Traditional Chinese Medicine: A Cure for China’s Soft Potency Problems?

Michael Collins is Associate Fellow for Asian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. It can be found on Twitter here.

May 29and, the Beijing Municipal Health Commission has unveiled a draft “Beijing Chinese Medicine Regulations”. Much of the document details the proper administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and the certification of hospitals and TCM practitioners. The project’s fourth chapter, however, has raised concerns online. Titled “Protection and Legacy of Traditional Chinese Medicine,” the chapter calls for the punishment of anyone who “slanders Traditional Chinese Medicine in any way or through any behavior….” The law would be the first of its kind in China to ban criticism. TCM; however, it is emblematic of a broader effort by Chinese leaders to leverage TCM to strengthen their domestic economy while enhancing their soft power influence overseas.

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TCM has been part of Chinese foreign medical aid since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Although Mao referred to TCM practitioners as nothing more than “snake oil salesmen”, he saw value in the practice’s relatively inexpensive supplies and procedures. Chinese medical teams sent to Africa during this period often included TCM doctors. To date, TCM features prominently in China’s medical aid to Africa with TCM medical centers being built across the continent. Also, China sponsors foreign students to study TCM in China at a number of its top TCM colleges.

TCM has also featured prominently in China’s response to COVID-19 since the outbreak began. At the national level, China’s National Health Commission has consistently promoted the use of TCM in its recommended treatment plan. Early reports of patients recovering from the virus highlighted the use of TCM practices as part of their successful treatment. Chinese news also featured the dispatch of TCM doctors to Wuhan. Looking overseas, China has frequently provided TCM supplies and doctors to countries affected by the disease. In Uzbekistan, local authorities worked through the State Administration of Chinese Medicine of Jiangxi Province to coordinate the arrival of a team of TCM doctors and medical supplies. Chinese medical teams arriving in Italy brought TCM pharmaceuticals along with Western medical supplies. Chinese embassies have also promoted the use of TCM to treat COVID-19 with many of their websites featuring sections titled “Fighting COVID-19 the Chinese Way”.

During the tenure of Chinese President Xi Jinping, TCM gained new prominence within the Chinese government. Xi often refers to the practice as a “national treasure” and has devoted significant resources to researching and promoting TCM. In December 2016, China released its first white paper on TCM which called for “equal status” between TCM and Western medicine, as well as increased investment in TCM research and education. The document also calls on China to “actively introduce TCM to the rest of the world” through its bilateral relations and its presence in multilateral organizations.

The world has become well acquainted with TCM since the publication of the white paper. In multilateral organizations, China has used its growing influence to push for support measures. In 2019, China successfully lobbied for the inclusion of TCM in the influential 11 of the World Health Organization (WHO).and International Classification of Diseases. The WHO decision was criticized as anti-scientific and potentially dangerous by many influential publications such as American Scientist and Nature. More recently, the WHO has come under fire for removing a warning about COVID-19 herbal treatments from its Chinese language recommendations while initially omitting that advice from its English language recommendations.

Why is the Chinese government so keen on promoting TCM at home and abroad? For starters, the TCM market is incredibly lucrative. Nationally, the market has grown annually by more than 10%, from $25.8 billion in 2014 to $43.6 billion in 2019. This growth was partly spurred by a 2017 law that mandates local governments to expand the supply of TCM and which grants TCM medical institutions equal status. to Western medicine under the basic state insurance scheme. Ongoing pandemic expected to further boost domestic sales with TCM remedy sold on Taobao after Chinese state media supported its potential healing effects.

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China is also looking to corner the international TCM market. In March 2019, the Ministry of Commerce and the National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine released a plan for building national TCM export centers. These bases will not only export TCM products and training, but also “strengthen the soft power of Chinese culture.” Along with these national projects, China has also been actively shaping TCM industry standards through the Industrial Standards Organization (ISO), a member-based NGO with general consultative status with the Economic and Social Council. United Nations. In 2009, China successfully applied for the establishment of a TCM standardization body. Since then, it has come up with the vast majority of TCM standards, many of which conform to the Chinese Pharmacopoeia. These standards could position the Chinese TCM industry as the gold standard that other countries should emulate.

Economics aside, the Chinese government is also looking to use TCM as part of its broader effort to increase its “power of speech”. As Nadège Rolland, senior researcher for political security at the Asian National Research Bureau, points out, President Xi is actively trying to build “China’s ability to influence the formulations and ideas that underpin the international order.” Chinese leaders have tied TCM support to important national doctrines and projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative and Xi’s “community with a shared future for mankind”. Chinese authorities have also been quick to punish those who criticize TCM. In April, a month before the release of the TCM bill, a well-known physician in Hubei was punished and removed from his leadership position for criticizing TCM.

In the week after the draft TCM regulations were released, Chinese officials played down concerns online about penalties for critics of TCM. A Beijing municipal government official from TCM said Chinese netizens were “misinterpreting” the regulations and assured that only certain behaviors would be considered criminal. However, China’s actions will ultimately speak louder than its words. With a sluggish economy and growing rhetoric in mind, Chinese leaders are likely to continue to crack down on TCM critics at home while investing in its promotion abroad.