The news that two genetically edited babies might have been born in China revealed the country’s deficiency in defining ethical norms and a dangerous lack of transparency in technological research and development. Whereas China is investing vastly into “hard science,” the negligence of “soft science” and humanities could undermine trust in China as a tech-superpower – and it could ultimately put humanity at risk. 

He Jiankui

The announcement by Chinese researcher He Jiankui that he has created the world’s first two genetically edited babies has sent shockwaves around the world. The researcher, who claims to have used the CRISPR gene-editing technology to make the babies resistant to infection with HIV, was also heavily criticized in his home country. 

The Shenzhen-based Southern University of Science and Technology distanced itself from its former researcher, although He said the institution had signed off on his experiments. Shenzhen Meihe Hospital, in which He claimed to have conducted the ethical review prior to conducting the procedure, also denied its involvement in the research. Hours after He’s announcement, hundreds of scientists in China signed a letter to condemn his practice as “crazy” and “a huge blow to the global reputation and development of Chinese science.”  

The mainstream scientific community in China, just as elsewhere in the world, considers the use of CRISPR on human embryos unethical – at least as long as the safety of the technology cannot be ensured. (The CRISPR technology lacks precision and may end up altering the genome in unintended ways.) And just as celebrity doctors who perform risky procedures have been criticized around the world, He’s announcement triggered a debate about his true motives in China, where many social media users accused him of being driven by vanity rather than a quest for scientific exploration

However, there are also people who support He. One influential independent publication, “Iceberg Institute” (冰川思享号), published an article arguing that, “people should be less scared of the unknown consequences for human society brought by technologies, since all scientific and technological advancements in history were the result of overcoming religious and ethical superstition.” 

China’s technological innovation lacks ethical grounding  

He’s case raises complex philosophical questions about how new technologies infringe on human health or human rights. In China, societal debates on this topic are rare and the boundaries of technological progress remain undefined. The lack of public accountability and institutional transparency (the role of Southern University played in He’s research remains opaque) encourages researchers to charge ahead and ask questions later. 

China’s research and education system favors “hard science” over “soft science.” However, soft science equips people with the skills to think about the needs and values of human society – a very different skillset from that needed to solve a computing or an engineering problem. Ideally, the two should complement and inform one another, but this is currently not the case in China. If rogue researchers like He can push the ethical boundaries of science, China’s quest to become a technological superpower could unleash many uncertainties for humanity.  

Aware of this deficiency, the CCP has promoted the study of “Chinese ethics” in recent years. The vice president of the China Association For Ethical Studies in an opinion piece in the party-state People’s Daily summed up the effort as follows: “In this new era when science and technology are advancing rapidly…Chinese ethics research should be guided by socialist core values, focusing on the relationship between politics and morality, socialist market economy and morality, the ethical obligations of human to nature. The research priorities should be on the ethical issues associated with human assisted reproductive technology, organ transplantation and networks technology, artificial intelligence, etc.”   

However, the definition and substance of this “Chinese ethics” remains vague – and it certainly has not contributed to answering questions associated with the advancement of technologies such as genetic editing. It will be interesting to watch how the CCP plans to advance its ethical vision, and if it will be willing to consider societal concerns. 

At least for now, China seems to be underprepared to have a broad ethical debate to match its technical ambition. According to the 2017 China Statistical Yearbook on Science and Technology, Chinese universities employed 85,393 researchers in social sciences and humanities, but 222,530 in natural sciences and technology in 2016. In the same year, R&D expenditure for natural sciences and technology in Chinese higher education institutions amounted to more than 94 billion CNY (12 billion Euro), the expenditure for social science and humanities only to 13 billion CNY (1.7 billion Euro). Out of China’s rapidly increasing output of scientific publications in recent years, only one fourth was in the field of social sciences and humanities. 

Develop first, regulate later does not work for human gene-editing 

The government’s push for technologies has clearly driven disproportionate funding and human capital to the “hard sciences,” neglecting “soft sciences” and humanities. Yet subjects such as art, history, ethics, philosophy and psychology deal with the question of “what it means to be human” and therefore contribute to the responsible development and management of emerging technologies.  

With a series of government strategies and initiatives, China has stated its ambition to become a leader in emerging fields that have the potential to change human society. China is famous for following an approach of “develop first, regulate later” when it is intent on promoting the rollout of new technologies. One prime example was the FinTech sector, which developed rapidly propelled by government endorsement – and which then contributed to taking the risks in China’s overleveraged financial sector to dangerous new levels. 

China cannot afford to adopt the same strategy in the fields of genetic editing or Artificial Intelligence, because the potential consequences of these technologies could have irreversible effects for their research subjects as well as for society as a whole. They could range from introducing new types of diseases to aggravating inequality.  

At the second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in the last week of November, He claimed that his trial had resulted in “another potential pregnancy,” and that he was “proud” of what he had done. The World Health Organization is creating a panel to discuss rules and guidelines on “ethical and social safety issues” of genetic editing as a response to the event. China should actively participate in this global effort, and at the same time it also needs to start defining the red lines for genetic research at home.