A QUESTION frequently asked of those involved in the pharmaceuticals industry is: what about traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)? Surely, people say, it's all acupuncture and strange-tasting teas ''over there''. In the vast rural hinterlands of China that would be a fair characterisation of the market. TCM is much cheaper than Western products and more closely matches the incomes of the people who usually have to pay for their own health care or who are supported by cash-strapped township mutual health funds. But the 350 million people who live in China's cities are really the main market for the foreign drugs companies and they - much like their counterparts in Hong Kong and Taiwan - tend to feel comfortable using a combination of both Western and Chinese products. Many people have a strong belief in empirical sciences, but also place great stock on the value of Chinese traditions. Because they believe that, at worst, TCM will do them no harm, they often combine both elements. More excitingly for many Western drug companies, the pharmacological resources of TCM remain largely untapped by Western science. Somewhere among the strange-tasting teas, it is widely believed, lies the next wonder drug. Ventures have already been formed with several major European companies analysing the traditional products and assessing their potency with the latest science. While the advertising claims of many Chinese potions to cure everything from AIDS to athlete's foot are widely derided, there is great hope that a combination of Western science and Chinese tradition could bring forth a new generation of truly valuable products.