Politics and Traditional Chinese Medicine in Hong Kong’s Fifth Pandemic Wave

‘Putting aside political views, lianhua qingwen capsules [連花清瘟膠囊] really eased my sore throat,’ said the title of a LIHKG post dated 3 March 2022, when the fifth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in Hong Kong was at its peak (LIHKG 2022). Lianhua qingwen (LH) capsules are a type of proprietary Chinese medicine for influenza that were strongly promoted as an effective treatment for SARS-CoV-2 by the central Chinese Government. LIHKG is a popular online forum dubbed the ‘Hong Kong Reddit’ and was a key platform for the decentralised mobilisation of the anti-extradition protests in 2019. Members of this forum often engage in wordplay and satire, but the writer of this post meant what he said. Some netizens expressed distrust in the remedy, replying: ‘Don’t worry—they are all yours.’ Others showed genuine interest and asked about the writer’s experience with the drug. More intriguingly, one netizen left a comment using a similar phrase: ‘Putting aside political views, a lot of Chinese medicine is superb.’ Another inverted the logic of the phrase, asking: ‘What if you do not put aside your political views?’ (this comment included an LIHKG emoji showing a smoking cow with a witty smile).

The sociopolitical tension around the use of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) captures the complexity of the fifth wave of Covid-19 in Hong Kong. While many places in the world experienced disruptions to the normal order of things due to Covid-19, Hong Kong slid into the pandemic from another abnormality: the large-scale anti–extradition bill protests had just died down when the virus hit. The feeling of stagnancy Hongkongers experienced during 2020–22 came not only from pandemic fatigue, but also from post-protest fatigue in the face of unprecedentedly strong political oppression under the draconian National Security Law. Just as it is difficult to separate the time frame of the pandemic from that of the post-protest period, it is difficult to ‘put aside’ political views when considering the pandemic in Hong Kong. Hence, when Hongkongers argued about medical treatments and health policies during the pandemic, they were in fact weighing different political views and judgements of Hong Kong’s social and political conditions.

In using the term ‘traditional Chinese medicine’ in this essay, I am referring to the centuries-old medical system that uses herbs and unique methods of treatment, rather than ‘medicine from China’. I will mainly discuss proprietary Chinese medicine, which refers to over-the-counter TCM products in their finished dosage form (for instance, capsules, powder, and pills). While people who consult TCM practitioners usually receive prescriptions tailor-made to their individual body type, different kinds of proprietary Chinese medicines can be bought in pharmacies without guidance from TCM practitioners.

Unlike in mainland China and Taiwan, where integrated approaches combining Western medicine and TCM were adopted at the very beginning of the pandemic, in Hong Kong, TCM had only served at most a supplementary role from the first to the fourth waves of the pandemic, from early 2020 to late 2021. Only two official TCM programs were offered: the Special Chinese Medicine Outpatient Program for recovered Covid-19 patients, and an inpatient scheme to treat those with mild symptoms in community treatment facilities. However, things changed during the fifth wave, starting in December 2021, when the number of infections surged to more than a million within a few months, causing the collapse of Hong Kong’s medical system. The government began promoting the use of TCM for Covid-19 by inviting mainland TCM professionals to the frontline and distributing proprietary Chinese medicine for free. TCM practitioners from both the public and the private sectors were able to treat Covid patients through telemedicine consultations. I suggest that the dual role of TCM during the fifth wave of the pandemic prompts us to consider the interconnectedness of medicine and politics in Hong Kong. On the one hand, the government strongly promoted the use of TCM, arguably embodying a type of nationalist propaganda. On the other hand, TCM provided an alternative method of treatment when hospitalisation was not available or desired.

We can observe three ways in which politics and medicine are intertwined. First, the government politicised TCM as a tool to promote patriotism, invoking Chinese culture, the metaphor of family, and a rhetoric of ‘gratitude’. Second, there are multiple factors causing public distrust in TCM, all of which must be understood in relation to politics. Third, there is an alternative to wholesale gratitude or rejection of TCM in its use by grassroots mutual aid networks. This essay begins with the background, development, and institutionalisation of TCM in Hong Kong from the colonial period to now, followed by three sections corresponding to the three points mentioned above. I draw on analysis of state media, social media posts, and interviews with TCM practitioners featured in newspapers.

