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!?


7 Responses to Chinese Activists Protest the Use of Traditional Treatments

  • “Since then, TCM seems to have conquered the West..” Unfortunately true, but at least it is good to see that the Chinese are standing up against their government who plainly put economic growth above the health and well-being of their citizens. Hopefully actions like this will lead to much needed change in China (and maybe even in other countries).

    As for western countries – it seems that the unscrupulous in countries such as Australia happily continue to promote TCM in all its shapes and sizes for the sake of short term profits. Maybe a result of an overly aggressive capitalistic system and multinational corporation-like attitude of a growing number of universities.

    A year or so ago I did a 3 part in-depth investigation of how this was achieved in Australia and how the whole system continue to allow this promotion of TCM unabated. For those interested (excluding quacks, because this will just give you ideas) please see below:




    • I’m Australian, and I had noticed that sort of thing. I’m training to be a nurse so I’ve checked out the Australian health practitioner regulation agency (AHPRA) and there’s a section for TCM practitioners, which just sort of makes me sad.

      Thanks for linking those articles btw! I’ll be sure to check them out.

      • Hi Bena

        It is indeed quite sad. I’ve once lodged a complaint with the AHPRA regarding a registered TCM practitioner who hasn’t been practicing TCM/acupuncture for many years and hence cannot possibly be registered – in clear breach of regulations. (interesting thing: a got an email from China with this information). Do you know what happened? Nothing – it’s just squashed.

        The head of the AHPRA TCM board happens to be a TCM/acupuncturist who knows this particular practitioner quite well – so much for ‘we care about your safety’

    • Thank you for posting the links .

  • They could keep their time more fully occupied by protesting all the people injured by misguided and dangerous CON-MED treatments. There is a real growth industry in that.

  • Even at the height of the cultural revolution many practitioners weren’t convinced by TCM and saw it for what it was – barbarism and propaganda rather than medicine.

    Here’s a quote from “No Way to Treat a Friend”:

    ‘It wasn’t until the opening of China in 1978, as state repression gradually eased and the climate of fear which had prevailed during the Cultural Revolution began to lift, that witnesses felt safe enough to speak out about the reality of the Chinese National Health System…

    ‘In a 1980 article in the newspaper Wen-hui pao, two highly experienced Chinese surgeons were finally able to lift the lid on the truth behind the propaganda, coercion and suffering which went on in the name of Traditional Chinese Medicine. ‘The authors recorded tales of great suffering in the name of political dogma, with patients going to great lengths to “go through the back door” and use any influence they had to avoid acupuncture anaesthesia, the frequent need for the use of conventional drugs in addition to (or instead of) acupuncture, and the fear of the consequences of speaking out:

    ‘”On the surface, the effects of acupuncture anesthesia on the physiology of the patient are not strong as those of drug anesthesia, but this is at the expense of mental and physical suffering by the patient. The patient undergoes surgery in a state of full consciousness…

    ‘”Physicians and patients were under the pressure of the requirements of that time. They had no choice but to have exceptional courage in order to carry out or undergo surgery, especially as the patients who felt pain could not cry out… under this type of political pressure not a few people made statements against their will and acted against their conscience… Only joy was reported but not sorrow; one did not dare to tell the facts.”

    ‘The authors go on to describe patients having to resort to shouting political slogans to hide their pain during surgery and one leading ophthalomologist who, having tried acupuncture on himself and finding it ineffective, spoke out against it only to find himself severely repremanded and at grave personal risk.’

    Reference: Keng H.C. and T’ao N.H. (1980) ‘Evaluation of Acupuncture Anesthesia Must Seek Truth from Facts’, in Unschuld, P.U. (1985) Medicine in China, A History of Ideas, Berkeley, University of California Press, pp. 360–366


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