Communists, smugglers, and millions of dollars: inside the taxpayer-funded NICM institute spreading Chinese medicine in Australia

A couple of days ago a very interesting article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) regarding the National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM). The article was the result of an in-depth investigation of the award winning science reporter for the SMH and The Age, Liam Mannix. (I also borrowed, with permission, the title of this blog post from one of @liammannix tweets because it perfectly captures the essence of the NICM in one sentence).

The SMH article is in general not very flattering of the NICM’s operations but unfortunately, and maybe I can say as usual, the university hosting the NICM, Western Sydney University, denies any wrongdoing and will in all likelihood continue with ‘business’ as usual.  There is however one paragraph in the article that seriously annoys me and it again shows how good these people are at misleading the public. It is the very common example of Artemisinin being used as ‘evidence’ that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a real thing as opposed to state sponsored quackery. I’ve copied the article below and will comment on the artemisinin statement afterwards.

Start of article

The National Institute of Complementary Medicine was in trouble. Set up in 2007 with federal government money, its job was to research the scientific validity of complementary medicines such as acupuncture.

But by 2015 it was struggling to bring in research funding.

Confidential board documents, obtained by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, show its parent organisation, Western Sydney University, had become “concerned about their relatively high level of financial support for NICM”. At a cost of about $2 million per year, the institute was a drain on the university’s coffers.

The National Institute of Complementary Medicine at Western Sydney University.
The National Institute of Complementary Medicine at Western Sydney University.CREDIT:JANIE BARRETT

So the institute decided to change focus and reach across the seas for funds. Under director Professor Alan Bensoussan, the NICM, and through it the university, began to concentrate on the controversial practices of traditional Chinese medicine.

What happened next shows the extensive, unreported links between an Australian university and the Chinese government – links that had potential to indirectly assist the aims of the Chinese Communist Party.

In response to its funding shortfall, the NICM lined up millions of dollars from a property developer called Yuhu group, chaired by Huang Xiangmo, a man with well-reported connections to organisations associated to the Communist Party. Huang was a big political donor to both sides of politics, a Crown casino high roller and the man whose relationship with Sam Dastyari resulted in the Labor senator quitting politics in disgrace.

Then the NICM secured a pledge of $20 million from the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine. The money was originally lined up for a hospital of Chinese medicine in Westmead, Sydney. Bensoussan prepared to announce the funding as a coup as, according to a 2015 strategic review, “the Chinese government looks for Western validation and greater use/patient benefits from [Chinese medicine]”.

“This is universally regarded as the most critical short term source of additional research funding for NICM,” the review continued, and NICM and Australia were “ideally positioned to leverage its strengths in [Chinese medicine]”.

A separate document, also obtained by The Age and Herald, urged the NICM to “seek endorsement and influence from the Chinese government”, and named Chinese President Xi Jinping as a key person to engage. The strategy was entitled “Building a Bridge Between China and Australia”.

The centre now denies that any of the funding, either from Huang or the Beijing University, actually came through. This year, Western Sydney University cut the ribbon on a new health centre in Westmead, offering services including acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. They say it has been fully funded by the university.

What is not questioned is the desire of the Chinese Communist Party leadership to sell the benefits of its medical practices to the West as part of its national propaganda effort.

Recent moves by the federal government to impose greater responsibility on universities to take note of their exposure to foreign influence activities, particularly from China, make the NICM’s overtures to China in retrospect look naive at best. However in the context of the time, it’s unlikely that NICM or Bensoussan recognised that they were at risk of being part of a Chinese influence strategy.

To its supporters, the National Institute is testing traditional medicines with scientific thoroughness to enhance the treatments available for chronic diseases in the West. To its detractors, it’s pushing questionable medical practices with inadequate proof and playing its part in a concerted attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to improve its image in the West.

‘Unethical not to do it’

Traditional Chinese medicine prescribes cocktails of herbs, animal extracts and acupuncture to balance the energy – qi – that runs through invisible channels in the body called meridians.