The Development of TCM in Hong Kong

Understanding the unique position of TCM in Hong Kong requires a brief historical review of its institutionalisation in the city. Before the 1997 handover, the colonial government not only refused to support TCM, but also used policies to suppress its influence. According to historian Law Yuen Han (2020), many Hong Kong citizens prioritised TCM over Western medicine before World War II. For instance, Tung Wah Hospital, the first non-profit hospital in the city, which opened in 1870, originally provided only TCM services. However, the colonial government prioritised Western medicine in the public health sector and used different regulations to limit the growth of TCM in hospitals. In the early twentieth century, Hong Kong’s colonial authorities took the opportunity to introduce Western medicine to the public when it granted a large piece of land for the Tung Wah Hospital and allowed the landowner class of Kowloon to build the Kwong Wah Hospital. Though TCM was initially provided in Kwong Wah Hospital, the government gradually imposed regulations on its use, such as setting a quota for the number of patients who could seek TCM treatment, preventing the hiring of TCM practitioners, and banning TCM practitioners from treating contagious diseases. When the Tung Wah Hospital encountered financial difficulties and sought government funding in the postwar period, the colonial authorities required it to gradually stop its TCM services altogether (Tung Wah Group of Hospitals 2011). The lack of public and non-profit TCM services was one of the reasons Western medicine gradually became mainstream in Hong Kong. In other words, the colonial government’s support of Western medicine and suppression of TCM built up the ‘hegemony’ of Western medicine (Chiu and Sze 2021). The suppression of TCM, therefore, could not be separated from colonial rule.

In contrast, in the post-handover period, the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) started to institutionalise and strengthen TCM. TCM practitioners began campaigning in the late 1980s and succeeded in including TCM as a part of the Basic Law Article 138, which states that the HKSAR Government will ‘formulate policies to develop Western and traditional Chinese medicine and to improve medical and health services’. After the passing of the Chinese Medicine Ordinance in 1999, the Chinese Medicine Council was founded and registration of TCM practitioners was imposed. Publicly funded local training for TCM was developed at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Baptist University, and the University of Hong Kong between 1998 and 2002. Policies that benefited TCM have been slowly changing the landscape of the public health system. For instance, in 2014, TCM clinics were set up in each of the 18 districts of Hong Kong. The Hospital Authority also began an integrated Chinese–Western medicine program in seven public hospitals in four areas of care: stroke, lower back pain, palliative cancer, and shoulder and neck pain. This resulted in both inpatient and outpatient TCM follow-up services being included in preparations for a ‘Chinese Medicine Hospital’ that is expected to open in 2025 (Chiu and Sze 2021). Compared with the colonial period, now more support is given to the TCM sector by the government. As sociologists Chiu Wing-kai and T.O. Sze (2021) put it: ‘In the last years of the twentieth century, [TCM] successfully took advantage of the political transition to achieve licensing and institutionalization of training.’

The development of TCM has been slow under the HKSAR Government’s promotion and it remains secondary to Western medicine in many ways. For example, though TCM practitioners may be registered and are no longer required to use the demeaning label ‘herbalist’, as in the colonial period, their salary remains the lowest in the public medical system—even lower than nurses with three years’ experience (Chiu et al. 2020: 78). Nevertheless, it is evident the political changes in Hong Kong have directly determined the resources and legal standing of TCM. This helps us understand TCM’s unique dual role during the fifth wave of the pandemic.

