The Magazine

Brave New China

The dangerous mixture of tyranny and biogenetics.

Sep 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 02 • By 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 the totalitarian dream of human nature as his open canvas, Mao thought a new sort of man could be written into being, and that brutal means for creating the new society would be justified.

Today, China stands on the threshold of another revolution--the biotechnology revolution. China's eugenics practices are by now well known: state-mandated abortions, the harvesting of organs from political prisoners, infanticide of "defective" newborns and unwanted baby girls. But China's looming genetic revolution promises to extend this barbarism, and to empower it through techniques whose human significance we can only begin to fathom.

And this scientific revolution, once begun, may prove more difficult to rein in or reverse than previous attempts at cultural revolution. This new revolution 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 denies its subjects the moral and political liberty to assert otherwise.

China has already made some brave leaps beyond the rest of the scientifically advanced nations in crucial areas of biogenetic research. Chinese researchers recently created thirty cloned human embryos, and allowed them to develop further than any grown elsewhere in the world, for the purpose of conducting experiments and harvesting "spare parts." A "stem cell engineering institute" is being constructed in Tianjin that claims it 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 procurement of millions of human eggs. In the near future, China may well emerge as a major global dealer in human genomic expertise. Recognizing the opportunity China has to leap ahead of a comparatively reluctant West in the world biotechnology market, investors from both China and abroad may provide the capital necessary to drive China's genetic revolution to a much larger scale.

It is unlikely that the emerging Chinese embryo production line will face any moral or political hurdles to becoming the platform for other kinds of industrial human manufacture. Lu Guangxiu, the scientist who has spearheaded much of China's human embryonic cloning, has said that despite her personal reservations about the directions her research may be heading, human cloning and biotechnological innovation is an "irresistible trend."

TO UNDERSTAND anything about China--but especially the significance of its biotechnology revolution--one must first understand the transformation of Chinese Marxism over the last few decades. The reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s had two significant goals. First, they emphasized the rapid development of scientific knowledge and technological innovation, without which, as Deng declared in 1978, "it is impossible to develop the national economy at a high speed." Second, they married the social thought of Chinese Marxism with the organization techniques of Western capitalism, all with a view to increasing economic efficiency and state power.

Over the last two decades, these reforms have yielded some impressive returns in science, technology, and economic growth, and some will argue greater prosperity has widened the scope of personal freedoms. But even today, in a China where it is considered "glorious to get rich" and Maoism is widely remembered for the nightmare it was, economic pragmatism has done little to further human rights and liberty, and much less to secure intellectual or religious freedom. The study of Marxism is still compulsory in China's schools, and historical materialism is the prevailing form of social and political thought among China's intellectuals. This orthodoxy plays out in the biotechnology revolution in two ways.