Bensoussan, the NICM’s director, is a longtime practitioner. He says Chinese medicine’s herbs might hold secrets to treating the West’s chronic disease problems. “We would be unethical to not do this research, to turn our backs on it,” he said.

Part of a Chinese traditional herbal medicine book.
Part of a Chinese traditional herbal medicine book.CREDIT:ISTOCK

This is not a wild claim. The anti-malarial herbal extract artemisinin emerged from a broad survey of traditional Chinese medicine and has saved millions of lives. In Australia, Chinese medicine practitioners are registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency, and Bensoussan is on the Natural Therapies Review Team at the National Health and Medical Research Council, Australia’s peak funding body for medical research. In May this year, the World Health Organisation agreed to include traditional remedies in its foundational document – a strong endorsement.

But it also has its detractors.

Venerable academic journal Nature responded to the WHO’s decision with an unusually stinging editorial: “[Traditional Chinese medicine] is based on unsubstantiated theories about meridians and Qi. Most Western-trained doctors and medical researchers regard TCM practices with scepticism: there is no substantial evidence that most of them work, and some signs that a few do harm.”

The NICM’s reason for being is to test the science behind complementary medicine.

The World Health Organisation agreed to include traditional remedies in its foundational document in May.
The World Health Organisation agreed to include traditional remedies in its foundational document in May.CREDIT:ISTOCK

But questions have been raised about industry funding of its research, and what that might mean for its rigour. In 2015 NICM launched a clinical trial of Sailuotong, a herbal mixture for vascular dementia, funded by a Chinese-linked pharmaceutical company called Australia Shineway Technology Pty Ltd. And The Beijing Tong Ren Tang Chinese Medicine Corporation is funding NICM research into the health benefits of cow gallstones. Both companies already sell the medicines under study.

This sort of research – where a private company pays a university to confirm that a substance it is already selling actually works as medicine – has the potential to create “a very significant conflict of interest that is usually intolerable in science”, says John Dwyer, a professor emeritus of medicine at the University of NSW.

NICM responded that the institute “conducts itself with the highest degree of integrity, ethics, scientific enquiry and social responsibility. The University has strict protocols in place to ensure the independence of its research.”

‘An unprecedented opportunity’

In 2014, Western Sydney University signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine to work together on a jointly-run Chinese medicine clinic in the heart of Sydney, to be known as the Australia China Academy for Integrative Healthcare. At the signing were then prime minister Tony Abbott and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Western Sydney University Vice-Chancellor Barney Glover and Xu Anlong, president of the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, sign the memorandum of understanding witnessed by Xi Jinping and Tony Abbott in Canberra in 2014.
Western Sydney University Vice-Chancellor Barney Glover and Xu Anlong, president of the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, sign the memorandum of understanding witnessed by Xi Jinping and Tony Abbott in Canberra in 2014.CREDIT:UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN SYDNEY NEWS CENTRE

Background briefing notes from NICM’s top leadership called the centre “an unprecedented opportunity for the advancement of Chinese medicine in Australia, including the development of the Chinese medicine market in the West; promoting Chinese heritage and culture; and integrating Chinese medicine with the Australian healthcare system.”

Leaked emails show NICM’s leadership ensured that, as a potential donor to the institute, Huang Xiangmo was sent a copy of the MOU briefing notes before the signing. The Beijing University proposed spending more than $20 million on the collaboration. The clinic was to “introduce Chinese medicine to Australian clinicians and the community”, according to a leaked staff briefing. It would have included a museum of Chinese medicine.

Western Sydney University now says that the funding never arrived, and insists it has received no money from the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine. The new Chinese medicine centre in Westmead is “wholly operated and financed by Western Sydney University”, a spokeswoman said.

The University has denied that NICM had funding issues in 2015, and Bensoussan also denied that NICM’s embrace of Chinese medicine had anything to do with money: “That is completely wrong. It is really hard to get money out of China. China has very strict rules around these sorts of things.”