Nationalist Promotion of TCM

During the fifth wave of the pandemic, the HKSAR Government called for expressions of ‘gratitude’ (感謝內地援港醫護) and familial love to construct a nationalistic promotion of TCM, demanding patriotic responses from the people. In late February 2022, the Emergency Regulations Ordinance was implemented, exempting mainland medical professionals and workers from all statutory requirements relating to licensing, registration, and application to work in Hong Kong. The public questioned the legitimacy of using the Emergency Regulations Ordinance. The Hospital Authority Employees Alliance also disagreed with the policy in a statement issued in February, based on concerns about cultural and clinical discrepancies between mainland and Hong Kong practitioners, as well as the issue of accountability (HA Employees Alliance 2022). Despite public suspicion and criticism, 391 mainland Chinese healthcare professionals from different disciplines were sent to Hong Kong, including seven TCM experts and 20 TCM practitioners (HKSAR Government 2022; Wen and Guo 2022). The HKSAR Government also emphasised mainland China’s support in donating or helping to purchase three types of proprietary Chinese medicines, including LH capsules. As of early April 2022, more than 930,000 units of LH capsules had been distributed, mostly through the anti-epidemic service bags that were directly distributed to all households (HKSAR Government 2022).

As mentioned above, the HKSAR Government framed this support with a rhetoric of gratitude and the importance of familial relationships. In her speech to the mainland medical support team during their farewell ceremony, then Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam thanked China’s Central Government for a speedy response to the HKSAR Government’s ‘plea’ (請求) to meet Hong Kong’s ‘urgent needs’ (燃眉之急) (ISD 2022). She said the medical support team helped ‘make better use of the advantages of Chinese and Western medicine cooperation in anti-epidemic treatment’ (更好發揮中西醫協作在抗疫治療的優勢). In particular, she thanked the mainland support team for help that ‘fully manifests the spirit of selflessness … and the sentiment [that] blood is thicker than water, which is really precious’ (Ho 2022).

Expressions of fraternal relationship were employed, and the reciprocal nature of familial relationships was emphasised. In reports that appeared in the state-sponsored press about the mainland support team, phrases about fraternal relationships such as ‘brotherly love’ (手足情深) and ‘brothers who think alike can overcome any difficulties’ (兄弟同心其利斷金) are recurrent (see, for instance, China Traditional Chinese Medicine Newspaper 2022). In numerous stories in these forums about young medics helping elderly patients, the emphasis is on the reciprocal nature of the relationship. The medics are reported to have taken care of the elderly by offering both medical and emotional support, such as holding their hands to walk with them or chatting with them (HKMAO 2022; China News 2022). There are frequent descriptions of the elderly expressing gratitude for the medics’ service—for instance, giving their carers coconut candies, writing them thank you cards, and singing them the patriotic song ‘My Ancestral Country and Me’ (我和我的祖國) (Zhu et al. 2022). These stories depict mainland China and Hong Kong as family members with a close and reciprocal relationship.

There is, however, another layer to the family metaphor that indicates an authoritative ancestral relationship between mainland China and Hong Kong. For example, an article in Southern Daily describes the supposed familial relationship between mainland medics and Hong Kong citizens in terms of their common dependence on the nation-state: ‘The hearts of mainland medics and Hong Kong citizens are close because they both lean on the same ancestral country’ (內地醫護與香港市民的心, 因為背靠共同的祖國而緊緊相依) (Zhu et al. 2022). By translating zuguo 祖國 as ‘ancestral country’ rather than ‘motherland’, I follow John Flowerdew and Solomon Leong (2007: 282), who point out that the term connotes the Chinese tradition of installing shrines at home for worshipping one’s ancestors. Hence, the term places the nation-state in a sacred position and implies an uneven power relationship between the imagined ancestral country and Hong Kong citizens.

While the mainland medics are described as representatives of the Chinese State, TCM is depicted as a representation of Chinese culture and a medium through which the mainland medics can express their familial love for their patients. The TCM representative of the mainland medical team, Tong Xiaolin, directly linked TCM, Chinese culture, and the Chinese State, saying: ‘Hong Kong is a part of China with the soil of Chinese tradition and a wide usage of TCM. After our investigation, we discovered that Hong Kong citizens are desperate to use TCM’ (China Traditional Chinese Medicine Newspaper 2022).

