There's an old saying in China that a word is worth a thousand pieces of gold, but one anti-corruption official's accusations involving the name change of a medicinal herb may prove it can cost much more.
Lu Qun, deputy director of an anti-corruption office in central China's Hunan province, accused the former head of the China's Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) of unethically renaming a herb used in Traditional Chinese Medicine in 2005 to benefit northern companies, causing millions in economic losses for farmers in the south.
Lu accused the CFDA's former director, Shao Mingli, of corruption in a series of 12 posts on his personal microblog account.
According to Lu, a potent variant of honeysuckle called Jinyinhua planted in the southern areas was renamed to Shanyinhua or "wild honeysuckle" in the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, the nation's largest medicinal herb guide, under Shao's instruction.
The southern honeysuckle flower is known for its potency and is highly sought after for its antibacterial properties. It is a multi-million dollar industry throughout the southern provinces of Hunan, Chongqing, Guizhou, Sichuan and Guangxi. In the north it's a much smaller industry, believed to produce a less potent variety of the plant.
Lu says the name change was to benefit producers of honeysuckle in Shandong province.
Following the name change in 2005, Shandong farmers were able to retain the name Jinyinhua in the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, a name that has been in use for more than 1,000 years and is widely recognized. Growers in the south were forced to change, Lu said on his microblog.
"Superficially, the revision is an academic issue, but in fact, it's a serious problem concerning corruption," Lu said.
The namechange caused "tens of millions" in losses for honeysuckle farmers in the south as the price dropped to one tenth of pre-namechange conditions with consumers still pursuing the herb under the old name, Lu said.
Descriptions of the flavor, functions, usage and dosage for both flowers remained identical in the herb guide.
Lu, who comes from a family with a TCM background, said he began receiving complaints about the revision from farmers, community officials and political advisors from Longhui County in Hunan, a major honeysuckle producing area, in May this year. Looking into their claims, he decided to intervene.
The Chinese Pharmacopoeia Commission insisted they had done nothing wrong in renaming the southern honeysuckle and it was done for the good of drug safety.
Qian Zhongzhi, the commission's chief expert, said honeysuckle planted in the south contains a large amount of saponin that could cause health risks risks if used in injections.
"Only by knowing and defining the difference between Jinyinhua and Shanyinhua could we treat symptoms accordingly and reduce side effects," Qian said.
The CFDA noted it had reported the corruption accusation to the Communist Party of China's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the country's top anti-corruption authority.
The 2005 version of the Chinese Pharmacopoeia stipulated honeysuckle's content of galuteolin, one of the flower's active ingredients, should account for at least 1 percent of the its weight, a requirement most honeysuckle planted in the north failed.
The commission then moved in 2010 to lower the required content from 1 percent to 0.5 percent, a revision Lu said was tailored for the honeysuckles planted in the north.
"The 2010 revision overturned the traditional view of the herb," Lu argued, saying the main ingredient of honeysuckle is chlorogenic acid rather than galuteolin.
"If galuteolin is listed as the main ingredient, why not develop the shell of peanuts [into medicine] as they contain a much higher content of galuteolin than honeysuckle?" Lu said on his microblog.
He said the commission's revision in 2010 could be blamed for the following collapse of the honeysuckle market in Longhui County.
In Longhui alone, revenues from planting honeysuckle topped 1.2 billion yuan per year until the 2010 revision, but dropped sharply to about 200 million yuan in 2014, according to data provided by Longhui county.
As local farmers' frustrations grew, some suggested it was necessary for the CFDA to give the original name back to honeysuckle planted in the south.
Jiang Linkui, general manager of Harbin Pharmaceutical Group Co., Ltd., said to solve the problem, drug watchdogs should let drug makers revert to the way things were because the renaming has caused a supply shortage of Jinyinhua in the market, creating pressure for his company.
The supply and demand for honeysuckle was at an equilibrium level at about 20,000 metric tons per year before the herb was renamed in the south, but only 6,000 tons could be met by Jinyinhua planted in the north, Lu has found.
He said he won't stop voicing his concerns over the naming issue unless the mistakes are corrected.