But the documents suggest it was not for want of trying.

In 2012, NICM signed a cooperation agreement on Traditional Chinese medicine with the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, China’s top traditional medicine organisation – which is run by the Chinese government.

The following year, Bensoussan found himself at the Great Hall of the People, on the edge of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, receiving the International Award for Contribution to Chinese Medicine. According to a leaked draft of his speech notes, Bensoussan planned to say Chinese medicine was “exceptional” because of the “conscientious, vigorous support of the Chinese government”. NICM would not confirm if Bensoussan made the speech.

Professor Alan Bensoussan receives the International Award for Contribution to Chinese Medicine at Beijing's Great Hall of the People in 2013, flanked by Chinese Vice-Minister of Health Wang Guoqiang (left).
Professor Alan Bensoussan receives the International Award for Contribution to Chinese Medicine at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People in 2013, flanked by Chinese Vice-Minister of Health Wang Guoqiang (left). CREDIT:UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN SYDNEY NEWS CENTRE

“China remains on a strong trajectory to develop [traditional Chinese medicine] internationally … It is now up to China to help us with this task … We look forward to ongoing collaboration with our Chinese partners [and] the continued support of the Chinese government,” the draft speech continued.

‘Promoting the Communist Party’

Leaked documents reveal that the same year, Western Sydney University was in talks about a major new project with Huang’s Yuhu Group, researching Chinese herbs for cancer medicine. Yuhu indicated it would be willing to invest up to $12 million – a huge sum for an institute that was earning a little over a million dollars in annual revenue. But Yuhu did not have any experience or other interests in medical research – it was a property development company.

Confidential strategy documents show NICM targeted Huang as a potential donor to be “cultivated”. He was later to become leader of the Council for the Peaceful Promotion of the Reunification of China, the peak Chinese Communist Party lobbying and influence organisation in Australia – another organisation identified by NICM to target for influence and funding.

Earlier this year, Huang was banned from Australia over ASIO’s fears he was peddling influence for Beijing – a claim he denies.

A spokeswoman for the university said NICM never received any funding from the Yuhu group. “The draft proposal was never advanced,” she said.

However, that was not the end of the university’s dalliance with Huang. In 2015 he donated $3.5 million to establish a new Australia-China Institute for Arts and Culture. At the time, the gift was the single-largest donation ever received by the university. NICM director Bensoussan is listed as one of the Australia-China Institute’s key researchers.

The promotion of traditional Chinese medicine fits with Beijing’s broader use of “soft power” to build its influence in the West, says Alex Joske, a Beijing-watcher based at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. In 2016, Beijing released a white paper saying “the Chinese government is dedicated to promoting the development of traditional medicine throughout the world”.

The country has been rolling back medical safeguards for the herbs; Chinese doctors who question the science face arrest. And new laws in China require hospitals to open TCM departments.

“One of the important things to understand is for Beijing there is no real clear line between politics, culture, education and propaganda,” Joske says. “For Beijing, promoting traditional medicine isn’t just about pushing alternative scientific approaches and medical techniques. It’s also about promoting the Chinese Communist Party.”

Sharing recipes

In 2013 Western Sydney University signed a non-disclosure agreement that mentioned sharing herbal recipes with a man named Yu Long Yu.

The Age and the Herald twice asked NICM if this was the same Chinese medicine practitioner called Yu Long Yu who faced court in 2006 for importing material from endangered species in Australia – including tiger, rhinoceros and musk deer material, and more than 200 kilograms of pangolin (anteater) scales.

The Institute refused to answer the question.

Critics contend poaching of endangered animals is often fuelled by demands for the ingredients for use in certain Chinese medicines. Pangolins, for example, are being pushed into extinction.

