Chinese investors eye Kazakh market as TCM becomes increasingly popular in Central Asia

By Xing Xiaojing Source:Global Times Published: 2018/9/19 18:28:41

Chinese medicine firms aim to tap huge Central Asian market, but experts warn of legal, cultural hurdles

A Kazakh (left) learns cupping therapy from a teacher at a medical school in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province. File photo: IC

Kazakhstan, the Central Asian country where Chinese leaders put forward the Belt and Road initiative, is now witnessing the popularization of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The rising popularity is mostly thanks to the wider acceptance of TCM, as local perceptions of healthcare have shifted from being treatment-focused to prevention-driven, which is in line with TCM philosophy. While a number of domestic TCM manufacturers aim to tap Kazakhstan's huge market, industry insiders are warning of several hurdles in terms of legal application and cultural acceptance.

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), such as acupuncture, cupping, scraping therapy as well as herbal medicine, is now appealing to more and more patients in Kazakhstan, including 35-year-old Kazakh resident Panar who lives in Almaty, the Central Asian country's largest city.

"I'm now obsessed with TCM culture… I used to be skeptical about what the herbal leaves could do at first, but my attitude drastically shifted in 2014 because at that time, TCM therapy effectively controlled my mom's hyperglycemia," Panar told the Global Times over the weekend, noting that she has since then started to learn the medical theory of TCM.

In tandem with Panar's attitude changes are the growing interests of Kazakh people in TCM therapy. Zhu Cuimei, a Chinese national who operates a TCM clinic in Almaty, told the Global Times over the weekend that in recent years, foot massages have been increasingly welcomed in Kazakhstan, despite a relatively high price of 100 yuan ($14.59) per massage.

"Several years ago, there were merely two or three TCM clinics in Kazakhstan, but now there are plenty of them," Panar said.

Rising interests

The booming Kazakh TCM healthcare sector is partly due to closer industry cooperation between China and Kazakhstan under the Belt and Road (B&R) initiative, Abai Baygizhin, chairman of the board of the Kazakh National Scientific Medical Center, told the Global Times. 

In January 2017, Chinese authorities rolled out a road map to boost TCM in countries and regions along the B&R routes. Under the plan, China will set up 50 TCM communication and exchange centers in B&R countries and regions, and will promote 20 TCM international practice standards until 2020.

So far, TCM has spread to 180 countries and regions across the world, and 103 member states of the World Health Organization have already granted approval for the practices of Chinese acupuncture and moxibustion. Meanwhile, 18 members have included them in their medical insurance provisions, according to media reports.

In addition to government support, TCM usage is gaining widespread recognition among other Central Asian countries, Baygizhin explained. And even Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has become a firm supporter of TMC.

The entrance of TCM into the Kazakh market has filled a vacancy for medicine in a country where residents' perceptions of health have been changing from being "treatment-focused" to "prevention-driven," Baygizhin said.

And TCM's philosophy, with its unique advantages in preventing diseases, is in line with Kazakh people's health pursuits. 

Rapid expansion

At the same time, the Central Asian country is also eager to attract foreign investment into the local TCM industry.

Kamalzhan Nadyrov, head of the Astana health department, told the Global Times that the Kazakh government is now actively improving laws and regulations in the healthcare industry and studying potential tax-cut policies to further promote the country's cooperation with foreign TCM-related companies, including those from China. And Kazakhstan's friendly business environment could be an edge, Nadyrov said.

"We also hope that the development of the TCM industry could drive Kazakhstan's medical tourism, attracting more tourists from neighboring countries to visit," Svetlana Saukenova, head of Kazakhstan-based Arman Family and Medical Law Firm, told the Global Times.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan - the place where Chinese leaders first put forward the B&R initiative and the leading economy in Central Asia - is also raising the eyebrows of many Chinese investors for its huge market potential in TCM treatment, Yu Jianglin, global executive president of herbal health products developer Infinitus (China) Company, told the Global Times over the weekend.

Beijing Tong Ren Tang European Holding Co, and several other investment firms, have signed a strategic cooperation agreement with the Medical Center Hospital of the President's Affairs Administration of the Republic of Kazakhstan on setting up the Tong Ren Tang TCM Healthcare Center in the capital city of Astana.

Among with Tong Ren Tang, Infinitus' application to set up a subsidiary in Kazakhstan was also approved by local authorities on September 4. Yu said that the move marks an important step for the group's expansion in Central Asia, and through the institution, the company could better understand local market demand while driving local employment and healthcare industry growth.

"For the next step, Infinitus is planning to cooperate with local medical institutions and universities to further facilitate the application of TCM in the national medical system and to complement the country's healthcare industry," Yu noted.

However, hurdles still remain in terms of figuring out how TCM theories could be widely accepted among Western medical practitioners, considering that the theoretical system of TCM is "totally different" from Western medicine, noted Wu Zhendou, deputy director of the International Cooperation Department of the State Administration of TCM.

Furthermore, "there are legal barriers in terms of TCM qualifications and drug access, and the shortage of foreign TCM talent is also an urgent problem," Wu said.
Newspaper headline: TCM expansion in Kazakhstan


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