Regulating traditional Chinese medicine and its practitioners has long been a daunting task. The colonial government only moved to recognise the practice shortly before the Chinese takeover. Former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa trumpeted the idea of turning Hong Kong into a hub for Chinese medicine, though little progress was made. Now Leung Chun-ying is to take on an even bigger challenge - to improve the regime and take the industry to a higher level.
It is not surprising that some critics have ridiculed the move as just another ill-fated attempt to revive Tung's aborted mission. Chinese medicine has long been a thriving business, well before the government stepped in. Most locals would not have a problem finding a reliable practitioner or getting the right herbal medicine by word of mouth. That said, safety remains an issue, with occasional cases of drug poisoning and mistreatment by unqualified practitioners.
Over the years, the government has set up a registration for practitioners and proprietary medicine. The Hospital Authority also provides treatment to some one million patients at its 16 Chinese medicine clinics a year. This shows that government involvement has had a positive impact on the industry's development. But the current regime still leaves a lot to be desired. For instance, the regulation on proprietary Chinese medicines remains half done. More than 80 per cent of the 11,000 products has been granted temporary registration as safe to eat but lacking proof of efficacy for full accreditation. In another setback last year, a research institute set up to promote Chinese medicine in 2001 had to be shut down. Only one-fifth of the HK$500 million funding has been spent on the 18 projects, while the rest of the money sat idle.
The rocky road shows a lot more has to be done before we can take the industry to a higher level. But Chinese medicine remains one of the key areas in which Hong Kong excels and we should take advantage of it. It is time for Leung to prove he has the right strategies and leadership to achieve the goal.