Health authorities in the Chinese capital are considering banning the "slander or defamation" of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), amid a nationwide campaign by President Xi Jinping to include traditional herbal formulas in the treatment of coronavirus.
The Beijing health commission will take comments and opinions until June 28 on the draft rules, which state: "No organization or individual shall make false or exaggerated claims about Chinese medicine ... nor shall they defame or slander traditional Chinese medicine in any way or by any act."
Anyone "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" through the slander of TCM will be dealt with by police, and possibly face criminal charges, the draft rules say.
The rules are also at pains to safeguard the public against fraudulent practitioners and quack remedies, setting down parameters for legal liability, the regulation of TCM treatments and remedies and supply chain management.
Any practitioners of Western medicine will be required to undergo training and certification before they can administer TCM, the rules say.
They also require insurance companies to include coverage for TCM treatments in basic medical insurance policies.
The ban on "defamation" prompted a social media backlash, even within the parameters of China's tightly controlled internet.
"Science can stand up to questioning. Traditional Chinese medicine cannot be questioned, so traditional Chinese medicine is not science," one user commented on Weibo.
"We should have the leaders use it first," quipped another.
Health experts are afraid to criticize TCM openly
A journalist who gave only his surname Lu said the rules were only being considered in the Chinese capital for the time being, but likely came from the highest echelons of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"This is the beginning," said Lu, adding that health experts are already too frightened to criticize TCM openly, given the high level of support in the ruling party.
"If they were to stand up and oppose it, they would be labeled [as a dissident]," Lu said. "All people can do is discuss it in private."
A private hospital director surnamed Rao said the rules would like be implemented as they stand in the draft.
"There are huge vested interests at work behind the scenes here," he said. "They are now treating TCM as a part of China's cultural heritage."
"This means that anyone who expresses doubts about it is also expressing doubts about Chinese culture."
Rao said none of the patent TCM remedies currently circulating in China has been subjected to a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial, considered the gold standard of medical research.
A search for "Chinese herbal medicine randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial" on the open-access medical journal PLoS One on Wednesday yielded hundreds of results.
However, it was unclear whether the products being tested were available to the majority of Chinese citizens.
An official who answered the phone at the Beijing municipal health commission said the rules are being overseen by the municipal TCM management bureau, and that they didn't know anything about the process.
"You'll have to ask the TCM bureau, because this isn't being carried out by us," the official said. "I can't answer your question."
'Intentional and unintentional lies'
Former state media commentator and investigative journalist Wang Zhian said the attempt to legislate for the legitimacy of TCM was "ridiculous."
Others cited late revolutionary Chinese writer Lu Xun's description of TCM as "nothing more than intentional and unintentional lies," asking if the writers' words would also be considered "defamation."
He Anquan, a former Shanghai-based physician and a New York State licensed acupuncturist, said greater regulation could only be a good thing for TCM, but he said the government had gone too far.
"The government really shouldn't be issuing regulations that restrict consumers," He said. "Regardless of whether people use [TCM] for medical reasons or to improve physical fitness, it is clearly inappropriate to force opinions on people using government regulations."
But a municipal health official in charge of TCM told the Beijing News said that "defamation" wouldn't include asking questions or having doubts. He said the rules may not be implemented in their current form.
Gu Weiqun, a U.S.-based independent political scholar and TCM enthusiast, said that TCM has endured for so long because people clearly derive benefits from it.
"TCM has been around for thousands of years, regardless of any government regulation," Gu said. "It has survived constant market competition because of the personal experiences of a very large number of people."
He Anquan said Xi's support for TCM mirrors that of late supreme leader Mao Zedong, however.
"Since the Mao era, the government has been advocating the integration of Chinese and Western medicine. This is government policy, and Xi Jinping has inherited it and will continue it," he said.
He said TCM remedies enjoy huge support and acceptance among the majority of the population.
"I think the people who swear by TCM far outnumber those who question it," He said.
Reported by Wong Siu-san and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Jia Ao for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.