A $48 billion industry

Chinese medicine struggles to find a remedy for the industry’s problems

A $48 billion industry

EU certification still pending

In its 2,500 year history it is probably fair to say that the last 100 have been the most tumultuous for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

The fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, and the subsequent influx of foreign ideas, saw acupuncture, moxibustion and organic remedies largely replaced by Western alternatives as the dominant form of healing in China.

TCM didn’t do much better after 1949 and the arrival of the Communists. Though Mao Zedong seemed to embrace traditional medicine for a brief period in the early fifties – composing a famous piece of calligraphy in its praise – he soon reverted to his belief that “old doctors” were like “circus entertainers and snake oil salesmen and street hawkers”.

Since then TCM, like other ancient practices (see WiC5) has made something of a comeback – albeit it in modern form. Although figures on the Chinese market are hard to come by, it is undeniable that the TCM business has grown in recent years.

One Beijing-based researcher, Helmut Kaiser Consultancy, puts total annual sales of TCM in China at $48 billion. But huge growth in recent decades belies the sense of crisis felt by many in the industry, both as producers and users of TCM.

Chinese companies still only accounts for a tiny percentage of TCM sales outside China and even ran a trade deficit in 2009 and 2010 for finished Chinese medicines, partly because of safety concerns about Chinese products, according to magazine TCN News.

“Industry analysis has revealed that contamination by harmful materials, such as heavy metals and pesticides detected in TCM herbal medicines prevented at least 60% of them from entering foreign markets,” the China Daily reported last month.

Product quality concerns were further underlined last month when Australia’s Murdoch University announced it had carried out DNA testing of 15 TCM products confiscated at customs. All of them were found to include ingredients unlisted on the packaging, including genetic material from cows, goats and sheep, as well as toxic or carcinogenic plants such as Ephedra and Aristolochia, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

“People have got to be aware of what they are ingesting,” one of the researchers told the newspaper.

That news will be a blow to the Chinese government which has been trying to promote TCM as part of its drive to grow service industry jobs at home – a key focus of the current five year plan — and to improve China’s image abroad.

Last week plans were announced to build 10 TCM trading centres in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the US by 2015, as well as to invest more in research and development.

“Developing trade in TCM will accelerate the spread of Chinese culture overseas, enhance TCM worldwide and benefit the industry in China,” the People’s Daily quoted Qiu Hong, the assistant minister of commerce as saying.

Last year, that task was made a lot harder when the European Union banned the sale of TCM products, after a seven-year grace period, because they are not subject to the same tests as Western medicines.

TCM producers argue that they have over 2,000 years of knowledge backing their products up and that is too expensive to carry out Western-style clinical trials.

At the moment, the only option is to team up with Western research centres, as in the case of Di’ao Xin Xue Kang, a cardiovascular medicine, that became the first TCM medicine to be licensed in Europe last month after support from the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research in identtifying its active ingredients.

But traditionalists scoff at such an idea, saying that the formula for herbal remedies shouldn’t be fixed, as each person requires an individual prescription. “Why does aggressive Western medicine always want to kill Chinese traditional medicine? Why does it always demand that TCM conforms to its standards? Tai chi and boxing are different by nature, each should practice on their own,” one TCM fan complained on weibo.

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