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Chinese herbal drugmaker under fire for alleged misleading cancer treatment

Two customers buy medicines at a drugstore. Photo: Caixin

Chinese herbal drugmaker Quanjian Group in Tianjin has come under fire after an internet article went viral alleging that the company's misleading cancer treatment had led to the death of a little girl in 2015, prompting authorities to intervene and probe into the complaint against an empire which occupies a multi-million-dollar market share of the country's herbal drugs and nutritional drinks industries.

The article was published by the Hangzhou-based Dingxiangyisheng, which means Doctor Lilac, a leading online health information service provider, on a WeChat account on Tuesday, and quickly garnered tens of thousands of views and feedbacks from netizens.

"Over the past three years, Zhou Erli has been feeling deep regret and remorse over the death of his then four-year-old daughter Zhou Yang, who suffered from a malignant germ-cell tumor in the sacrococcygeal region and missed the opportunity of treatment after purchasing healthcare products and medical services from Quanjian," said the article.

"Unwilling to see his daughter undergo excruciating chemotherapy, Zhou chose to believe in Quanjian's anti-cancer products, a tube of plant essential oil, and discharged the girl from a Beijing hospital despite medical workers' suggestions of continuing treatment.

"After halting chemotherapy for over two months, little Zhou's condition deteriorated. In March 2013, she was sent back to the hospital to restart treatment," wrote the article.

"Just at this time, Zhou shockedly found Quanjian's online promotional videos that claimed his daughter had already been cured thanks to the company's therapy.

"Months before his daughter's passing, Zhou filed a lawsuit against Quanjian for unauthorized use of the girl's name and image, as well as fake advertisements at the local court in Chifeng, North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, but ended up losing the case after failing to provide enough evidence to prove the videos were created by Quanjian," said the article.

Quanjian has denied any wrongdoing in a statement released on Wednesday. It also demanded an apology from Dingxiangyisheng, describing the article as "fake" and "engaging in defamation".

In response, Dingxiangyisheng said on its official Weibo account that their article is based on sufficient evidence, and that they would never withdraw it. "We are responsible for every single word and even welcome a lawsuit from Quanjian," it said, adding that their latest move "has nothing to do with economic benefits."

According to news website the Cover, Dingxiangyisheng has received Quanjian's lawyer's letter.

The scandal has sparked a public outcry in China, prompting the State Administration of Market Regulation and the Tianjin government to intervene and launch investigations into Zhou's case with the company, reported state-run Global Times.

According to news website the Paper, Zhou will file a second lawsuit against Quanjian.

Founded in 2004, Quanjian started out with "fire therapy", which the company claimed can cure nearsightedness, deafness, brain shrinkage, and many other diseases. It now owns about 7,000 franchise stores across the country despite frequent complaining of seared skin from customers. According to Sixth Tone, at least four of the shops have been ordered to compensate their customers for injuries this year.

In 2014, state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) questioned the effectiveness of Quanjian's other products, including a negative ion sanitary napkin which the company claimed to cure heart disease and insomnia.

Despite continuous doubts from media, Quanjian has grown to be a major conglomerate that deals in herbal drugs, nutritional  drinks, cosmetics, finance, machinery, sports and other sectors.

According to China's influential finance magazine Caixin, Quanjian's revenue in 2017 exceeded 1 billion yuan (US$145 million) with net profit of 128 million yuan.

Many people described the company's business model as pyramid scheme which has been banned by the government. Investors are told that they can earn up to 50,000 yuan a week after paying 7,500 yuan or more to join the company, revealed Dingxiangyisheng. In 2012, four people from a Quanjian franchise in Northeastern China's Jilin Province were arrested and serving prison terms for organizing a pyramid scheme.

Caixin also reported that it found only 13 among over 100 products sold by the company have proper registration records, a matter that the company has declined to comment.

Quanjian's founder, Shu Yuhui, was also accused of fabricating academic credentials. The 50-year-old businessman told the public that he was a graduate from prestigious Tsinghua University. However, The Beijing News reported on Tuesday that Shu had obtained his highest degree from Yancheng Institute of Technology, a local college in his hometown, East China's Jiangsu Province.

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