Workers Hammer No. 224

Autumn 2013


Pseudoscience, snake oil and Stalinism in China

The following is a document submitted to the Spartacist League/US earlier this year by New York comrade J Thomas. It has been edited for publication and is reprinted below from Workers Vanguard no 1028, 9 August 2013.

Decades after the 1949 Revolution, mysticism is rampant in China. Even among the educated urban population, including overseas students, many are self-professed atheists who embrace modern science but simultaneously to one degree or another accept all kinds of anti-materialist nonsense. While less so than elsewhere in Asia, beliefs in things such as numerology, feng shui, face-reading (like palm-reading), astrology, personality traits based on blood type and especially mystical healing are ubiquitous. The theories behind acupuncture, the related practice of moxibustion, herbal cures, qigong, etc, all involve the manipulation of nonexistent vital forces such as qi, yin and yang and various humours. Fighting against these notions is one way to combat the widespread misidentification of revolutionary Marxism in China with Maoist idealism.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has fostered the persistence of medical quackery, giving it a scientific and even Marxist gloss. This is in line with its nationalist Stalinist programme of building “socialism in one country” and opposing international proletarian revolution. The glorification of traditions of the “motherland”, the return of all the old crap in the face of scarcity, and the petty-bourgeois character of the CCP bureaucracy all play a role. There are all the contradictions one would expect from a caste sitting on top of the workers state that, issuing out of the peasant-based 1949 Revolution, was bureaucratically deformed from its inception. Among the gains of the revolution were tremendous advances in public health and science. It was necessary to combat superstitions which were a prop for landlord rule in the countryside. But there have been zigs and zags over the years, and there continue to be conflicts within the bureaucracy on this question.

May Fourth period

The Stalinist CCP is a qualitatively different party from the one that emerged out of the anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement of 1919 under the impact of the Bolshevik-led workers revolution in Russia. After the imperialist powers crushed the 1900 Boxer Rebellion — which had raised the call “Uphold the dynasty, destroy the foreigners!” — it became clear that resistance to imperialism based on reactionary superstitions was a dead end. Those seeking to liberate China looked towards modern science and were open to ideas imported from abroad, including in medicine. After the growth of a combative proletariat in China during the First World War and the influence of the Bolsheviks, the best of these were won to communism.

Chen Duxiu, a founding leader of the CCP and later a Trotskyist, was the principal modernising intellectual of the time. In 1915, he wrote in “Call to Youth”:

“Our physicians know no science; not only are they not acquainted with human anatomy, but also they do not analyze the properties of medicines; as for bacteria and contagious diseases, they have never heard of them. They can only parrot the talk about the five elements, their mutual promotions and preventions, cold and heat, yin and yang, and prescribe medicine according to ancient formulae. Their technique is practically the same as that of an archer! The height of their marvelous imaginations is the theory of ch’i (primal force), which even extends to the techniques of professional strong men and Taoist priests. But though you seek high and low in the universe, you will never know what this ‘primal force’ exactly is. All these nonsensical ideas and unreasonable beliefs can be cured at the root only by science. For to explain truth by science means proving everything with fact. Although the process is slower than that of imagination and arbitrary decision, yet every step taken is on firm ground; it is different from those imaginative flights which eventually cannot advance even one inch. The amount of truth in the universe is boundless, and the fertile areas in the realm of science awaiting the pioneer are immense! Youth, take up the task!”

— quoted in Ssu-yu Teng and John K Fairbank, China’s Response to the West (Harvard University Press, 1954)

Lu Xun, another major figure in the May Fourth Movement, described in “Call to Arms” how as a child he was often sent to the medicine shop by his ill father: “The physician who made out the prescriptions was very well-known, he used unusual drugs: aloe root dug up in winter, sugar-cane that had been three years exposed to frost, twin crickets, and ardisia...all of which were difficult to procure. But my father’s illness went from bad to worse until he died.” Lu relates how he later was exposed to modern science at school and continues:

“Recalling the talk and prescriptions of physicians I had known and comparing them with what I now knew, I came to the conclusion those physicians must be either unwitting or deliberate charlatans; and I began to sympathize with the invalids and families who suffered at their hands. From translated histories I also learned that the Japanese Reformation had originated, to a great extent, with the introduction of Western medical science to Japan.

“These inklings took me to a provincial medical college in Japan. I dreamed a beautiful dream that on my return to China I would cure patients like my father, who had been wrongly treated, while if war broke out I would serve as an army doctor, at the same time strengthening my countrymen’s faith in reformation.”

