BEIJING — It's official. The Chinese people have a strong ally in the "war" against coronavirus: traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The white paper published by the government on June 7, "Fighting Covid-19, China in Action," devotes several paragraphs to this form of medicine, described as having a "unique strength." Although China certainly employs Western medicine, "Chinese herbal formulas and medicines have been used in 92% of confirmed cases," the white paper says.

Clearly, China's success against the epidemic wouldn't be complete if it didn't rely on techniques imported from other parts of the world. But according to government propaganda, it's both the political system and "Chinese genius" that has made it possible — despite a second wave — to contain the disease. Under the heading "Traditional Chinese Medicine Offers Eastern Wisdom In The Fight Against The New Virus," Chinese official news agency Xinhua explained on Feb. 18 that "TCM has never missed a single battle against any epidemic in Chinese history." On March 24, the Twitter account of the Chinese Embassy in France went so far as to indicate that "traditional Chinese medicine is effective in the treatment of Covid-19." They forgot one important detail: Doctors who use TCM almost always combine it with a more modern treatment.

Criticizing TCM in China is risky these days. Yu Xiangdong, vice-director of Huangshi Central Hospital (Hubei), lost his managerial post in March for questioning the policies and use of TCM followed by the authorities. His account on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, is now a blank page. All his writings have disappeared. And the situation could get worse.

Suction cups, acupuncture and medicinal plants are now an integral part of Chinese policy.

At the end of May, the Beijing City Health Commission published a draft regulation on Chinese medicine, including a chapter that provoked the anger of many internet users. Entitled "Protection and transmission of TCM," it provides for the punishment, including criminal penalties, of anyone who "defames or slanders" TCM, without further specifications. In three days, nearly 50 million internet users consulted the hashtag created for the occasion. "There is a subtle distinction between slander and reasonable questioning. Who's going to decide and how?" asked one internet user. "Is this how we build cultural trust?" dared another, referring to a quote from Xi Jinping. "It seems that TCM is no longer a scientific subject but a political issue. I guess that's why TCM advocates always say that its effectiveness cannot be proven scientifically," argued a third.

A villager checks the condition of Coptis, a traditional Chinese medical herb. — Photo: Liu Chan/Xinhua/ZUMA

In fact, suction cups, acupuncture and medicinal plants are now an integral part of Chinese policy. TCM, described by Xi Jinping as the "treasure of Chinese civilization," has even been given its own white paper, published in Dec. 2016. In the second sentence, it is described as "medical science." Its development is the subject of a 2016-2030 national strategy aiming for the "construction of a medical and health system with Chinese characteristics." According to the white paper, TCM is to be given the same clout as Western medicine. "The state encourages exchanges between TCM and Western medicine and creates opportunities for Western medical practitioners to learn from their TCM counterparts."

This is not just an ideological issue, but also an economic one. With 452,000 practitioners and nearly 4,000 hospitals exclusively dedicated to TCM, it is not a negligible player. Above all, the TCM-related turnover of the pharmaceutical industry in 2015 amounted to more than 786 billion yuan (about 100 billion euros), or 28.5% of the total Chinese pharmaceutical industry. Another significant advantage was highlighted by the white paper: "Planting Chinese medicinal herbs has become a key means of developing rural industry, improving the environment and increasing farmers' incomes." In the fight against rural poverty, a priority for Xi Jinping, TCM is a trump card.

TCM is much more than just the masks — it is the heart of Beijing's health diplomacy. In 2019, thanks to its heavy weight within the World Health Organization, China succeeded in introducing TCM into the WHO's International Classification of Diseases. This means it is now a recognized remedy at the highest level. In Africa, private clinics specializing in TCM are multiplying and the export of traditional Chinese medicines are soaring. Clearly, for Xi Jinping, TCM is one of the "Chinese solutions" that he intends to bring to the rest of the world. Even if, for some, the potion is likely to be bitter.

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