Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a term created by Mao lumping together various modalities in an attempt to pretend that healthcare in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was being provided despite the most severe shortages of conventional doctors, drugs and facilities. Since then, TCM seems to have conquered the West, and, in the PRC, the supply of conventional medicine has hugely increased. Today therefore, TCM and conventional medicine peacefully co-exist side by side in the PRC on an equal footing.
At least this is what we are being told – but is it true?
I have visited the PRC twice. The first time, in 1980, I was the doctor of a university football team playing several games in the PRC, including one against their national team. The second time, in 1991, I co-chaired a scientific meeting in Shanghai. On both occasions, I was invited to visit TCM facilities and discuss with colleagues issues related to TCM in the PRC. All the official discussions were monitored by official ‘minders’, and therefore fee speech and an uninhibited exchange of ideas are not truly how I would describe them. Yet, on both visits, there were occasions when the ‘minders’ were absent and a more liberal discussion could ensue. Whenever this was the case, I did not at all get the impression that TCM and conventional medicine were peacefully co-existing. The impression that I did get was that their co-existence resembled more a ‘shot-gun marriage’.
During my time running the SCAM research unit at Exeter, I had the opportunity to welcome several visiting researchers from the PRC. This experience seemed to confirm my impression that TCM in the PRC was less than free. As an example, I might cite one acupuncture project I was once working on with a scientist from the PRC. When it was nearing its conclusion and I mentioned that we should now think about writing it up to publish the findings, my Chinese colleague said that being a co-author was unfortunately not an option. Knowing how important publications in Western journals are for researchers from the PRC, I was most surprised by this revelation. The reason, it turned out, was that our findings failed to be favourable for TCM. My friend explained that such a paper would not advance but hinder an academic career, once back in the PRC.
Suspecting that the notion of a peaceful co-existence of TCM and conventional medicine in the PRC was far from true, I have always been puzzled how the myth could survive for so many years. Now, finally, it seems to crumble. This is from a recent journalistic article entitled ‘Chinese Activists Protest the Use of Traditional Treatments – They Want Medical Science’ which states that thousands of science activists in the PRC protest that the state neglects its duty to treat its citizens with evidence-based medicine (here is the scientific article this is based on):
Over a number of years, Chinese researcher Qiaoyan Zhu, who has been affiliated with the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Communication, has collected data on the many thousand science activists in China through observations in Internet forums, on social media and during physical meetings. She has also interviewed hundreds of activists. Together with Professor Maja Horst, who has specialized in research communication, she has analyzed the many data on the activists and their protests in an article that has just been published in the journal Public Understanding of Science:
“The activists are better educated and wealthier than the average Chinese population, and a large majority of them keep up-to-date with scientific developments. The protests do not reflect a broad popular movement, but the activists make an impact with their communication at several different levels,” Maja Horst explained and added: “Many of them are protesting individually by writing directly to family, friends and colleagues who have been treated with – and in some cases taken ill from – Traditional Chinese Medicine. Some have also hung posters in hospitals and other official institutions to draw attention to the dangers of traditional treatments. But most of the activism takes place online, on social media and blogs.
Activists operating in a regime like the Chinese are obviously not given the same leeway as activists in an open democratic society — there are limits to what the authorities are willing to accept in the public sphere in particular. However, there is still ample opportunity to organize and plan actions online.
“In addition to smaller groups and individual activists that have profiles on social media, larger online groups are also being formed, in some cases gaining a high degree of visibility. The card game with 52 criticisms about Traditional Chinese Medicine that a group of activists produced in 37,000 copies and distributed to family, friends and local poker clubs is a good example. Poker is a highly popular pastime in rural China so the critical deck of cards is a creative way of reaching a large audience,” Maja Horst said.
Maja Horst and Qiaoyan Zhu have also found examples of more direct action methods, where local activist groups contact school authorities to complain that traditional Chinese medicine is part of the syllabus in schools. Or that activists help patients refuse treatment if they are offered treatment with Traditional Chinese Medicine.
I am relieved to see that, even in a system like the PRC, sound science and compelling evidence cannot be suppressed forever. It has taken a mighty long time, and the process may only be in its infancy. But there is hope – perhaps even hope that the TCM enthusiasts outside the PRC might realise that much of what came out of China has led them up the garden path!?