The dangerous mixture of tyranny and biogenetics.
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 biot
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. First, we rightly understand there to be something essential to our humanity that is "alien" to the world of artifice and technology in which we live. Marxism, on the other hand, claims that technology alienates human beings only when it is controlled by capitalist ownership, or when it separates human beings from the products of their labor. The Marxist therefore shares none of our concern over technological alienation from nature or human nature, but rather is concerned entirely with how to deal with the problem of capitalist exploitation. In the older Marxism, overcoming capitalist exploitation is accomplished by socialist revolution. In China today, the socialization of technology is accomplished by placing it in the sole custody of the state, the People's Republic. The result is policies like China's "Interim Measures for the Administration of Human Genetic Resources." First implemented in 1998, these regulations were designed for the purpose of "efficiently protecting" and "rationally utilizing" China's "human genetic resources." The measures forbid private individuals and institutions to "sample, collect, trade, or export" human genetic material without government approval, and further stipulate that the "genetic resources" of the Chinese people, including organs, tissue, cells, genes, gene products, and any information related to such materials, are to be placed under the exclusive "administrative control" of the Chinese state. This brings into focus the second aspect of the relationship between Chinese Marxism and biotechnology. In the Marxist view, technology is the wellspring of human progress. It is the means by which human beings transform the "realm of nature," not only to satisfy their material needs but to create entirely new modes of existence. Establishing human dominion over nature--especially our own--and transforming it through technology is the very historical process by which human beings fulfill their humanity. To the Marxist, therefore, emerging biotechnologies do not present dangerous prospects of a posthuman world, but rather the tools for a new historical stage in the technological development of what makes human beings truly human. One need only consider the human catastrophe of earlier Marxist revolutions (or even the devastation of nature in China or the former Soviet Union) to know where such frenzied technological hubris likely leads. The power to remake man genetically presupposes the willingness to treat human life as a genetic project. It distorts every aspect of our humanity into a material problem with a potential material solution. Given the suppression of intellectual and religious freedom in China today, there is at present little effective moral or political opposition to the idea that genetic engineering is destiny. Moreover, one can only expect that our own biotechnical innovations, once in Chinese hands, will be used to further the totalitarian project, regardless of the libertarian or humanitarian motives that might have inspired their creation here. THE SECOND KEY to understanding the likely fate of China's biotechnology project is the place of science and technology within modern Chinese civilization more broadly. On the whole, Western societies have shown a higher degree of skepticism toward modern technology than has China. This skepticism is due in large part to the fact that modern science and technology were invented in the West over the course of four hundred years, and advanced (at least during less catastrophic times) in concert with the political ideas of natural right and ordered liberty. In China, by contrast, modern technology was abruptly introduced just over a century ago, at a time when the country was enduring colonial occupation by technologically superior Japanese and Western powers. To counter the colonial threat, Qing Dynasty reformers deemed it urgent to adopt "the barbarian's superior techniques to control the barbarians," and so from the very outset in China the development of modern technology was seen as an imperative of national survival. Ever since, Chinese leaders have called for sweeping improvements in China's technological base, and have heralded technological progress as the principal means of achieving "national salvation"--or the historical equivalent in China, "modernity." In this way, science and technology have spread in modern China without a normative morality or politics to limit and guide their advance in ways that respect the inviolability of man and nature. In fact, the very opposite has been the case. During the late Qing Dynasty, at the dawn of Chinese modernity, the Confucian tradition came to be viewed as completely incompatible with the requirements of technological modernization. Reformers began an ideological assault on Confucianism, declaring that it had lulled the Chinese people into a three-thousand-year slumber from which they had yet to awake. In their political project of "people renovation," reformers proclaimed that science itself could serve as the basis of national modernization. These efforts at modernizing Chinese consciousness and society largely succeeded--only to clear the way for the Maoists, who used the destruction of traditional Chinese morality to their own political advantage. As a result, we face an inexorable scientism and technological utopianism in modern Chinese politics that will prove difficult to derail as China enters the biotechnological age. Of course, science and technology have liberated many Chinese from the toil of subsistence agriculture, and a modern military and nuclear weapons have done much to assuage China's paranoia over a return of colonialism. But in the absence of a theology, philosophy, or politics to assert otherwise, science and technology have served to amplify the powers of a totalitarian state. As the biotechnology revolution brings new possibilities and new dangers for humanity, the political imperative of the Chinese state will coincide with the technological juggernaut: Technology should and must go forward. TAKEN TOGETHER, these cultural and political attitudes portend a Chinese biotechnological future that exceeds the grasp of even the bravest of Huxleyean imaginations. In a now infamous 1981 article entitled "Popularizing the Knowledge of Eugenics and Advocating Optimal Births Vigorously," Sun Dong-sheng of the Jinan Army Institute remarked, "The requirements of modern science, technology, and production, and the speed with