Boss of one of the world’s biggest traditional Chinese medicine brands fired for corruption

The head of one of the world’s biggest traditional Chinese medicine brands has been fired for corruption and kicked out of China’s ruling Communist Party.

The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the highest internal control body of the Chinese Communist Party, first launched an investigation into Gao Zhenkun, general manager of Beijing Tong Ren Tang Group, in February.

Last week, it stripped Gao of his position and expelled him from the Party on the grounds he had abused his powers and severely violated Party rules through corruption, bribery and nepotism.

Gao Zhenkun, via People’s Daily

The Beijing Tong Ren Tang Group is a State-owned enterprise with major stakes in publicly listed companies. It is best known for its traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) brand, Beijing Tong Ren Tang, one of the biggest TCM brands globally.

EIA has repeatedly flagged the company for exploiting endangered species in some of its signature patent medicines such as Angong Niuhuang Wan, Dahuoluo Wan, Niuhuang Qingxin Wan and Zaizao Wan – pills using ingredients including leopard bone, pangolin scales, musk and saiga horn.

Gao was responsible for choosing the suppliers of such “precious ingredients”. He leveraged this role, in which he negotiated directly with Beijing Tong Ren Tang Group’s suppliers, to make illegal profits of more than 15 million RMB (approximately $2.35 million).

Leopard bone TCM product (c) EIA

He was also expelled from the party for cronyism; since becoming general manager, he had put his friends and family in prominent roles in the organisation, positioning himself and his wife at the hub of power and influence.

It is understood one of the sources of information regarding Gao’s corruption was a supplier of wildlife parts who was sentenced in 2020 for bribing the now-jailed Wang Minzhong to obtain sale permits for saiga horn and pangolin scales. Wang formerly acted as the head of the Beijing wildlife and nature reserve management office. He received over eight million RMB (about $1.2 million) in assets to help at least 10 companies secure permits for the sale of ivory, pangolin scales, musk and saiga horn.

“Wang’s and Gao’s cases are just the tip of the iceberg, reflecting the complicity of a portion of the TCM industry in criminal activities,” said EIA Wildlife Campaigner Ceres Kam.

“Corruption of Government officials and high-ranking pharmaceutical company managers opens the doors wide for the laundering of illegal wildlife products, destroying the reputation of TCM and undermining the State.”

The fall of Gao Zhenkun comes as a successive blow to the Beijing Tong Ren Tang Group. Last month, the Norwegian Pension Fund divested from its parent company Beijing Tong Ren Tang Chinese Medicine Co Ltd for posing an “unacceptable risk” of severe environmental damage in its use of wildlife products, including leopard bone, pangolin scales, musk and saiga horn.

The continuous use of threatened species in TCM poses significant reputational and economic risks to Chinese pharmaceutical giants and EIA continues to call for law reform in China to end the use of threatened species for medicinal purposes.