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Brave New China: The dangerous mixture of tyranny and biogenetics

Eric Brown

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When Mao Zedong set forth his designs for China's Great Leap Forward into communist modernity, he described the Chinese people as "poor and blank." "On blank sheets of paper," he declared, "free from any mark, the freshest and most beautiful characters can be written, the freshest and most beautiful pictures can be painted." Possessed by this totalitarian dream of human nature as his open canvas, Mao thought a new sort of man could be written into being, that Marxist progress was an inevitable fact of China's destiny, and that the brutal means of creating the new society were beyond question.

Today, China stands precariously on the threshold of its next revolution - the biotechnology revolution - and one shudders to think of the forces it is conspiring to bring together. China's gruesome eugenics practices are by now well known: State-mandated abortions, organ harvesting from political prisoners, infanticide of "defective" newborns and unwanted baby girls. China's looming genetic revolution only promises to extend this barbarism, and to empower it with a technique whose human significance we can only begin to fathom.

Worse yet, this is a revolution that, once begun, may prove difficult to rein in: It combines modern China's commitment to scientific and technological development with its characteristic disrespect for the value and inviolability of human beings. It combines new kinds of technological control over human life with the totalitarian will of a state that already pursues its nationalist and economic ambitions through the eugenic manipulation of the Chinese people. And it combines a science and technology that claim their advance to be "inevitable" with a totalitarian regime that does not permit its subjects the moral and political liberty to assert otherwise.

As already reported, China has made some brave leaps beyond the rest of the scientifically advanced nations in crucial areas of biogenetic research. Chinese researchers recently cloned thirty human embryos, the most developed of such organisms anywhere in the world, for the purposes of conducting experiments and harvesting "spare parts." A "stem cell engineering institute" is being constructed in Tianjin that plans to fill its vaults with half a million cloned embryonic stem cells in the next three years-a venture that will surely require the mass procurement of millions of human eggs. In the near future, many economists believe that China will emerge as a major global dealer in human genomic expertise, and it is only reasonable to think that investors from both China and abroad, recognizing the immense opportunity China has to leap ahead of a comparatively reluctant West in the world biotechnology market, will soon provide the capital necessary to drive China's genetic revolution on a much larger scale.

Copyright 2001-2002, Ethics and Public Policy Center. Read this entire article on the Ethics and Public Policy Center website.

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