The government’s rhetoric about gratitude deserves further analysis because it reflects the authoritarian side of the imagined ‘familial relationship’, as demonstrated in the controversy caused by a NowTV reporter. When, during a government Covid-19 press conference in mid March 2022, the reporter asked how a patient could lodge a complaint of malpractice against a mainland medical staff member, the question was condemned in an online petition by a pro-Beijing group, Politihk Social Strategic, as ‘unprofessional and a possible violation of the National Security Law’ and ‘spreading hate’ because it was ‘unappreciative of mainland aid’ (Leung 2022). Under enormous pressure, NowTV eventually issued a public statement to apologise for the incident and restate the organisation’s gratitude for the mainland medical team. What is normally a natural response in a reciprocal relationship, ‘gratitude’, in this context, was sanctioned by the state as the only properly patriotic act. As though it is an ancestor who has unchallengeable status and warrants worship at a shrine, the country authoritatively demands its citizens show ‘gratitude’. This mirrors Christian Sorace’s (2020) analysis of expressions of gratitude during the pandemic in China and the United States, aptly saying that ‘gratitude is the ideology of sovereignty in crisis’. He contends that by demanding gratitude, the government is urging people to emotionally accept the state’s version of reality and not question what else might be done. It attempts to prevent people from recognising the weakness of the sovereign power and, more importantly, the fact that the people themselves are sovereign.

Public Distrust of TCM

The government’s promotion of TCM ironically generated increased public distrust of this type of medicine, as can be seen clearly in the online discussion about and widespread distrust of LH capsules. I suggest there are three interconnected factors that could have fostered this distrust, all of which are linked to the political context in Hong Kong: 1) the need to differentiate oneself from supporters of the Chinese nation-state; 2) the need to show opposition to the political economy embodied in the promotion of LH capsules; and 3) a belief that TCM is backward and contrary to modernisation.

An example of the public rejection of TCM can be seen in a Facebook post by Anthony Perry, a famous Hong Kong actor and prodemocracy celebrity, in which he mocked LH capsules as well as the logic of ‘clearing heat’ (清熱) that underpins TCM—that is, the idea that some symptoms are caused by excessive interior ‘heat’ in the body and a balance can be achieved by using certain herbs that have ‘cooling’ effects. The post received more than 21,000 likes, showing the popularity of criticisms of LH capsules and TCM more broadly. His post said:

If clearing heat helps kill the virus, you might as well drink the mixture of charm paper and water! In the future when you have any emergency sickness, just drink the 24-flavour herbal tea, and do not get any operations. After a few centuries, people are still so stupid. That would harm so many people! In times of chaos there are omens of evil. (Dialogue of scammer selling fake pills in ancient China) Beat the gong slowly mate … My fellow countrymen, I am not selling fake medicine, but a special remedy. See! This elixir is made with snow lotus from heavenly hill and incense, for detoxing, soul restoring and life sustaining. (Perry 2022)

Figure 1: Anthony Perry’s Facebook post. See above for translation.

Perry’s post embodied all three of the factors of distrust listed above. Because TCM had been refashioned as a symbol of nationalism and support for the state, some people who did not support the nation-state automatically moved to reject it. For instance, in the LIHKG forum post mentioned at the beginning of this essay, when the writer said LH capsules were helpful, one netizen teased that he was ‘Mr Ng’—a generic name for a believer in the government’s propaganda about LH capsules, as shown in the picture the netizen posted (see Figure 2). ‘Mr Ng’ showed his support of the LH capsules to the reporter, saying that ‘1.4 billion Chinese people got cured because of the capsules’ (Now News 2022). Even though the writer of the post had included the disclaimer to ‘put aside political views’, he was still identified as an uncritical, fervent supporter of the government. Therefore, some people who do not buy into the nationalistic discourse reject LH capsules and TCM in general. When Anthony Perry mocked LH capsules, some netizens praised him for being ‘brave and outspoken’, seeing his act as a political statement demonstrating distrust of nationalistic propaganda. In this oppositional logic, people’s distrust of LH capsules is founded more on distrust of the state than of the pills and TCM itself.

Figure 2: Photo posted by a netizen on LIHKG. The caption reads: ‘Mr Ng deeply trusts the LH capsules and satirises other Hong Kong people who do not believe in them. He says that “1.4 billion Chinese people got cured because of it”.’