A pangolin carries its baby in a Bali zoo. Pangolin scales are in high demand for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
A pangolin carries its baby in a Bali zoo. Pangolin scales are in high demand for use in traditional Chinese medicine. CREDIT:AP

Bensoussan has long history with Yu. In 2006, when he was director of the Centre for Complementary Medicine Research, NICM’s predecessor, Bensoussan appeared at Yu’s trial as a character witness. Bensoussan was described at the time as Yu’s friend and sometime business associate, and described his friend as “absolutely exceptional”, saying “there are very few clinicians of his ilk in Australia”.

The judge disagreed. Yu “was propagating the decimation of protected species”, he said.

It was Bensoussan who would sign NICM’s 2013 agreement with Yu.

Another apparent money-making effort was named Project Rozella. The plan, conceived of around 2014, was for NICM to develop a label – much like the Heart Foundation Tick – that companies could place on herbal medicines that would mean the NICM had endorsed their safety and effectiveness.

“This could be a significant source of revenue for NICM,” internal documents say. “Risks could be minimised by a simple evaluation of the data held, rather than a detailed qualitative assessment of the trial itself.”

A NICM spokeswoman said Project Rozella was a “defunct proposal for a point-of-sale health-labelling system”. She denied any suggestion that it was designed to gloss over the existing lack of proven medical evidence that the NICM was set up to test.

But according to Ken Harvey, president of Friends of Science in Medicine, NICM appeared to be trying to find a way to give a tick of approval to herbs without thoroughly checking the evidence.

“The problem with looking at these trials is they generally don’t stand up. You’re better off bullshitting and hoping that no one is going to pull you up,” he said.

End of article

The below statement is one that I come across quite regularly when people such as Alan Bensoussan tries to vindicate their promotion of TCM. Unfortunately it seems that this statement is quite convincing but in reality it is actually a very irresponsible statement to make.

“The anti-malarial herbal extract artemisinin emerged from a broad survey of traditional Chinese medicine and has saved millions of lives.”

So why is this statement so wrong? There is a number of issues, some of which I will list below:

  1. Artemisinin is not an herb or an herbal extract, it is a compound (a sesquiterpene lactone endoperoxide to be more exact).
  2. Why would the Chinese government embark on a large scale project to find effective antimalarials if they have this wonderful and highly effective TCM? Why bother? Because they know TCM is BS, but they also know that modern science can indeed yield valuable compounds for the treatment of disease.
  3. TCM is however a massive market (people are quite gullible), and hence the Chinese government decided to promote all of TCM internationally – nothing to do with healthcare, everything to do with business. Alan Bensoussan and the NICM are just too happy to be the conduit for the CCP’s plans regarding TCM in Australia.
  4. Chinese scientists isolated artemisinin in the 1960/70’s, derivatised it into artemether and artesunate and it is currently being used as a first-line treatment against malaria in combination with other antimalarial compounds. It is called ‘artemisinin combination therapies’.
  5. It is not TCM that saved millions of lives, modern science did. The Chinese scientists involved in this research was rightfully awarded the Nobel prize for their efforts.
  6. It is very rare to find compounds such as artemisinin – I would say the chances are 1 in a 100 herbs tested, but in reality it is much closer to 1 in a 1000 herbs tested. The Chinese scientists had to test many many hundreds of herbs to find this one compound. (I’ve been trying for 20 years to find compounds such as artemisinin – I haven’t yet found anything remotely as good as artemisinin).
  7. Alan Bensoussan and the like abuse science by making use of A. annua (herb) and artemisinin (compound) as evidence that TCM is effective. He has done so before. The Australian Skeptics published an article in 2017 rebuking Alan Bensoussan’s use of this example to promote TCM.
  8. The WHO explicitly warns against the use of A. annua or artemisinin mainly because resistance against these compounds can and probably will eventually occur. Therefore the irresponsible promotion and use of the herb, A. annua can in effect lead to millions of people dying.  (The WHO advocate the use of combination therapies to slow the development of resistance). Unfortunately there are already signs that resistance has developed against this class of compounds in Asia.
  9. The WHO quite recently again published a position statement and explicitly warned against the use of ‘non-pharmaceutical forms of Artemisia’ (the herb) and yet Alan Bensoussan will dig in his heals and continue to insinuate that TCM is effective using the example of A. annua.
  10. Is A. annua really the only example that they have? Anything else? ‘rhino horn’ maybe?

