Sep 20 2018

The Chinese Medicine Gestapo

In China, don’t criticize traditional Chinese medicine, that is, if you want to stay out of jail.

Tan Qindong, an anaesthesiologist in Guangzhou, did what I and a lot of my SBM colleagues do – he wrote an article explaining to the public that a popular snake oil cure-all was – snake oil. For his troubles, he was jailed for almost 100 days, and forced to apologize. He had to admit that he was “not thinking clearly” when he defended science and the health of his patients against pseudoscience.

The company, Hongmao, not only filed the legal complaint but sued him in civil court. They then dropped their suit after Tan Qindong apologized.

Tan was jailed on an apparently seldom used law against damaging a company’s reputation. That would make consumer protection a little difficult in China. The government, however, is increasing its crackdown on any criticism, or expression of civil rights.

For example, Zhou Shifeng, director of Beijing’s Fengrui law firm, was jailed for 7 years for his part in exposing the baby formula scandal. Two people were executed as scapegoats for the practice of adding melamine to baby formula to fool tests assessing the amount of protein in the formula. But the Chinese government doesn’t like activists, and is doing a thorough job of squelching any criticism, no matter how legitimate.

Unfortunately, the government also looks at traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as part of their cultural pride. This is very much in line with Chairman Mao who engineered the resurgence of TCM and instituted the barefoot doctor program, to fill the gap in medical care for the Chinese people.

In essence, China could not provide actual medical care for its population (well, decided no to allocate proper resources to do so), and instead leveraged cultural pride to convince people that what they really wanted was TCM.

TCM is a collection of pre-scientific practices based in superstition – the Eastern equivalent of blood letting and drilling holes in the skull to release evil spirits. Modern TCM has tried to sand down some of the rough edges, but it is still nonsense all the way down.

The product in question is a “tonic” containing over 60 herbs and animal products, sold as a cure-all for whatever ails you, including, “Rheumatism, kidney dysfunction, joint pain, and Alzheimer’s disease.” This is like the pre-FDA patent medicines sold at carnival shows – who knows what’s actually in this concoction, and the probability that it has any legitimate medicinal use is negligible.

The company did come under scrutiny for its advertising, and has had to suspend some advertising. It claims it followed the law, but some local distributors made claims on their own.

There are a few interesting observations stemming from this incident. First, it seems like the Chinese government reacts to activists exposing malfeasance by punishing everyone, including the whistleblowers. Even if you expose legitimate wrongdoing, plan on spending some time in jail for doing so. This would tend to discourage the next activist, which is the point.

Second, exploiting cultural pride or identity politics is an effective way to get people to turn off their critical thinking.  A British ex-pat living in China sent me the following e-mail pointing out this story, and observing:

“And I think that is generally the norm here, that foreigners are expected to be against certain parts of society, usually framed as “lacking the ability to understand things as the Chinese do”. And I am led to believe that it’s this “us vs. them” mentality that cements a lot of these pseudoscientific practices into Chinese culture. For example, medicine in China is divided into “Chinese” and “Western” which immediately puts modern medicine in an outsider bracket. The consensus opinion is that “Western” medicine works, works quickly, is empirically testable, but is ultimately bad for you. This contrasts with Chinese medicine which is comparatively slow working, impossible to empirically test and therefore has more potential benefits (that’s the leap) and ultimately is never bad for you. This obviously requires a leap of faith, and that is what the us vs them provides, because of course, only the Chinese can fully understand Chinese medicine.”

This is why science is so important – it is universal. You don’t need special powers, or a certain cultural heritage, for it to work. Science works for everyone, every where. If you have to defend your position by claiming other people are simply incapable of understanding, then you are probably deceiving yourself.

Further, it is disconcerting the degree to which the West has imported all the worse aspects of TCM in the form of alternative medicine. Proponents of alternative medicine are hostile to critics, make the same bold claims without evidence, and argue that their critics are simply “closed minded” and incapable of seeing their wisdom.

Nope, we just prefer to use established valid methods of investigation, base claims on actual evidence, and use internally consistent logic.

Finally, I can’t help but point out that this incident highlights how important our freedoms are in this country (and other countries with similar freedoms). If I lived in China, I would have been jailed long ago. It highlights how important it is to protect our freedoms, and to relentlessly guard against authoritarian impulses in the government. It is especially important when we are hearing what we want to hear, because that is when we are most vulnerable to being exploited.

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