The political-economy background of LH capsules warrants further attention, specifically in relation to the second factor of opposition to the pandemic assistance identified above. I argue that what appears to be distrust of LH capsules and TCM is in fact opposition to Chinese nationalism and the political economy that undergirds it.

By evoking nationalism to package TCM as a symbol of the Chinese State, the state strives to exert its influence globally and strengthen its political economy at home. Sociologist Xu Jialun has offered a thorough examination of the promotion of LH capsules, suggesting it is an example of the longstanding political trend of promoting Chinese proprietary medicines inside and outside China. First, nationalism and the lack of social welfare meant TCM was supported even during the Cultural Revolution that called for the ‘abolition of tradition’. Though Mao Zedong and his comrades did not really believe in TCM, the Chinese Government at that time strategically provided welfare through TCM, which was more affordable than Western medicine, to strengthen national identity. There was also a diplomatic agenda, as Mao saw TCM as a symbol of China and hoped to exert nationalistic power by exporting TCM to the world. In this way, he hoped to improve China’s relationship with the West and lessen dependence on the Soviet Union for the provision of Western medicine and equipment (Chakrabati 2013, cited in Xu 2022). Hence, TCM was not abolished but, instead, gained legitimacy in the socialist era.

Second, the interplay among government-led marketisation, selective globalisation, and economic nationalism has led to the growth of proprietary Chinese medicines with questionable effects. The Chinese Government has much less control over Chinese proprietary medicines than it does over Western medicines. For instance, proprietary Chinese medicine is exempted from the requirement for clinical trials before production. Even when the National Development and Reform Commission enforced dramatic price reductions for Western medicines, the price of proprietary Chinese medicines dropped only a little or not at all. As a result, pharmaceutical factories are encouraged to produce new proprietary Chinese medicines for substantial profit. Third, against the backdrop of the Belt and Road Initiative and Chinese globalisation more broadly, China has expanded exports of TCM products. The manufacturer of LH capsules, Yiling Pharmaceutical, saw a twentyfold increase in revenue from foreign markets in the first half of 2020 compared with the previous year. Most profits were concentrated in low and middle-income countries (Xu 2022). We can therefore see the mainland government’s attempt to promote TCM to strengthen its political economy.

I argue that Hongkongers’ rejection of LH capsules is not a wholesale rejection of TCM. Xu (2022, citing Xu and Yang 2009) points out that due to the loose regulation of proprietary Chinese medicines, it is common to see products that do not follow the pharmacology of TCM. The controversy about the effectiveness of LH capsules, therefore, can be traced to state policies that favour Chinese medicine based on state-led marketisation, selective globalisation, and economic nationalism. In Hong Kong netizens’ discussions of LH capsules in response to Anthony Perry’s post, there are numerous comments showing their concern about political-economy issues, such as ‘making money from disaster’ and that ‘it is obviously a transfer of benefits to state enterprises’. Hence, there is a need to recognise that the widespread distrust of LH capsules could be based on opposition to the political economy underpinning the Chinese medicine industry, rather than a fundamental rejection of TCM itself.

Third, TCM is seen as not fitting within the framework of modernisation. Perry’s Facebook post included an aside to indicate that he was imitating the dialogue of a scammer selling fake pills (江湖賣藥對白)—a common figure in ancient Chinese literature and drama. His description of the promotion of LH capsules is likened to a scam artist who is beating a gong as he brags in rhyme about a special pill made with incense. Netizens echoed Perry’s idea through notions associated with premodernity, saying things like: ‘The cosmopolitan city has become like a rural village’, and ‘I feel like I have returned to ancient China’. From their perspective, TCM is associated with a backward and superstitious premodern China.