There is a lot more that can be said but I’ll leave it at that – they will continue to use the A. annua/artemisinin example to mislead the public into thinking that TCM herbs are effective, ignoring the explicit warning of the WHO not to do so. Where is the ethics in that? But now back to the question; is this  article in the SMH the beginning of the end of the NICM? Short answer is, no. The reason for this is that Universities are mainly self regulating, which implies that one person makes the decisions about what science is and what it is not (a decision that seems to be mainly driven by money). In this case it is the vice-chancellor Barney Glover. Now if this man cannot be moved even when members of the public gets hurt (and unfortunately die) because of the promotion of ineffective remedies peddled by the NICM, then this article in the SMH will not really have much of an impact. If anything this is free marketing for the NICM and this is just the sad, unfortunate reality.

Death by ‘Slapping Therapy’. The role of the NICM, and others, in this tragedy.

It is always a terrible day when children die at the hands of fake medical practitioners or pseudoscientists. It is so unnecessary and preventable, and yet, it happens every day everywhere around the world. The proverbial snake-oil salesman is not a new phenomenon, it has always been with us, but it is becoming a global epidemic since some universities decided to elevate this type of quackery, to become state-funded and university-supported quackery. This turn of events lends undue credibility and legitimacy to these ineffective and dangerous ‘treatments’ and this translates into more people being fooled, while the snake-oil salesmen and those universities stand to make more money. It is always about money! But let’s have a look at how it works with the following tragic example, followed by some suggestions as to what you can do to help prevent these things from happening.

The controversial ‘Slapping Therapy’

This example involves a complementary therapy within the realm of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), called ‘slapping therapy’ or ‘Paidalajin’. A 6yo boy suffering from type-1 diabetes attended a slapping therapy workshop in Sydney with his parents, but sadly, the boy died in his hotel room shortly afterwards. Although the case is still before the courts, it is believed that he was deprived of medication and food during the workshop. The parents and grandmother have been arrested and faces manslaughter charges while the TCM practitioner, Hongchi Xiao, was only quite recently extradited from the UK, where another person died at one of his workshops. He was not granted bail and faces a maximum sentence of 25 years imprisonment.

But what is this ‘slapping therapy’, and why is it called controversial? It involves the flow of ‘energy’ or a ‘life force’ (chi) through channels (meridians) and by slapping yourself, or being slapped by someone else, you restore the flow of chi and your body starts to expel ‘toxins’. These toxins become visible when your skin turns red, and I guess, purple and blue, depending on how hard you are being hit. The theory was, therefore, that by slapping this boy he would be cured from diabetes, and this belief is so strong, that he was also taken off his medication – a life threatening scenario. But what does science say? Chi does not exist, meridians do not exist, diabetes cannot be cured and especially not by slapping, and the so-called toxins that your body expel are called bruising (the slapping injury causes tiny blood vessels to burst and the blood gets trapped below the skin’s surface, which causes a bruise). Just imagine how many people get hurt or die, due to TCM practitioners using chi, meridians etc. to diagnose and treat disease. Because it does not exist, they cannot really diagnose anything, and hence cannot effectively treat anything!

Here is a photo of the type of bruising that you can expect, posted as a testimonial from a cancer sufferer and devout follower of Master Xiao (I always wonder how many of these testimonials are real). In addition, if you hit a young child to a point of severe bruising it is called child abuse, but in the pseudoscientific world it is apparently called ‘self-healing’.

All of TCM is controversial, or none of it is!

