia, so that men can foolishly eat their bones, claws, and genitals in the mistaken belief that tiger parts will make them virile. Here too, National Geographic has details and photographs that are almost too painful to look at.

And don’t get me started on pangolins, the beautiful, peaceful mammal that’s now perilously endangered because TCM practitioners think its scales have some sort of medicinal value. (They don’t.) For more on these gentle creatures, see the article I wrote last year.

China is the world’s worst polluter and one of the loudest supporters of the Paris climate agreement.

China appears to be using the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic to combat growing disgust with TCM. In March, Chinese state media repeatedly published stories promoting the use of TCM in places with weak healthcare infrastructure like African states and Italy, one of the nations most damaged by the Chinese pandemic.

“Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is gaining popularity in the continent as it proves effective in treating coronavirus patients,” Xinhua declared of Africa last month.

On March 23, the Global Times promoted a talk by Zhang Boli “sharing the experience” of using TCM with Italy.

“Chinese medicine experts stressed TCM’s significant role in the battle against the epidemic at a press conference on Monday, noting that more than 90 percent of all coronavirus patients in China used TCM during their treatment, including 61,000 in Wuhan, the city hit hardest by the epidemic,” the propaganda outlet noted.

While promoting TCM, Chinese doctors have dismissed the potential in using hydroxychloroquine, a drug typically used to fight malaria, to treat coronavirus patients. A small study published by the Journal of Zhejiang University found no significant difference between patients using the drug and those not doing so. The study did not specify if patients were also using TCM practices or, if so, which ones did, but as nine in ten Chinese patients allegedly used TCM, it is likely they did.

The Global Times noted last month that, despite the study, China will be “expanding their production and exports of anti-malarial drugs,” including chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine.

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