— quoted in Selected Stories of Lu Hsun (Foreign Languages Press, 1989)

In China under the bourgeois-nationalist Guomindang, traditional healing was kept out of whatever state healthcare existed. There was even a proposal in 1929 by Dr Yu Yunxiu to abolish it, which was defeated in the face of fierce opposition by traditional healers and the pharmaceutical industry.

The beginnings of a change in attitude towards Chinese medicine by the CCP coincided with its transformation into a peasant-based party, soon to come under Mao Zedong’s leadership. This was after the crushing of the Second Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 and the slaughter of tens of thousands of Communists. Responsibility for this disaster lay with the Stalin/Bukharin leadership of the Communist International, which had ordered the CCP to liquidate into the Guomindang.

As David A Palmer wrote in Qigong Fever (2007):

“The CCP’s attitude toward traditional healing underwent significant changes since the Party’s early days in the first decades of the twentieth century. The first Chinese Marxists, though not especially interested in medical issues, were, as a logical consequence of their modernist orientation, opposed to the traditional healing traditions associated with the old society. In 1929 the Party discussed a policy proposal to abolish the old medicine in order to develop modern medicine and hygiene. But after the experience of the Soviets [CCP-controlled areas] in Jiangxi and Shaanxi, the Long March, and the deepening of the Party’s rural roots in the 1930s, the CCP’s attitude began to change: far from the cities, the Red Army had to resort to traditional therapists for medical care. A conscious policy was formulated in the ‘Liberated Areas’ in the 1940s to make use of local medical resources within a ‘scientific orientation.’ Mao called on modern-trained doctors to unite with traditional therapists, who were closer to the people, and to ‘help them to reform.’ Traditional doctors were thus no longer seen as enemies of progress.... Such was the context in which official qigong was born.”

Both before and after the 1949 Revolution, “uniting” with traditional doctors to “reform” them and put their techniques on a scientific basis was considered part of the anti-imperialist united front.

1949 Revolution

After the CCP came to power, for the first time basic modern sanitation was introduced into many parts of the country and there were massive public health programmes, largely modelled on those in the Soviet Union. But as we pointed out in “The Origins of Chinese Trotskyism” (Spartacist [English-language edition] no 53, Summer 1997): “The Maoist ideology of the Chinese bureaucratically deformed workers state reflected the provincial, anti-internationalist consciousness characteristic of the mass of the peasantry, which was perfectly consonant with the conservative outlook of the Stalin bureaucracy in the Kremlin. The only difference was that the Chinese Stalinists defended ‘socialism’ in a different ‘one country’.”

At first, the incorporation of traditional healers into the healthcare system was mostly an attempt to educate and regulate them, so the existing doctors would at least have a clue about modern medicine. The call at the time was to study Western medicine. However, this very quickly turned into “Doctors of Western medicine, study Chinese medicine!” There was some resistance in the Ministry of Health to this policy, the goal of which was to unite the two in a new medicine by raising the level of Chinese traditional medicine.

Hundreds of the country’s (precious few and desperately needed) doctors trained in modern medicine were removed from their work for two and a half years to study Chinese medicine under traditional healers. They were, understandably, not enthusiastic. Of the four medical texts they studied, the most recent was written in 1596; the other three were from the second and third centuries.

“The move to make doctors trained in Western medicine now study Chinese medicine has since been criticized as a dreadful ‘waste of human talent, a waste of the nation’s manpower and material resources.’… One of the first rules made in these classes was that no questions were to be asked; ‘How the teacher taught, that was how you were to learn’.”

— Kim Taylor, Chinese Medicine in Early Communist China, 1945-63 (Psychology Press, 2005)

In 1958, Mao pronounced: “China’s medicine and pharmacology is a great treasure-house, and should be diligently explored and improved upon.” But that was for the masses. Mao told his personal physician, “Even though I believe we should promote Chinese medicine, I personally do not believe in it. I don’t take Chinese medicine” (Dr Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao [Random House, 1994]).

During the Great Leap Forward of that period and the subsequent break with the Soviet Union, nationalist glorification of Chinese tradition was pushed even more. This was not simply a personal proclivity of Mao; fellow CCP leader Liu Shaoqi was if anything more enthusiastic, having proclaimed in 1954 that “despising Chinese medicine is servile and subservient bourgeois thinking”. When it suited his needs during the Cultural Revolution — the massive intrabureaucratic fight that wracked China for a decade beginning in 1966 — Mao would attack his rival Liu and others for promoting feudal superstitions, and qigong was banned for a number of years.

