Herbal remedies, cupping and Tai Chi: Inside China's £420bn traditional medicine market

The domestic market for Traditional Chinese Medicine has trebled in the past five years, as ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward reports

For millions of people, particularly in China, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is viewed as safer and more reliable than modern medicines. From headaches to heart disease, practitioners of TCM claim they can treat almost anything and even prevent the need for surgery.

The practice has always been popular in its place of origin, but the pandemic has boosted public popularity.

From the start of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged doctors to use a combination of Chinese and Western care.

Several TCM drugs were hailed as a 'Chinese solution' to Covid-19, some had also been used in the SARS outbreak of 2003. The World Health Organisation (WHO) initially advised against their use in 2020, but later deleted that warning from their website.

Several TCM drugs were hailed as a 'Chinese solution' to Covid-19. Credit: ITV News

The TCM market in China is now worth £420 billion to the economy and the global market - worth £25 billion - is growing at a rate of around 5% a year.

Heavy promotion from the Chinese government has led the value of the industry to treble in the last five years.

President Xi is known to be a devotee of the ancient remedies and has announced several government initiatives to spread their use. He has even introduced the principles of TCM to the national curriculum, hoping the next generation will continue its current growth.

ITV News visited a school where nine-year-olds were being taught how to identify specific herbs and create a mixture that could repel mosquitoes.

The principles of TCM are being taught to Chinese schoolchildren. Credit: ITV News

A government directive - produced this year - prioritised getting more personnel into the industry, new medicine development and the creation of more research facilities. It also called for the incorporation of TCM into modern science and its use in medical treatment alongside Western medicines.

In certain parts of the country acres of land have been repurposed for TCM plantations.

Chinese medicine dates back more than two thousand years. It's not just herbal remedies, cupping, moxibustion, acupuncture and even Tai Chi all come under the umbrella of TCM.

Moxibustion involves burning a herbal stick, to create heat at targeted parts of the body. The purpose of all forms is to balance your body's energy, or Qi, harmonising the natural yin forces (downward and inward) and yang forces (upward).

Cupping is one of the treatments that falls under TCM. Credit: ITV News

In 2019, the WHO included TCM as a category in its global index for the first time. The organisation dedicated a chapter to TCM in the International Classification of Diseases, which is an influential publication used by governments when deciding how to spend health budgets.

It was a controversial move which several health bodies, including the Federation of European Academies of Medicine and the European Academies of Science Advisory Council, said gave TCM unjustified recognition in the mainstream.

The Chinese Communist Party's ambitions to sell TCM to the rest of the world have faced scepticism.

There is still a lack of scientific evidence to support its use and animal rights groups say Chinese medicine has endangered several species.

Animal rights groups are concerned the growth of TCM has endangered several animal species, including donkeys. Credit: ITV News

Millions of donkeys have been killed for the collagen in their skin and seahorses are one of many fishes under threat. Bans under international laws, and even from the Chinese government itself, have failed to stop the use of animals, like pangolins, which are prized for their scales.

Animal conservationists are concerned the rising popularity of TCM could create a surge in illegal wildlife trade.

But without proper clinical trials TCM is unlikely to be adopted globally on the scale it is embraced in China, where a mixture of propaganda and centuries of unquestioned wisdom have given it a new lease of life.

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