Hong Kong protesters turn to traditional Chinese medicine


The young man, holding his right arm, entered a cramped room the size of a one-car garage with its windows covered with paper so that no one could see inside.

Smoke filled the room – a clinic – escaping from behind a curtain, where a doctor had lit a coiled herbal stick that resembled a large cigar.

“Are these all our sons and daughters?” Asked a second doctor, using coded language for protesters who joined mass anti-government protests in Hong Kong.

The first doctor nodded, guiding the young man, Oz, onto a treatment bed.

The two doctors are treating the patients as part of a new underground network of traditional Chinese medicine practitioners in Hong Kong eager to help injured protesters who are too afraid to go to hospital because they could be arrested. Organized through Telegram, an encrypted messaging app popular with protesters, the network has more than 50 doctors in Hong Kong’s 18 districts who have treated hundreds of protesters.

Doctors in the network use herbal remedies and ancient practices like acupuncture, believed to boost the body’s qi, or internal energy, and long revered in Hong Kong, a stronghold of Chinese cultural tradition, even among residents. who do not appreciate the power of the Chinese Communist Party.

Some doctors treat protesters in their clinics after working hours. Others borrow or rent space in beauty salons, offices, community centers and non-profit organizations. Doctors do not hide their identities when treating patients, but have asked that their full names and pictures not be published to avoid problems with authorities or in their usual work.

As Oz, who also asked that his full name not be used to avoid repercussions from authorities, was lying on the treatment bed, the doctor stuck a needle in his leg and a second in his arm, without shed blood.

She massaged the arm with the needle in it, squeezing it back and forth like a rolling pin, then held the burning stick of mugwort, an herb used for traditional Chinese treatments, on a pressure point.

According to 3000 years of Chinese tradition, this practice, called moxibustion, stimulates the circulation of blood and energy, helping to restore balance to the body and relieve pain.

Li, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, performs acupuncture on Oz, a protester with a sprained arm, at a clinic in Hong Kong on Monday.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Oz inhaled and exhaled, staring at the ceiling through thick-rimmed glasses. After being injured during a protest two months earlier, he had found himself handcuffed to a bed in a regular hospital as a policeman in riot gear kept watch to make sure he didn’t escape not.

He had since completely given up on the Hong Kong hospital systems.

“Unless I’m literally on the verge of death, I wouldn’t be going to the emergency room,” said the 22-year-old.

Thousands of protesters like Oz have stopped going to hospitals in Hong Kong, fearing they will be flagged down by doctors and nurses for joining the mass protests that rocked the city for 20 weeks. They started as protests against an extradition bill that would have allowed the deportation of people from Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous territory and former British colony with a separate legal system, to mainland China.

This bill was withdrawn, but the goals of the movement evolved into broader demands for police accountability and political reform, so that Hong Kong people could vote for their own government. Protesters clashed with police in increasingly drastic ways, throwing Molotov cocktails and torching pro-China businesses as police fired tear gas and rubber bullets.

More than 2,300 protesters have been arrested, at least five of them in hospitals, according to lawyers working with those arrested. Dozens of people have been charged with rioting, an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison. He is a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old who both survived police shootings in October.

Authorities said the police response had been reasonable, given the behavior of some protesters. After a policeman shot a protester, Hong Kong Police Chief Stephen Lo said the officer acted in self-defense to avoid being attacked.

Underground doctors make a clear distinction between Chinese government and culture. For them, resorting to traditional medicine is a way of asserting that Hong Kong people can challenge Beijing’s authority without denying their roots.

“Chinese culture is a way of life. What we want to bring down is a regime that controls people, ”said Lee, 23, a graduate student in Chinese medicine who co-founded a Telegram group that now has more than 14,000 members.

Chinese Doctors in Hong Kong

Lee treats a patient at his clinic, which hosts pro-democracy protesters who are injured in clashes on the streets and fear arrest if they visit regular hospitals.

(Kiran Ridley / For the Times)

Lee studied traditional Chinese medicine in the mainland city of Guangzhou for five years. He had grown up largely apolitical but attended a protest during the Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014, standing on the sidelines, thinking the protesters were insane.

“I thought to myself, what’s the point? ” he said. “The Chinese government has already been in control for so many years. Do you really want to knock them down? It’s impossible.”

But when Lee joined the anti-extradition protests in late June, that all changed.

