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Globalizing Traditional Chinese Medicine
By Lan Xinzhen | NO. 2 JANUARY 12, 2017

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the only option for people in China to cure diseases and stay healthy before Western medicine spread to the country over 100 years ago, is gaining global popularity. According to a government white paper published in December 2016, TCM has been introduced in 183 countries and regions around the world. A global survey of China's national image conducted by China International Publishing Group's Center for International Communication Studies earlier last year showed 50 percent of overseas respondents chose TCM as the element that best represents Chinese culture.

Westerners' understanding of TCM, however, may be limited to therapies such as acupuncture, cupping and massage. For instance, the purple, bruise-like marks left on U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps' back from cupping for the purpose of relaxing his muscles and reducing pain became the center of attention during the Rio Olympics in 2016.

As a matter of fact, Chinese herbs play a more important role in eradicating diseases and keeping the body in good condition in the TCM treatment system than physical therapies. It is therefore disheartening to know that while 103 World Health Organization member countries have given approval to the practice of acupuncture, not many recognize Chinese herbal medicine. TCM lags far behind Western medicine owing partly to the lackluster development of Chinese herbs.

Herbs are made into pills, powder, paste and soup, and the kind of herbs used, their quality and quantity, and the processing of the ingredients jointly determine the efficacy of the prescription. Compared with Western medicine, which has standardized drug production processes and treatment methods, TCM lacks standardization, with the chemical composition and functioning mechanisms of its medicines being unclear and their effects being unstable. Standardization has improved in recent decades, with an increasing number of factories producing patented TCM drugs. However, a lot more needs to be done to document the chemical formulas of TCM's medicinal recipes.

Another factor that has hindered the development of TCM prescription drugs is the lack of innovation. While Western pharmaceutical companies come up with new products every year, TCM drug producers tend to manufacture medicines according to prescriptions handed down from the past. Chinese pharmacist Tu Youyou's winning the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her research into malaria treatment may drive innovation to some extent in China's TCM industry. Nonetheless, the current state of affairs cannot be changed within a short timeframe.

The way forward may be to apply modern science to TCM research and to establish internationally recognized standards for herbal drugs developed and produced in China. China's TCM industry has huge potential for growth. According to the white paper, the industry's output value increased by 20 percent year on year from 2010 to 2015, reaching 786.6 billion yuan ($113.3 billion) in 2015, which accounted for 28.55 percent of the output value of the domestic pharmaceutical industry. The white paper says that the TCM pharmaceutical industry has become an industry "of strategic importance to national economic and social development."

A modern TCM system consisting of both drug production and medical services has been established. According to the white paper, by the end of 2015, China had 3,966 specialized TCM hospitals and 452,000 practitioners. Some 910 million visits were made to TCM medical institutions in China in 2015. These figures show that TCM has strong foundations and strengths to achieve further development.

The Chinese Government is also highly supportive of TCM. In 2015, it issued the TCM Drug Protection and Development Plan (2015-20), which laid out comprehensive arrangements for the protection of medicinal materials and the production of drugs. In 2016, the State Council published the Strategic Plan for TCM Development (2016-30), which elevated TCM development to a national strategy. The plan also includes arrangements for TCM standardization. Toward the end of 2016, China's top legislature passed the country's first TCM law to ensure development of the time-honored medical practice. The law will take effect on July 1, 2017.

TCM and Western medicine are not contradictory. Most general hospitals in China integrate TCM and Western medical services and provide both TCM and Western drugs. As China devotes greater efforts to TCM research and the promotion of relevant international standards, this ancient medical practice will receive more recognition globally and bring more benefits to the whole of humanity.

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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