This is a new and surprising goal. For much of the past 300 years, China has never really cared whether Europeans or North Americans approved of its medical systems. “Chinese doctors were well aware of Western medicine, but they didn’t perceive of it as in any way superior,” says Volker Scheid, professor of East Asian medicines at the University of Westminster in London. As a result, since the advent of antibiotics (and what is thought of as “modern medicine”) China has fallen far behind in the pharmaceutical arms race. Of the 50 biggest global pharmaceutical and biotech firms, only one, Sinopharm, is Chinese. But China is now looking to take over a massively important (and lucrative) industry that has, to date, been centered in the West.
This revolution is starting in Dalian. If Dalian were in the United States, it would be the country’s third-biggest city, trailing only New York and Los Angeles. But in China, a city of 3.7 million people barely cracks the top 20. Residents of Shanghai and Beijing consider Dalian quaint—the “romantic city” of China, with well-manicured city parks and squares, and plenty of waterfront and beaches to stroll along.
That vacation vibe belies the fact that it’s at the forefront of global information research and development. At the city’s outskirts sits the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics (DICP), which hosts the 15-year Herbalome Project, initiated in 2008. The project’s goal is to isolate every compound contained in all the medicinal herbs in the Chinese healing tradition, and to utilize modern pharmaceutical practices to turn these plants into more efficient—and more marketable—drugs. The globalization of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) would be a tremendous public relations boost for the country, but there’s an even more significant goal here: If the Herbalome Project and other similar endeavors are successful, they could add billions to China’s gross domestic product—and might even shift the global pharmaceutical focus away from the West and toward eastern Asia.
“Once China obtains a competitive edge in the global drug market,” says Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, “it could redefine the term affordable drugs and become a game changer for global health.”