Lizi, a 26-year-old office worker in Beijing, had been struggling to dispel the dangerous myths around health and medicine held by her parents. Construction workers in rural northeastern China, Lizi’s parents treated her childhood fever with chicken bile, a traditional Chinese medicine, and stuck a clove of garlic up her anus whenever she had diarrhea.
The only way to shake her parents’ beliefs, Lizi later realized, was to send them WeChat articles from Dingxiangyuan (or DXY, shorthand for “lilac garden” in Chinese), an influential health information provider widely trusted by China’s medical community. DXY’s social accounts, with followers totalling at least 30 million, address everyday health issues and fact-check popular myths with animations, pictures, and conversational writings. The posts were easy enough for her parents to understand, Lizi said. “They don’t believe what I say, but they believe those WeChat accounts,” she told Rest of World, speaking under a pseudonym so she could discuss sensitive issues freely.
A growing demand for reliable health information in China has led to a booming internet medical industry. Tens of thousands of doctors have become social media influencers, with the top ones amassing millions of followers. DXY, which also runs a wide range of medical services, including online consultation and a doctor’s forum, is valued at more than $1 billion, with funding from investors like IDG Capital and Tencent.
But earlier this month, DXY’s accounts across multiple social platforms were abruptly suspended. Chinese censors regularly shutter online accounts for violations ranging from vulgarity to flaunting wealth to promoting cryptocurrency. In this case, regulators did not specify any reason for the suspension, but it came after the site hosted accounts that challenged traditional Chinese medicine, especially its use in combating Covid-19 — something the Chinese government is promoting.
Until its accounts were shuttered, DXY had been a rare, authoritative voice that criticized traditional medical practices, such as treating colds with ginger drink, avoiding cold food during periods, and not taking showers for a month following childbirth. In April this year, its account published an article cautioning that Lianhua Qingwen — a traditional Chinese remedy recommended by the government — has not been proven effective in preventing illness from Covid-19. The article was later deleted.
Chinese nationalists have cited these posts in attacking the company as unpatriotic. Chinese President Xi Jinping is a powerful advocate of traditional Chinese medicine, and the remedies are increasingly viewed as key parts of Chinese culture.“The tension between Western medicine and traditional Chinese medicine has been there since the introduction of modern medicine in the 19th century. That is not surprising,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for Global Health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “What is surprising is this issue has been redefined as a war between this effort to defend and carry forward Chinese culture and worshiping foreign things.”
Public health issues have been further politicized during the pandemic in the country, as blaming the outbreak on the United States and rejecting Western vaccines became symbols of patriotism in China. Some critics of DXY have also accused it of supporting LGBTQIA rights and feminism — which they regard as dangerous Western ideology — because its accounts criticized conversion therapy and recommended vasectomy as a reliable contraceptive method.
Many Chinese people have experienced difficulties finding reliable health information online, as search engines and social apps are populated with disinformation and misleading advertisements, which have led to fatal scandals in the past. In recent years, that void is being filled by private health care companies like DXY as well as an army of doctors turned influencers. They make TikTok-style videos talking about common illnesses, health hacks, and the lives of medical workers. In return, the doctors make extra money from having more patients and product placements, according to Zhang Dalong, head of influencer agency Xiongxiaoying, which manages the social accounts of more than 20,000 doctors.
The crackdown on DXY will likely increase self-censorship among health care professionals who want to secure their influencer careers. Zhang said his agency advised doctors not to criticize traditional Chinese medicine or engage in discussions related to politics and business interests.
Although DXY’s services are ubiquitously used among Chinese doctors, few have spoken up in public after its accounts were suspended. A doctor influencer, who requested anonymity because he feared he’d be identified by online critics, said Weibo suspended his own account for 15 days after he defended DXY in a recent post. “It has caused a fear around promoting and recognizing science,” he told Rest of World. The doctor said that in the future, he would be more cautious in criticizing traditional Chinese medicine.
Lizi, who was sharing DXY links with her parents in rural China, is eagerly waiting for the accounts to come back. Its popular posts have convinced her parents to improve their eating habits. And Lizi said that, thanks to DXY, her 52-year-old mother learned for the first time that she needed to get examined for HPV infections and had her IUD, placed two decades ago to comply with the one-child policy, removed after menopause.
“DXY targets audiences like our parents and those from rural areas with little medical knowledge,” she said. “It is willing to serve the most ordinary and grassroots people. This is no easy task.”