Chinese medicine exported

The present popularity of acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in North America has its origin in China’s anti-Soviet alliance with US imperialism. During Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, it was widely reported that New York Times columnist James Reston, who had accompanied Henry Kissinger to China the previous year, had been given only acupuncture anaesthesia during an emergency appendectomy. (In fact, he had also been given conventional anaesthesia.) Demonstrations of traditional healing and surgery on wide-awake patients supposedly using only acupuncture as an anaesthetic were presented to a credulous Western press. Reston quipped, “I’ve seen the past, and it works!”

In what should have been completely obvious at the time, analysis of photographs and videos of these surgeries have since definitively proven that they were fake. But the quackery found an eager audience in the American petty bourgeoisie, including among New Left counterculture remnants embracing New Age mysticism. It also began its creep into official medicine; the American Journal of Chinese Medicine was founded the same year as Nixon’s trip. This trend would explode even further after the counterrevolution in the Soviet Union two decades ago. Furthermore, after the CCP introduced “market reforms” and trade opened up, exporting Chinese medicine became a lucrative business.

“In the future, we can turn humans into supernaturals”

In 1979, Tang Yu, a boy in Sichuan Province, was reported to have the ability to read with his ears. A front-page story appeared in Sichuan Daily, accompanied by a photo of him with the provincial party secretary. The story was picked up in papers nationwide, and suddenly there were children popping up everywhere who could read with their ears and armpits and display other ESP powers. Under tests, Tang Yu was proved to be faking, but no matter: Did that prove all the other kids didn’t have the powers? A back-and-forth struggle in the bureaucracy was touched off which was to continue until the crackdown on the Falun Gong cult.

Embarrassed that the party press was reading like the National Enquirer — reports of UFO sightings were also widespread in this period — CCP Propaganda Chief Hu Yaobang attempted to call a halt. On the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement in 1979, the People’s Daily published an editorial stating: “It is strange that certain comrades in the scientific institutions and in leadership positions don’t go to learn from science and scientists, but take the initiative to applaud conjuring tricks, are full of praise for ‘magical ears’.”

Self-criticisms and retractions rolled in for a bit, but then came the counterattack. And it was mainly from the scientific, military and medical establishment. The prominent journal Ziran (Nature) published studies claiming to substantiate “ear reading” ability and organised major academic conferences promoting research into “extraordinary powers of the human body”. It was claimed that cultivating qigong could unleash these powers, which could include X-ray vision, the capability to move objects with the mind and healing abilities. A key figure in pushing for this research was the brilliant and highly influential rocket scientist Qian Xuesen (see our obituary for Qian in Workers Vanguard no 952, 12 February 2010). His argument expresses the nationalism at work:

“I believe Qigong, TCM (including Chinese medicine, Mongolian medicine, Tibetan medicine), and human special function, once integrated with modern science and technology, would create a Marxist Science.... Through this integration, this new science would also change modern science and promote it. This is our great task.... We can say it will be the scientific revolution of the East.”

— quoted in Lin Zixin et al, Qigong: Chinese Medicine or Pseudoscience? (Prometheus Books, 1998)

To quiet the controversy, the CCP’s Propaganda Department established the “Triple No” policy: “‘no publicizing, no criticism and no controversy’ in the press in relation to Extraordinary Powers”. After further pressure from Qian Xuesen and others, Hu Yaobang backed off somewhat. In effect, there was no criticism and controversy printed, but still plenty of publicity for the “extraordinary powers”. In 1986, a national, state-sponsored China Qigong Science Research Society was established.

As we pointed out in our article on Falun Gong (Workers Vanguard no 762, 3 August 2001), the rollback of healthcare under the “market reforms” (massive layoffs from state-owned industries with workers losing health benefits, hospital care unaffordable for masses of people, even minimal “barefoot doctor” programmes abolished) spurred the explosion of reactionary healing cults.

In the mid 1980s, qigong was becoming a mass phenomenon. Yan Xin, who had studied at the Chengdu Institute of Chinese Medicine, was reported to have cured a man’s broken vertebrae using qigong. He was summoned by a member of the Politburo to treat Deng Jiaxian, a famous atomic scientist who was ill with cancer. Deng died shortly after the treatment, but Yan had so charmed everyone he was deemed to have “considerably alleviated his pain”. Using the same routine as any faith-healing preacher in the US, he was heavily promoted by the CCP and was soon giving lectures before audiences of thousands. He was transmitting his “powers” via television and collaborating in laboratory studies at Qinghua University and was brought in by the military to extinguish a forest fire with the powers of his mind. Other qigong masters began to emerge and gain mass followings at this time, including Falun Gong founder Li Hongzhi.