This association has a long history in China. Along with the British colonial government suppressing TCM in Hong Kong, intellectuals in the early Republic of China also saw TCM as backward. In an essay, medical anthropologist Liu Shao Hua (2020) advances an interesting discussion of the ways in which TCM and emerging political tensions were entangled in the quest for modernity in the early Republic of China. In the 1920s, there was an ‘abolish TCM movement’. Both Sun Yat-sen and Lu Xun, who were among the first batch of Chinese students to receive education in Western medicine, overtly rejected TCM. Lu criticised TCM as a symbol of a traditional and inferior culture, claiming that ‘TCM is nothing but a conscious or unconscious liar’ and comparing Chinese people to ‘patients’ who needed to be cured with ‘science’. In 1929, the Republic of China implemented a law to abolish TCM, which was only derailed because of a huge wave of protest from TCM practitioners (Liu 2020). Both the colonial government and the May Fourth–era intellectuals used the framework of Western modernity to reject TCM, but with different political aims. The former suppressed TCM to ‘civilise’ Hong Kong and to strengthen its own rule, while the latter pursued their political ideal to modernise China after the 1911 revolution.

This brings us back to the question of how we should understand the political implications of Perry’s and other Hongkongers’ distrust of TCM as a backward technology. I argue that this idea represents a mainstream cultural imaginary in Hong Kong that scholar Mirana May Szeto wittily terms ‘petite-grandiose Hong Kongism’ … a kind of inferiority–superiority response to Hong Kong’s multiple colonial experiences, both British and Chinese’ (Szeto 2006: 253–54). In this analysis, Hong Kong poses as the exemplary—and superior—model of cosmopolitan and capitalist modernity, especially in relation to China. Paradoxically, this perspective is arguably the result of Hong Kong’s deep-seated sense of inferiority about having been colonised and subordinated to the West. Hence, Hong Kong internalises the colonisers’ founding myth as its own and justifies its ‘primitivisation’ of ‘the Other’: mainland China. It is important to note that Szeto does not consider Hong Kong to be self-generating this discourse. China’s ever-tightening control over Hong Kong, with authoritarian and oppressive measures in recent years, poses a threat to Hong Kong citizens, triggering the strengthening of ‘petite-grandiose Hong Kongism’, which carries with it fear of and anger towards the Chinese State.

TCM as an Alternative to Minjian

I now turn to the very different attitudes of those who use TCM as a grassroots alternative to Western medicine and government-sponsored programs. I argue that the private TCM clinics’ free consultation services and related projects demonstrate a bottom-up politics based on mutual help. They also demonstrate an alternative way of promoting TCM, which does not evoke Chinese culture and tradition, but is based on pharmacology.

The unique conditions of the fifth wave of the pandemic created an opportunity for more TCM practitioners in Hong Kong to gain frontline experience of treating Covid-19 patients. As mentioned above, before the fifth wave, only patients who were in community treatment facilities could ask for TCM, while others received only Western medicine. However, in mid February 2023, when the medical system collapsed, many people were not sent to hospital or other community treatment facilities, and some did not even report their infected status to the government. Meanwhile, some private TCM clinics began to offer free telemedicine consultations and other services, which I identify as a part of minjian (民間)—that is, a sphere of society that cannot be depicted through the categories ‘state’ and ‘civil society’, where people have evolving mutual aid practices, such as through clans and religious organisations (Chen 2010).

I use minjian here as a reference to Chen Kuan-Hsing’s discussion of the term. He points out that minjian has always existed in Asia and did not disappear in the process of modernisation. Instead of relying on ‘civil laws’ and evoking the idea of ‘citizens’, Asian political culture recognises the importance of ‘sentiment’ (情) and ‘reason’ (理). In this setting, informal institutions and activities operate differently to the elite groups of civil society (Chen 2010: 237). I would suggest that private TCM clinics are not typical civil society organisations but are a part of minjian. Civil society in Hong Kong has faced heavy blows in recent years, with the disbandment of more than 50 organisations after the implementation of the National Security Law (Kwan 2021). In this context, it becomes important to acknowledge minjian as a space for actions that are more fluid than the establishment of civil society organisations and not so easily erased.

