Expired: Hong Kong government's ideas about Chinese medicine are clearly past their sell-by date
Philip Yeung says despite a stated goal to nurture this traditional industry, Hong Kong's fossilised thinking and a lack of coordination between officials mean we're falling behind the competition
For ages, traditional Chinese medicine has lived in the shadows as alternative medicine. But overnight, with a Chinese medicine researcher anointed as this year's Nobel co-laureate for medicine, it has acquired a halo of legitimacy.
In Hong Kong, however, Chinese medicine seems about to enter the dark ages. Designated as a new pillar industry, it never got anything except governmental lip service. After six years of inaction under Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, the government is now set to impose tough regulations on proprietary Chinese medical products. More than 8,000 Chinese remedies face being taken off the shelves unless they are standard-compliant, threatening to squeeze the life out of the industry.
Insiders blame the government for three strategic blunders. First, it asks thousands of Chinese herbal remedies to meet tough European standards as Western drugs, not health products, forgetting that ours is too small a market for manufacturers to bear the cost of compliance.
Our medical bureaucracy is top-heavy with Western-trained doctors who do not know that multi-herb formulations are too complex for their active ingredients to be isolated by Western procedures.
To apply US Food and Drug Administration-style requirements on herbal medicine is to cause its death by regulatory strangulation. Why not emulate Canada and treat Chinese herbal medicines as "natural health products"?
Second, the idea of integrating the Chinese medicine market within Greater China has never occurred to our leaders, though our tiny market size can't sustain its healthy development. China has its own regulatory body for Chinese medicinal products. It makes no sense for Hong Kong to go its own way.
Third, oversight and resource allocation are in the hands of the Food and Health Bureau, while the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau is reduced to being a bystander. This has led to bureaucratic insanities.
For years, the Trade Development Council has co-organised the annual Chinese medical products exhibition. But the Food and Health Bureau forbids any display of unregistered proprietary Chinese medicines. Unable to take samples home, foreign traders leave empty-handed and deal-starved. As the Chinese Medicine Ordinance prohibits sales outside licensed premises, traders are also shut out of e-commerce in this age of the internet. Clearly, Hong Kong doesn't know the first thing about nurturing industries.
In Macau, by contrast, common sense prevails. The University of Macau's Institute of Chinese Medical Sciences has state-of-the-art research facilities, while Hong Kong officials fought Baptist University tooth and nail over a parcel of land targeted for a Chinese medicine hospital.
Last week, the University of Macau signed an agreement with the Guangdong-Macau Traditional Chinese Medicine Technology Industrial Park Development Company to jointly develop pharmaceutical products and promote Chinese medicine, with four proposed centres.
Hundreds of Hong Kong's manufacturers and traders of traditional Chinese medicine are threatening to relocate to the Hengqin industrial park, where the promise of integration with the mainland market beckons.
Will Hong Kong learn from Macau and not consign the industry to the critical list?
Philip Yeung is consultant to the vice-rector for academic affairs at the University of Macau. Dr Albert Wong, from the University of Wisconsin, and founding president of the Modernised Chinese Medicine International Association, also contributed to this article