Written by Altman Yuzhu Peng

With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the world, public health sectors have been placed under the spotlight. We have witnessed growing political interference in recent medical research. In China, where the first known COVID-19 patient was discovered, such interference is particularly notable, shown in the government’s recent active promotion of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) treatment. Such an official endorsement of TCM provoked wider social debates on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) public health policy, which have gone far beyond the context of public health. The momentum behind the current debate on TCM is engineered by a long-standing, ambivalent Chinese sentiment towards western democracies. This sentiment forges the intersection of political and scientific discourses in Chinese society, which explains how the CCP and people inhabiting different ends of the political spectrum push for their political agenda through medical commentaries.

Different from the public health sectors of major western democracies founded upon modern medical science, their Chinese equivalent is well-known for its dual-track system, in which traditional and modern medical treatments are equally weighted. The western-Chinese dual-track public health system is politicised in its nature. The establishment of this unique system is often attributed to be the decision made by Mao Zedong, that largely ended the radical abolishing-Traditional-Chinese-Medicine movement (废除中医运动 feichu zhongyi yundong) in the country’s science community. Under these circumstances, while the effectiveness of TCM is still an ongoing debate in contemporary medical research, such debates within China provide a vehicle for sub-textual political commentaries.

The political dimension of the debate on traditional Chinese medicine reached its peak during the COVID-19 pandemic. As early as February 2020, when the outbreak was at its initial stage, the leading Chinese medical expert, Zhong Nanshan, had already publicly called for scholarly attention to the value of TCM in combating COVID-19. This call was supported by a large number of recently completed studies by Chinese scientists, who claimed to have proved the effectiveness of TCM for COVID-19 patient treatment. Such expert opinions, alongside research findings, have been used as evidence to support the CCP’s advocacy of TCM treatment, which have been endorsed by President Xi Jinping personally. In this way, TCM is no longer a simple treatment alternative to modern medicine but has been repackaged as a political symbol, with notable ‘Chinese characteristics’, to reiterate the superiority of the Party-State system in comparison to western democracy. The politically motivated symbolisation of TCM has become an integrated component of the CCP’s holistic propaganda campaign in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The general public’s perceptions of the CCP’s handling of the current crisis are complex and fluid, as they are influenced by the process through which the initial outbreak escalated into the unprecedented global pandemic. In late January and throughout February 2020, Chinese people’s lives were heavily hit by the crisis, with many of them being highly critical of the CCP’s coverup at the initial stage. Such a momentum reached its peak, when Li Wenliang, one of the whistle-blowers who first warned his family and friends of the danger and was subsequently silenced by the local authority, died of the deadly, infectious disease in February 2020. The incident led to a wave of criticisms of the CCP on social media platforms. Yet, following the Chinese government’s implementation of strict lockdown and intensive health care for infected patients, the spread of COVID-19 began to show signs of decline within the country from March 2020. In the meantime, with major western democracies’ poor handling of the crisis, the Chinese government’s efforts against the virus have provided huge political capital that has effectively fuelled domestic support for the CCP’s public health policy. Such political momentum opens up opportunities for the CCP to legitimise its authoritarian political infrastructure through medical commentaries at a time of the crisis escalating across the globe.

The use of traditional Chinese medicine for COVID-19 treatment does not come without controversy. In late January 2020, the Chinese Science Academy announced that tests showed the Shuanghuanglian Oral Liquid, a patent drug extracted from traditional Chinese herbs, could effectively inactivate the COVID-19 virus. Within hours after the announcement was issued, the drug was sold out on all major e-commerce platforms in China. However, the announcement was soon challenged for lacking sufficient scientific basis, and the effectiveness of the drug on COVID-19 patients has not been accepted by the science community. This provoked huge debates on the motive behind the Chinese Science Academy, which prompted the most recent wave of criticisms of TCM by both the news media and the general public. Such criticisms have persisted across public commentaries in later incidents of official promotion of TCM, in which even the reputation of Zhong Nanshan, who was a heroic figure in the last SARS outbreak, was collaterally influenced.

Given the CCP’s official endorsement, public criticisms of TCM contain sub-textual challenges to its public health policy and, by extension, may collaterally influence its justification of the Party-State system. In an age of constantly changing political momentum, such criticisms become concerning to the CCP’s holistic political propaganda strategy, regardless of critics’ personal intension. This situation, in part, explains why the Beijing local government tabled a hugely controversial consultation draft in late May 2020, which attempted to criminalise defamation or slander of TCM.

What makes the current debates about TCM salient is that they also offer scope to interrogate the uniqueness of Chinese politics. As the above discussion illustrates, the promotion of TCM has become an integrated component of the CCP’s current political propaganda. The censorship placed upon criticisms of TCM by the Chinese government is, therefore, part of the authoritarian governance strategy it adopts to address domestic critics, with little intention to engage the scientific debates per se. To a certain extent, the CCP’s concerns are not coming from nowhere. The results of a recent study by Shuhan Chen and I confirmed that some Chinese people did use anti-TCM commentaries to sub-textually express their dissenting political opinions on social media.

This convergence between political and medical commentaries on the Chinese-language Internet requires further intellectual attention. A better understanding of this convergence helps us to assess the CCP’s domestic support in the wake of the unprecedented pandemic.

 

Altman Yuzhu Peng (PhD, Newcastle University, UK) is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Cultures at Newcastle University (UK). His research interests lie at the intersections of feminism, public relations, and media and cultural studies. He is author of A Feminist Reading of China’s Digital Public Sphere (2020, Palgrave Macmillan) and has published more than ten scholarly articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, such as Asian Journal of Communication, Convergence, Chinese Journal of Communication, Feminist Media Studies, Journal of Gender Studies, Media International Australia, Social Semiotics, and Television and New Media. Featured image: Kristoffer Trolle, Creative Commons.

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