If you promote TCM, in whatever shape or form, you also promote its underlying pseudoscientific principles. Let’s look at acupuncture; You insert needles at specific points (acupoints) that supposedly manipulate the flow of chi through meridians – and this, according to practitioners, cures disease! This acupuncturist (at Western Sydney University – WSU) recently published a case study where she reported that her patient did not recover after receiving an acupuncture treatment. What was her conclusion? “Despite this, I found that my confidence was undermined by being out of touch with my own inner knowing or Yi.” So, what is Yi? It is your intent (yi 意 ), and when your intentions (to cure disease) becomes permanent, then it becomes your will (zhi 志 ). In other words, acupuncture works and nobody should argue with that, the problem, this time, was that her intention for it to work were insufficient. Solution: believe more deeply!  And to think that this was part of the ‘science’ that was reviewed by the Australian Research Council in their Excellence of Research for Australia scheme, which they rewarded with the highest possible ranking (5) “evidence of outstanding performance well above world standard (something is rotten, but more about this in a next article).

But the same goes for herbal TCM, which also aims to manipulate the flow of chi through meridians. As described by ‘Prof’ Alan Bensoussan (director of the NICM at WSU) in a radio interview; “The first patient would receive acupunctural herbs that disperse the accumulation of energy, the second patient would receive acupunctural herbs that strengthen and tonify the low back. It’s a tool like this concept of circulation of energy, that actually allows the Chinese Medicine practitioner to distinguish these patients, and allows the Chinese Medicine practitioner to treat the patients in a way that the patient themselves may understand better,”.

Disease is therefore seen as an imbalance of a non-existent energy that flows through non-existent meridians, and the ‘slapping therapist’ makes use of these ‘fake’ principles to mislead people. In their strange world, bacteria, viruses, pancreatic cells secreting insulin etc. do not exist, but rather disease is caused by your chi clogging your meridians and hence slapping yourself, or inserting needles, or taking herbs, will unclog your meridians and you will be cured of whatever ailment you might suffer from. They are continuing, to this day, to promote these false and dangerous ideas to the Australian public. And again, it is dangerous because if you cannot diagnose a disease, you cannot effectively treat it. Any successful TCM treatment (some herbs might be effective) is therefore purely based on luck. Ever wondered why a TCM practitioner will prescribe a patient a combination of 10-20 different herbs? Because it improves their chances of getting lucky, but also amplifies the many risks, 20-fold.

This is why scientists call TCM, and the many other forms of complementary medicine, belief-based healthcare systems. You only have to believe hard enough that it works and that’s it, there are more than enough gullible people who will fall for your trickery. Sure, you get true believers (delusional) and unscrupulous people (criminals) that only make as if they belief, for the sake of misleading you and to make money out of you. If you fall for them, then, unfortunately, you are on your own. Master Xiao’s comments after his arrest? “This has nothing to do with the workshop. This boy had a lot of diseases, more than we ever know.” It is never their fault.

But now a very unfortunate death has occurred, which means that many of the important role players in this tragedy will disavow the slapping therapy ‘treatment’ in order to absolve themselves of responsibility and to stay out of the news. They do not accept any negative reports because it tends to clash with their Yi and Zhi. And hence they continue to promote acupuncture and TCM, even though many deaths have occurred as a direct result of acupuncture and even more due to herbal TCM remedies. And to think that most deaths, by far, occur as an indirect result after using these pseudoscientific therapies by neglecting a treatable or manageable medical condition, such as malaria or diabetes. The total number of deaths? Nobody knows.

Either all of the above therapies and treatments are controversial and should be stopped, or none of it is. I am fully supportive of the former, but those ‘open-minded’ people whose brains have fallen out, albeit delusional or criminal people, will obviously choose the latter and they will continue to make money out of the misfortunes of others. And with the current support of some universities, this problem will only get bigger.

Who is now really to blame for these tragic events? The role of Tasly Healthpac and the NICM.