“I saw things that I had never seen before,” said Lee. “I saw the Hong Kong police beat up Hong Kong people. I smelled tear gas. I saw people screaming in the streets as if they weren’t afraid of death.

Something twisted in his chest: shock, grief, fear, anger.

“You feel that kind of impulse. As if I don’t go out now and fight, maybe there won’t be any Hong Kong people in the future, ”he said. “Now I’m one of those people who doesn’t want to back down. “

Lee’s Network has developed an anti-scalding ointment and herbal tonics with names like “TG Resolve” and “Lung Saver,” remedies for tear gas exposure that simply require the addition of Hot water. They distribute them to protesters, many of whom suffer from chronic coughs, breathing problems, indigestion, irregular periods, insomnia, anxiety and nausea.

Chinese Doctors in Hong Kong

Workers pack a traditional Chinese medicine tonic developed to treat the effects of tear gas exposure at Lee’s clinic for pro-democracy protesters.

(Kiran Ridley / For the Times)

In his Hong Kong clinic, Lee teaches a patient how to use a tonic that counteracts the effects of tear gas exposure.

In his Hong Kong clinic, Lee teaches a patient how to use a tonic that counteracts the effects of tear gas exposure.

(Kiran Ridley / For the Times)

Some protesters also arrive with more serious injuries due to clashes with the police. Lee described a protester he treated under surveillance at the clinic where he is interned, whose chest and sides were bruised in black and blue, and who said police beat him while in detention.

“I will never be able to forgive the Hong Kong police in this lifetime,” Lee said.

The network of underground doctors is called Kwok Nan Chung Yi, or National Calamity Chinese Doctors. Chung is a play on words that means “Chinese” and “faithful” at the same time. This means that protesters can receive free treatment, without asking questions, without being identified or reported to the police.

“We help treat them. We don’t take money. And if we can, we also help them get rid of that fear, ”Lee said.

Since the creation of the group in early September, he has treated more than a hundred people. He estimates that with 50 doctors seeing at least 50 people each, the group has treated at least 2,500 patients.

The network’s funds, about $ 2,550 at the end of October, come from donations, he said, often from older patients who insist on paying for their treatments.

In clinics, patients intentionally use vague terms: “My arm hurts from throwing heavy objects,” one said. “I’m nauseous after going out last night,” said another. “I ate a dragon egg,” said one patient, referring to the tear gas exposure.

Chinese Doctors in Hong Kong

A protester who said he was injured during his arrest during a protest receives acupuncture treatment from a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner in Hong Kong on October 14.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Protesters developed their own code words, fearing the conversation would end up as incriminating evidence – especially because authorities stopped giving permits for most protests, automatically making them illegal.

They will “dream” instead of protest, collect “stationery” instead of masks and umbrellas, and drive “school buses”, cars driven by volunteers who pick up protesters as they flee from the police.

On a recent Monday evening – usually the busiest because the biggest protests are on Sundays – a constant stream of protesters infiltrated one of the clinics.

A young woman with purple hair said she was coughing, feeling dizzy and had severe diarrhea since receiving tear gas the day before; her boyfriend had sprained his ankle while fleeing from the police. A slim, serious teenager requested a tonic for respiratory problems.

Oz, dressed in gray shorts and a crumpled short-sleeved button-down shirt, had reached out. He did not specify how, only that he was in pain after repeatedly throwing heavy objects.

Oz, who was born in Shenzhen, China, and moved to Hong Kong at the age of 3, grew up wanting to be a police officer. He remembers taking a star-eyed photo with a Hong Kong police tactical unit called the Flying Tigers in elementary school. The cops were so cool, he had thought at the time.

“But now I can only describe them as beasts,” he said.

He said he witnessed police assaults throughout the summer, with an increase in arrests of protesters but no police investigation.

On July 21, assailants dressed in white T-shirts rampaged at a transit station, hitting random civilians as police failed to respond to frantic calls from their hotline. Oz said he had completely lost faith in the police.

A few weeks later, he was arrested during a demonstration. Several police officers jumped on him, pushing him to the ground. Blood was running from cuts on his elbows and knees. He was detained for 42 hours in a police station, then in hospital.

After his family bailed him out, Oz joined the protests.

“If you really love your country, you are trying to help it not to go down the wrong path. It’s like parents and children, ”he said. “If you see them doing something bad and saying nothing, you don’t like them.”

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