It was in response to an article by prominent nuclear scientist He Zuoxiu criticising Falun Gong that the group staged its first demonstrations. The first political act of this darling of “human rights” and “democracy” champions was to demand that the Communist Party censor its opponents. Initially this was quite successful, with newspapers and television stations falling all over themselves making retractions. It was only after the mass demonstration at the bureaucracy’s Zhongnanhai compound in Beijing in 1999 that the government turned decisively against Falun Gong.

After the suppression of Falun Gong

Sima Nan, a journalist who as a youth was enamoured with the qigong masters, had for years been campaigning to expose them as fakes. While they still had the support of much of the bureaucracy, he was vilified and more than once severely beaten. Now, he often appears on television and his books are published. In 2002, a science popularisation law was passed, which requires science communicators to expose pseudoscience. This is extremely controversial. A televised debate on the subject broke out into a physical fight. The science writer Fang Shimin (pen name Fang Zhuozi) was successfully sued for libel when he wrote that in the 1930s the “discovery” of a tenth planet based on the ancient Eight Diagrams theory was pseudoscience. (The “discoverer” was a government official who had died in 1992.)

In 2006, Zhang Gongyao, a professor at Zhongnan University, started an online petition demanding that TCM be removed from the state healthcare system. This provoked an immediate condemnation from the Ministry of Health and a storm of nationalist vitriol on the internet. His proposal did get some support from scientists, including He Zuoxiu and Fang Zhuozi. Fang wrote a book titled Piping Zhongyi (Criticise Chinese Medicine).

The bureaucracy’s campaign against Falun Gong is entirely in the framework of nationalism. The anti-woman and anti-gay filth spouted by the group is not highlighted. And the kind of anti-materialist, traditionalist crap pushed by the likes of Falun Gong always goes along with attacks on the gains of the revolution made by women.

In the wake of Falun Gong and the SARS epidemic, some of the marketisation of medical care has been reversed. But it still remains unaffordable for masses of people. While polls have shown that the majority of the population believes in traditional cures, most say they would choose so-called Western medicine for themselves.

Traditional medicine is written into the constitution of the country: “The state develops medical and health services, promotes modern medicine and traditional Chinese medicine.” In Chinese Medicine in Contemporary China (2002), Volker Scheid writes:

“Some of my teachers had studied Western medicine before becoming Chinese medical physicians or had undertaken extensive postgraduate training in biomedical specialities. One had studied Kampo, the Japanese variation of Chinese medicine; another Uigur medical practices. Some regularly practiced meditation or other body techniques to strengthen their qi and enhance their healing powers. One doctor took me to his spiritual master, a senior monk at a Beijing Buddhist temple, who writes out prescriptions under the telepathic guidance of Hua Tuo (?-203), a famous physician of the Three Kingdoms period. Another asked me to accompany him to make offerings to Sun Simiao (c. 581-682), a Tang dynasty physician who is venerated as the ‘King of Medicine’ (yaowang) at the White Cloud Temple (Baiyunsi) in the south of Beijing.”

What he’s describing is in state-sector medicine, not the very large sector that does not receive state support because it is based on “feudal superstitions”!

Despite the huge strides made by the revolution that overthrew capitalism, the programme of building socialism in one country is an obstacle to removing the material basis for all kinds of religious obscurantism, as the persistence of medical quackery as well as the state-backed revival of Confucianism in China shows. The Stalinist CCP’s nationalist distortion of Marxism led it to give a scientific gloss to ancient Chinese superstitions. The utopian “abolishing” of religion and superstition during the Cultural Revolution did nothing to remove its fundamental material basis: scarcity. And when “market reforms” made previously free healthcare unaffordable for masses of people, many turned to the cheaper traditional cures. The promotion within the medical and scientific establishment of concepts like qi and herbal cures balancing yin and yang spawned a mass, imperialist-backed counterrevolutionary movement. Only Trotskyism — the real continuity of the Chinese Communist Party at its founding — can point the way forward with its programme of world proletarian revolution, the one road to achieving a socialist society of material abundance.