No real doctor or scientist or any decent person with ethics and morals would allow a slapping therapist to give a workshop on their premises. Especially not to children suffering from serious medical conditions. What you should do, especially if you are an evidence-based healthcare practitioner, is to explain to this person that what he does is dangerous and that he should please stop doing it. And then you report him to the police. But this did not happen. So, the workshop was held at the ‘Tasly Healthpac Centre of Excellence in Integrative Medicine’. According to a Tasly spokesperson, the slapping therapist “Mr Xiao rented a room from our centre to conduct what was described to us as a series of health seminars. The boy and his mother were participants in the seminar.” Apparently, they did not know about the slapping therapy, but is this true?

It is telling that Tasly have deleted their website or they have changed their name to Medicentral, where they continue to provide TCM and acupuncture alongside conventional treatments. No information can be found on their new website regarding the workshop, but from internet archives, it is clear that they themselves advertised this workshop. Their old website received up to 538 daily visitors, and hence their marketing efforts via their website reached many people in Australia (I would not be surprised if the parents of the deceased became aware of this workshop via Tasly’s website). On Master Xiao’s website he also states that his workshop was co-organised by an Australian medical institution. Therefore, Tasly’s statement is false. Slapping, acupuncture, herbal TCM – it is all the same thing, and that is why they allowed this workshop to be held on their premises.

A key person at Tasly is the founder, Dr Ven Tan, who started the practice more than 20 years ago and ‘through his own practice he has come to realise the limitations of conventional Western medicine and to worship the merit of Traditional Chinese Medicine’. Having a well-established practice and making statements such as above will draw the attention of pseudoscientists at some Australian Universities. WSU in Sydney (and they are by no means the only Australian university who have decided to put money before science and ethics) used public money to convert TCM practitioners into ‘Professors’ and hence, it is to be expected that they will seek funding from, or collaborate with Tasly in exchange for providing extra credibility and legitimacy for Tasly’s pseudoscientific services. ‘Integrating’ TCM with conventional therapies, with the involvement of WSU, creates trust and a sense of security in patients that all of the provided services at Tasly’s are underpinned by science, and thus more and more people will be misled.

Here (second photo on the left) is the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Chinese and Australian governments ‘aimed at promoting TCM in Australia through a collaborative initiative’ witnessed by Dr Ven Tan (Tasly) and Prof Alan Bensoussan (NICM at WSU). Another MoU was signed between Tasly and the NICM in 2011 which states that the NICM will provide “Assistance in the development of an Integrative Care Model: to assist the Tasly Healthpac Centre of Excellence in Integrative medicine so that its structure aims to integrate TCM and western medical diagnostics and treatments in an integrated, patient centred way.” The result of doing just that, speaks tragically for itself.

It is well known that the Chinese government wants to internationalise TCM, it is, after all, a $170 billion industry. An excellent article about this issue, a real eye-opener, was recently published in the Economist “State-funded Quackery. China is ramping up its promotion of its ancient medical arts. That is dangerous for humans as well as rhinos.” The NICM has played a crucial role in the national registration of TCM practitioners in 2012, which elevated TCM to the same level as conventional healthcare, lending undue credibility to TCM. This extra legitimacy was used by the NICM to facilitate China’s plans for internationalisation of TCM via Australia. They lobbied various Ministers and managed to get TCM into the Australia-China Free Trade Agreement in 2015, shortly after the boy’s death from slapping. In 2016 a trade delegation of the Minister of Health (Jillian Skinner – now retired) visited China, accompanied by Dr Ven Tan and Prof Alan Bensoussan. Part of the mission was “To assist the University of Western Sydney’s National Institute of Complementary Medicine (NICM) secure investor and donor support for the NICM’s integrative Chinese medicine facility medicine/treatment on the Westmead Campus“.

Yes, they are building a large integrative TCM facility in Sydney, which will open in 2018. They will obviously sell this as a ‘research’ facility, but in truth, it will be operated like a commercial facility. All of this is good news for China, Tasly and the NICM, but it is definitely not good news for the Australian public.

Tasly and NICM should therefore also be held responsible for these tragic events.

