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Ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China deployed a novel method for selecting its athletes. According to the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, Beijing sequenced the genomes of its elite competitors to detect more than 100 markers linked to “speed, endurance, and explosive force.” It then used the results in part to determine who would go on to represent China at the upcoming games.
Beijing’s 11th-place showing in the medal count suggests that the tactic didn’t work exactly as planned. Athletic success, after all, comes from a complicated mix of constitution, training, and determination, so advanced genetic screening may do little to predict who wins or loses. But China’s Olympic program is just one part of a larger project to harness the power of biotechnology for strategic goals. Beijing is currently investing trillions of dollars in everything from synthetic biology and artificial intelligence to neuroengineering and genomic data banks—advances that stand poised to transform how people relate to one another and to the natural world.
But China’s approach to these developments—exemplified by lax ethical standards and human rights abuses—is deeply troubling. “The more technology we have, the more dangerous we are to ourselves and entire humankind,” explained Dr. Rao Yi, a neurobiologist at Peking University. Unfettered by respect for privacy, transparency, and human rights, Beijing’s biotechnology efforts could threaten the economic well-being and national security of the United States and the global order.
The bioethics wars are here, but Washington isn’t ready. For the first time since 1974, the United States is without a federal bioethics commission to guide policymakers and public debate on controversial issues. Congress should authorize a new commission—or President Joe Biden should sign an executive order to create a new one. Simultaneously, the United States must engage international institutions to restore the core principles of openness and justice in the life sciences. Unless it reclaims moral leadership in this space, Washington will cede the world’s biotechnology future to authoritarian regimes whose secrecy and repression extend far beyond their borders.
Morally fraught experiments have flourished in China in recent years. In 2017, surgeons at Harbin Medical University defied international condemnation to attempt the first human head transplant. In 2018, a Shenzhen biophysicist implanted embryos edited through experiments that risked introducing destructive mutations into the human gene pool. And in 2019, China’s Institute of Zoology invited a Spanish biochemist to create human-monkey chimeras as organ transplant sources.
These boundary-pushing developments aren’t just the work of a few bad apples. Rogue scientists are the predictable product of a national system that reduces research oversight in Beijing to a “rubber stamp,” according to recent testimony before the World Health Organization by the Chinese medical ethicist Hu Qingli. Indifference is part of the problem. The Chinese Ministry of Health, for instance, ostensibly banned unauthorized stem cell therapies in 2012. But a decade later, pop-up stem cell clinics still hawk untested interventions to repair spinal cords and augment breasts. Corruption is another factor. Incidents of bribery at the China Food and Drug Administration, now known as the National Medical Products Administration, led to mass casualties from at least six tainted drugs meant to treat autoimmune disorders, erectile dysfunction, and other ailments.
Then there is China’s heavy-handed program of biometric surveillance and population control. In 2018, Beijing used Islamic terrorism as a pretext to launch the most technologically sophisticated regime of data mining and collection that the world has ever seen. Drones with facial recognition cameras hover over regions such as Xinjiang while police at checkpoints take mandatory iris scans, blood samples, and genetic tests from Uyghur Muslims. Beijing exports this digital security and mass surveillance architecture to dozens of other countries, including Egypt and Uganda, where they have been used to persecute sexual minorities and religious dissidents.
The bioethics wars are here, but Washington isn’t ready.
Even countries that use these tools to promote public health and safety unwittingly supply China with their citizens’ biometric information. According to a Reuters investigation, Shenzhen-based BGI Genomics is amassing and analyzing genetic data on women and fetuses from a noninvasive prenatal test that the firm developed in conjunction with the Chinese military. The kit is marketed in more than 50 countries, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, India, Pakistan, Spain, Thailand, and the United Kingdom. Roughly 8.4 million women have used it. One BGI study allegedly used a military supercomputer to “map the prevalence of viruses in Chinese women, look for indicators of mental illness in them, and single out Tibetan and Uyghur minorities to find links between their genes and their characteristics.”