The rhetoric of ‘Hong Kong people saving ourselves’ (香港人自救, or translated as ‘self-help’) has been prominent in the city’s battle with the pandemic, and the phrase ‘saving ourselves’ (自救) has been used repeatedly by different civil society actors (Lai 2021). Due to the loose grammatical rules of Cantonese, I suggest there is a hidden plural sense in this rhetoric: the term can be understood as both ‘mutual help’ and ‘self-mobilisation’. In a comparative study of Hong Kong’s and Singapore’s responses to Covid-19, some scholars have pointed out that Hong Kong’s success in containing the virus in the first half of 2020 was due to ‘community mutual-help’ and ‘self-mobilization’ (Yuen et al. 2021: 1284). Examples included facemask drives organised by prodemocracy district councillors, and the staff strike organised by the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance to demand the closure of the Hong Kong–China border (Yuen et al. 2021: 1288). Yuen et al.’s study concluded that Hong Kong’s ‘civil society–led model mobilised resources to overcome barriers, increase compliance, and pressure the authorities to tighten measures’ (2021: 1300).

The actions taken by private TCM clinics followed the same rhetoric of ‘saving ourselves’ and filled the gap as part of minjian when many formal civil society organisations were dissolved. By the time of the pandemic’s fifth wave, most prodemocracy district councillors had been disqualified or resigned from their positions. In early March 2022, Winnie Yu, the chairperson of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, was arrested under the National Security Law, and has remained in custody since (Chau 2022). During that time, some private TCM clinics with no formal affiliations with political or charity organisations took the initiative to offer free medical services. In an interview, one private TCM clinic, Alpha Health, shared its experience of treating more than 300 Omicron-variant patients for free within a month. It even took a further step, offering an ‘unemployment mutual help plan’ by hiring unemployed people to help deliver medicine to patients (Tsang 2022). The ‘saving ourselves’ rhetoric poses a stark contrast with the government discourse of ‘thanking the mainland medical support team’. Instead of requesting and relying on the central government to make top-down decisions and send forth professionals, the slogan ‘saving ourselves’ emphasises the need to build bottom-up networks locally. While grassroot clinics targeted ‘fellow Hongkongers’, they did not invoke notions of family, but instead approached treatment through voluntary and reciprocal networks among peers.

Figures 3 and 4: Instagram posts by Alpha Health Chinese Medicine Clinic posted in early March 2022. The post in Figure 3 is about the free telehealth service, ‘Hongkongers saving ourselves plan’, and Figure 4 refers to the ‘unemployment mutual help plan’.

Many TCM practitioners shared their professional medical knowledge on social media, effectively providing public TCM education. In view of the controversy surrounding LH capsules, they designed accessible infographics that listed the basic TCM principles based on different body constitutions. In other words, they offered a much more user-friendly and accessible guide to TCM than the government. In this way, they were challenging the hegemony of Western medicine and changing people’s perceptions of TCM. TCM practitioner Wong Mei Yee from Alpha Health Chinese Medicine Clinic recalled her experience of offering free TCM services: ‘Now more people understand that TCM is not just for regulating the body [調理身體], but could also cure acute sickness’ (Tsang 2022). As they established their professional knowledge of the pharmacology of TCM, they created room for people to gain a more comprehensive picture of the practice not obscured by political views.

Figure 5. Instagram post by the CMP Clinic explaining the ingredients and application of three different types of proprietary Chinese medicine.

Pandemic TCM Discourses

The discourses about and practices of TCM during the pandemic have offered an interesting view of how medicine and politics are intertwined in Hong Kong. For one, both the central and the HKSAR governments packaged TCM in a nationalist discourse by mobilising expressions of familial relations and gratitude. At the same time, various factors give rise to public distrust of TCM that are inseparable from the political context. Finally, TCM has found a niche within minjian, the social space outside the state and civil society, as a way of practising the politics of mutual aid.

In the LIHKG forum post at the beginning of this essay, the writer expressed his trust in LH capsules ‘putting aside political views’. However, I suggest that political views cannot be put aside. There is an unprecedented need in Hong Kong to unpack all kinds of political notions critically and reflectively, as well as to rethink what actions can be taken.

Featured Image: Apothecary mixing traditional chinese medicine. PC: Christopher Trolle (CC), Flickr.com.



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Chan Chor See

Chan Chor See is a PhD student in Interdisciplinary Humanities and Social Sciences at Ahmedabad University, India. She completed her Master of Philosophy in Cultural Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong.

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