The role of the regulator, the TGA, and the NICM’s influence

In Australia, this very important function to protect the public against the sort of quackery described above, is being done by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Pseudoscientists also know that the TGA is a potential key hurdle that must be overcome. They therefore lobby intensely, and some infiltrate the TGA (Alan Bensoussan has served many years on the TGA panel for complementary medicines), where they actually managed to get the job done. Even though the golden rule is that you really do not need to be a pseudoscientist in order to know what pseudoscience is, or to adequately regulate it. And yet, there are a number of TCM practitioners currently involved with regulating TCM at the TGA.

The NICM, and others, have managed to convince the TGA that almost all of these products and services are ‘low risk’, meaning low direct risk. Unfortunately, the high indirect risk is being ignored. You are probably not going to die after being slapped, but if you stop taking your real medicine it can lead to your death (the possible cause of the boy’s death). And this is exactly what this slapping therapist says. Medicine is poison so let’s slap your medical condition out of you.  What is my evidence for the bold statement regarding the TGA? They recently published their draft list of ‘permitted indications’, or the ‘medical’ claim that manufacturers can make for their products. Included in this list is 140 TCM indications. For example: “Harmonise middle burner (Spleen and Stomach)”, “Unblock/open/relax meridians”, “Balance Yin and Yang”. When a regulator allows pseudoscientists a foot in the door, then the above is the only logical outcome and now the TGA accepts the notion that meridians, chi, Yin and Yang etc. is real. And here again, the NICM is assisting Chinese companies to help them get past the TGA bureaucracy in order for them to register and sell their products in Australia. Having a partner such as the NICM in Australia, obviously makes a lot of Chinese companies very happy. Shouldn’t the TGA also be blamed when people get hurt after using these pseudoscientific healthcare treatments?

In a nutshell. The bereaved parents of the deceased are in trouble, while the slapping therapist is in jail where he will hopefully stay for a long time. But what about Tasly’s which promoted and hosted this workshop as part of their integrative medicine approach, or the NICM who collaborated with this clinic and facilitated their ‘integrative’ approach and who promoted TCM for decades and probably have misled thousands of people over the years, or the regulators who have opened their doors for pseudoscientists and who are continuing to allow this to happen? (I’ve actually volunteered my services to the TGA, but they were not interested.) Not even to speak about the politicians who could actually do something about this, but apparently have little interest to go in against the zhi (will) of the industry.

I can only hope that the courts will also look at the other players in this scenario who are partly responsible for this boy’s death, because it is time that the underlying problems be addressed, otherwise more and more people, including children, will get hurt.

What can you do about all of this?

Unfortunately, if you fall for their trickery and you get hurt, then you will be all alone. The bureaucracy involved is extremely complex so the best thing to do is prevention. Stop buying complementary, alternative, traditional or integrative ‘medicines’ and stop  using their ‘treatments’. Inform yourself and your family and friends about how these people play their game and what the dangers are, regarding these ‘treatments’. ‘Friends of Science in Medicine’ provides valuable healthcare information as well as the website of Prof Edzard Ernst, where he discusses everything complementary medicine (what works and what doesn’t). If you are interested in receiving automatic updates regarding the NICM and how they continue to promote these ‘medicines’ and ‘treatments’, you can always follow my Blog,  Twitter or connect on LinkedIn. Will keep you posted regarding the outcome of the 2017 Bent Spoon Awards, for which the NICM has again been nominated. Please, ‘Like’ and share this article via FaceBook etc. – options below.

Stopping your support of these products and services, by informing yourself and by creating awareness about these issues, are pretty much the only things you can do in order to prevent these needless deaths. It is just such a pity that the VC’s, regulators and politicians (all funded by the taxpayer!) don’t have much interest in this, or just can’t seem to get the job done because of vested interests.  I’ll end with the wise, but somewhat empty, words of Prof Barney Glover (VC of WSU) “universities must stand up for facts and the truth – if we don’t, who will!” – Clearly Prof. Glover will not stand up for the truth, hopefully, the public will!