which their development has taken place, have resulted in increasing demands for a population with attributes of a high quality." To meet these demands for human beings of a "high quality," Sun, as well as many of his like-minded contemporaries, advised that the "field of eugenics," with the science of "genetics as its basis," can be "established on an objective, materialistic foundation" and can thus be employed by the state for the purposes of "socialist modernization." The state responded to such eugenics proposals with great enthusiasm. As part of the Deng regime's "one family, one child" campaign to control a rising population, the Ministry of Health established public health policies in 1986 that required prospective parents to be screened for physical and mental diseases as a prerequisite for marriage and procreation. Clinic-based and mobile birth control teams, the "womb police," began enforcing not only the number of births among the subjects in their respective areas of surveillance, but the "quality" of the newborn population. And they did so with surgical force: Abortions were required when fetuses were determined to be "defective," and sterilization was imposed on adults afflicted by genetic problems, feeble-mindedness, and mental illness. Under provincial regulations alone, it has been estimated that hundreds of thousands of human beings, living mainly in poor rural areas and minority-nationality places like Tibet and southwest China, have been sterilized against their will. In 1995, a revised Maternal and Infant Health Law was enacted, which aimed explicitly at "improving the quality of the newborn population" through premarital examinations for disease and genetic disorders. When introducing the legislation, Chen Minzhang, then minister of public health, identified the birth of those with "inferior qualities" as a particularly heavy burden for Chinese society to bear. Beijing insists the new law made the abortion of imperfects voluntary, and to be sure, after decades of popularizing eugenics through public campaigns, Beijing has achieved a "voluntary" eugenics arrangement. The government's one-child policy and the incessant clatter from the intellectual class emphasizing the excessive social costs of the disabled and the unwelcome have mixed with other cultural prejudices to heighten parents' desire to have "high quality" children, leading to the increasingly well-documented practice of infanticide, especially of "defective" children and baby girls. China took a further step toward "prosperity and social progress" when, on September 1, 2002, the one-child policy became national law. While the new law prohibits the use of ultrasonography and abortion for sex selection and purports to increase protections for the "rights and interests" of citizens, it also conscripts local governments, enterprises, schools, and the media to implement and advance the population and family planning programs of the state. Thus, the eugenic redesign of the population seems likely to become ever more entrenched in China both as a national objective and as the personal duty of every citizen. So while Mao's Great Leap Forward proved to be a failure, post-Maoist China has come to embrace a biological strategy for creating the new man and the new society. It seeks to manipulate the nation's genetic stock through increasingly effective eugenic controls. It seeks to perfect the state (or at least increase its power) by manufacturing people to specification. One thing is certain: As genetic science progresses in China and around the world, the possibilities for more refined, more technologically efficient eugenic controls will only increase, and so too will the totalitarian temptation to hold absolute dominion over these emerging techniques and their human subjects. Looking toward China's coming biotechnological age in his 1981 eugenics paper, Sun said that the prospects for genetic engineering in China were "very bright indeed." Chinese autocrats and Western intellectuals will make apologies for China by claiming that Chinese thought, far removed as it is from Western philosophy and religion, lacks a concept of scientific and technological hubris, and therefore lacks sufficient grounds for resisting the modern Western concept of exploiting nature. Others will claim that "Asian values" give precedence to the welfare of the social group over the dignity and worth of individuals. Stretching this thinking even further, as Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew has already done in the human rights debates, some will claim that eugenics and genetic engineering are morally permissible within Chinese tradition. But such thinking is both false and dangerous. A true restoration of the ancient Chinese moral tradition would provide grounds to resist, not endorse, the biotechnology project. In traditional Chinese medical education, prospective physicians were instructed in the classics of philosophy and poetry, in the arts and habits of moral reflection, and in respect for human life, regardless of social rank or individual strength. And contrary to the Marxist claim that human beings create their humanity by establishing their technological dominion over nature, traditional Chinese thought recognized an "ineffable, mysterious Way," which could be discerned in the comings and goings of the "myriad things and beings" of the world. For Confucian and Daoist thinkers alike, these natural patterns constituted moral guidelines for human affairs. Sages warned that the wanton--indeed, hubristic--desire to transgress these natural patterns destroyed the equilibrium of the world and the humane ordering of worldly affairs. Today, there is a growing need not only for the restoration of richer and wiser moral traditions in China, but also for the demonstration by America, the most modern of nations, that technological progress and moral restraint can coexist. Above all, this requires resisting the doctrine of inevitability that lies at the heart of the biotechnology revolution. Nothing could be more destructive of human thought and human responsibility than believing that ideas and actions no longer matter. By the time Mao had convinced millions that his revolution was inevitable, there was little opening left for ethical resistance on human grounds, and much less room to secure a measure of human wakefulness from the totalitarian dream of the new society and new man. Can China--and the rest of the world--this time do better? Eric Brown is a researcher at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
Web Link: http://www.weeklystandard.com/article/2945