China’s top-down approach to biotechnology also has serious implications for family planning. The country’s now lapsed one-child policy was supposed to bring economic prosperity. Instead, it yielded an epidemic of forced sterilizations, abortions, and female infanticide that produced the country’s current lopsided sex ratio and aging workforce. But that experience hasn’t stopped Beijing from experimenting with new forms of genetic control. A 1995 law aimed at “avoid[ing] new births of inferior quality and heighten[ing] the standards of the whole population” requires couples at risk of passing along infectious or hereditary diseases to use long-term contraceptives or postpone marriage until after child-bearing age.
In 2022, moreover, millions of Chinese parents will use state-subsidized “talent tests” to screen offspring for traits such as height, intelligence, memory, extroversion, musical ability, and athletic prowess. These policies of biological selection and enhancement extend beyond family planning. A 2016 Chinese government report, for instance, underscored the potential value of gene editing to boost troops’ combat effectiveness. Former U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe warned in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that the Chinese military is working to engineer “soldiers with biologically enhanced capabilities”—from superstrength to altitude sickness resistance.
Chinese developments in biotechnology demand a U.S. response. The last national bioethics commission lapsed in 2017, and Washington has yet to authorize a replacement. A newly established commission should engage with universities and industries to set norms and expectations around bioethics. Good models for this kind of public-private collaboration already exist. Organizations such as the Secure DNA Project and the Morningside Group—independent coalitions dedicated to safely and fairly governing genetic synthesis and brain-computer interfaces, respectively—are examples of what scientists, ethicists, and others can accomplish together. Future interdisciplinary teams can act as gatekeepers to affirm moral standards and condemn transgressions—for instance, by determining who gets published in high-impact journals and invited to prestigious conferences.
These partnerships can also help bridge ideological differences on issues such as vaccine passports, gene-edited immunity, and challenge trials that pay people to test new therapies for COVID-19. These are debates that democratic societies are well equipped to handle. Four of the world’s biggest democracies—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—have recognized the existential stakes of life sciences research and recently pledged to collectively tackle “the critical and emerging technologies of the future, beginning with biotechnology.” That work should include establishing a global medical ethics consortium built on international agreements such as the Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights, treaties such as the Biological Weapons Convention, and multilateral arrangements such as the T-12—a group of technologically advanced democracies.
Still, democratic societies can’t maintain bioethical standards alone. Going forward, the United States and other democracies must engage with authoritarian states, especially on areas of shared interest, including biodiversity, climate change, and highly infectious diseases. A natural starting point is oversight to ensure that Beijing actually implements its Biosecurity Law of 2021—legislation designed to guide Beijing’s policies on everything from bioterrorism to biotechnology. Washington should also focus on developing new treaty guidelines for human experimentation and genetic-information sharing.
China’s DNA-based approach to picking its 2022 Olympic competitors may look like a harbinger of a grim future. But the country’s athletic history also suggests a path for managing this new form of geopolitical competition.
Between 1988 and 1998, 52 Chinese Olympic athletes tested positive for banned performance-enhancing drugs, including a half dozen gold medal winners. In response to the resulting international outcry, the International Olympic Committee created the World Anti-Doping Agency. Chastened, China developed the world’s most rigorous anti-doping measures—mandating education, exams, and pledges among athletes and coaches. Violators got lifetime bans. The Chinese state also sought to repair its reputation, funding new research and pledging long-term commitments to international anti-doping efforts.
At the time, verification and transparency made it possible to hold China accountable for its ethics violations, and international pressure and the threat of meaningful sanctions drove Beijing to act more responsibly—in sports, anyway. Similar policies could work today in the field of bioethics, helping rein in China’s reckless behavior. In this way, Beijing’s revolutionary Olympic selection process could be the opening the world needs to thrash out the moral status of scientific advances just over the horizon.
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