A government initiative to promote the development of traditional Chinese medicine has been criticised as “unsustainable”  by animal rights activists because of its use of products made from threatened species.

The two-month traditional Chinese medicine campaign was launched on Thursday by the Food and Health Bureau, in collaboration with the mainland National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine (NATCM). Programme coordinators said that they aim to promote “a healthy lifestyle with Chinese characteristics.”

Professor Yu Yanhong (left), Party Group Member of the National Health Commission and Party Secretary and Vice Commissioner of the National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine (NATCM), Dr Constance Chan (middle), Hong Kong Director of Health, Xu Qingfeng (right) Director of the Traditional Chinese Medicine Bureau of China’s Guangdong Province. Photo: Supplied.

Popular traditional Chinese medical practices continue to use animal products, including scales from the endangered pangolin and bile harvested from live battery bears – a procedure that has been condemned by animal rights activists as “cruel.”


Alex Hofford, WildAid Campaigner, urged the Director of Health Constance Chan to immediately ban the use of bear bile products in Hong Kong’s health care system: “Studies conducted by the University of Hong Kong have shown that herbal and sustainable alternatives for bear bile do exist in Chinese medicine,” he told HKFP.

“[T]he traditional Chinese medicine industry can help civil society to protect endangered species – and protect its own image – by avoiding the unsustainable use of bear bile, pangolin scales, seahorse, threatened flora, elephant ivory powder, tiger penis, rhino horn, leopard bone, lion bone, musk deer, saiga antelope and a whole range of threatened reptiles and amphibians.”

Photo: Supplied.

Deputy Director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), Dr. Fiona Woodhouse, also told HKFP that, following the campaign launch, she hopes that the animal products sourced for traditional Chinese medicine take into account animal welfare and conservation: “The promotion of traditional Chinese medicine may have unintended consequences on a species’ survival because of increased demand,” she said. “We oppose the use of all animal-based products that can be replaced.”

Herbal alternatives

In response to a question from lawmaker Elizabeth Quat in May, Secretary for Food and Health Professor Sophia Chan said that there were no herbal alternatives that can replicate the medicinal effect of bear gall bladder in traditional Chinese medicine.

However, the President of the World Veterinary Association, S.W. Johnson Chiang, told HKFP that the use of animal products such as bear bile and ivory in traditional Chinese medicine was unnecessary: “I think it is possible [for them] to be replaced by other ingredients. The current well-developed scientific skill could analyse the ingredients of bear gall bladder and compose them into a genetic copy, for example.”

A 2016 University of Hong Kong study said that it found potential substitutes for bear bile.

Members of the National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China, the Hong Kong the Food and Health Bureau and the Department of Health at the launch of the Promotion of Traditional Chinese Medicine in China-Hong Kong Programme on October 25. Photo: Supplied.

Quat told HKFP that she supports the development of traditional Chinese medicine in Hong Kong and the mainland, but said it should be done in accordance with the principles of sustainability: “All endangered species should be removed from Chinese medicine, including bear bile, for which it has been proven by a university in Hong Kong that there are suitable alternatives which work just as well,” she said.

“Bear bile stocks from CITES-listed bears can be easily smuggled into Hong Kong then laundered into existing stocks of ‘legal’ bear bile, and so it is impossible, without extensive DNA analysis, for the government to effectively regulate this trade.”

Quat added that the government should reject the use of bear gall bladders in Hong Kong’s health care system.

HKFP has reached out to the Food and Health department for comment.

Jennifer Creery

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.