The Chinese government’s promotion of traditional Chinese medicine sets a worrying trend. Liam Glen writes on the conflict between science and geopolitical interests.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), with treatments like acupuncture and herbal medicine, has been present in the West for decades. But it has always been relegated to alternative medicine communities, outside of conventional science.
Now, the government of China is trying hard to bring it into the mainstream. As reported by Communist Party publication China Today, TCM is spreading throughout the world as part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Its influence is particularly strong in developing regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.
With its international reach and backing from a world power, TCM warrants a closer look, the results from which raise some serious questions.
What is Traditional Chinese Medicine?
TCM advocates portray it as a coherent body of practices that have remained unchanged for thousands of years. In reality, just as “traditional European medicine” includes diverse concepts like the four humors, leeching, and exorcism, traditional Chinese treatments have varied dramatically across time and place.
The modern conception of TCM was standardized by the Mao regime in the 1950s. At the time, Western-trained doctors were few, but traditional healers were plentiful. Embracing folk medicine was a cheap and convenient way to boost access to healthcare. Whether these treatments actually work was not at the top of the government’s agenda.
Still, something should not be thrown out just because it has questionable origins. I mentioned leeching with derision, but modern doctors now believe that hirudotherapy can be helpful under certain circumstances.
In the 1970s, TCM-trained doctor Tu Youyou derived the antimalarial compound artemisinin from the folk remedy Artemisia annua, or sweet wormwood. For this, she was one of the winners of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
The benefits of most TCM treatments, however, are more dubious. Acupuncture, for example, claims to affect chi energy by inserting needles along the body’s meridians. There is no scientific basis for this, but the Mayo clinic’s profile on acupuncture essentially extols its value as a placebo. These types of treatments can be helpful so long as one does not spend too much money on them or use them as a substitute for scientific medicine.
Finally, by accident or design, TCM can be detrimental for one’s health. A 2012 study that screened TCM herbal treatments in Australia found that they often lacked proper labeling and could even contain toxic substances.
In addition, some forms of TCM require components from endangered animals. Entire species are at risk of extinction so they can be used for dubious medicine.
Ideally, TCM treatments would go through rigorous scientific testing. The parts that work would be incorporated into the global body of medical science. The parts that do not would be thrown out.
Unfortunately, this is not what the Chinese government has in mind. Its propaganda campaign seeks to establish TCM as a branch of medicine on equal footing with yet separate from “Western medicine.” This is the equivalent of accepting traditional, pre-Newtonian physics alongside the theory of relativity.
Politics vs Science
The Chinese government has been vocal about the “soft power” benefits of TCM. Association with these treatments boosts China’s prestige overseas. This is particularly helpful as it tries to absorb developing countries into its sphere of influence.
Money, as always, is another factor. The billion-dollar TCM industry has allowed Chinese and foreign investors alike to reap returns.
Nationalism, omnipresent in modern politics, also has its influence. TCM is tied up in national identity, to the point that its advocates are willing to defy logic. James Palmer reports a number of bizarre defenses of TCM in China, most notably, “the reason Westerners don’t believe in TCM is that it only works on Chinese bodies.”
In many ways, this is a case study of the post-truth era. It is always tempting for those in power to misrepresent the facts to further their agenda, or for those with strong convictions to misinterpret them to reinforce their beliefs. The complexity of modern science makes it easier than ever to only pay selective attention to it.
However, the dangerous rejection of medical science reveals this phenomenon at its extreme. We must remember that our beliefs should depend on what we observe in reality, not the other way around.
Whether it is inspired by personal interests, or by deeply-held beliefs or loyalties, holding something above critical thought and empirical evidence can only end poorly. And it is unlikely to be remembered well by posterity.