Human Genetics and Ethics in China

- Ole Doering, Ph.D.

Institute of Asian Affairs, University of Hamburg,

Rothenbaumchaussee 32; D-20148 Hamburg, GERMANY

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 7 (1997), 130-131.


Since the new, high-tech human genetics commenced in the seventies the debate about its ethical and social implications has been put forward chiefly amongst the highly industrialized democracies. Along with its challenge to decipher the 'map' of the whole human genome, the Human Genome Project has popularized and stimulated the efforts to clarify what we are and what we are not entitled to do in terms of ethics. The globalization of high-tech genetic sciences has raised questions of cross- or intercultural cooperation, and how to properly understand the influence of traditional values is being regarded with increasing attention. That debate is paralleled by the increasing economic power and political weight of the developing countries of South-East Asia. New attention has hesitatingly begun to reach out for long time avoided questions of how to perceive and cope with what has been addressed as the China Challenge, onto the ethics of human genetics in China.

This is a summary of a pilot study published in German dealing with the complex relationship between the issues commonly related to the ethical, legal and social implications of new human genetics (ELSI) on the one hand, and the scientific and moral state-of-the-art in contemporary China. There has not been any monography written which is entirely dedicated to this theme yet. Being a pilot study its first attempt is to provide an account of the basics, such as the relevant literature, leading institutions and persons involved, and the structure of an ideal discourse of the ethics of human genetics, as a reverence scheme for coming investigations. Furthermore, main characteristics of China's international relations on behalf of human genetics are reported. The book, Technischer Forshritt und kulturelle Werte in China. Humangenetik und Ethik in Taiwan, Hongkong und der Volksrepublik China (Human Genetics and Ethics in China), Institute of Asian Affairs, University of Hamburg, 1997, 137pp., 28DM, ISBN 3-88910-186-0). is largely based on a research journey to Hong Kong, Taipei, Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing.

The main part of the work is an exposition of expert's voices. Consultations of 30 authorities in at least one of the fields related to the ethics of human genetics are building up the material body of the study. Most of them are university's scholars and researchers. At last the book introduces a comparison of the results from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Peoples Republic of China amongst each other and their contrast against Europe and Germany. The study states that yet there is few known about the scientific achievements of China concerning human genetics internationally. And even less has previously been published about the ethical consciousness and related discussions featuring human genetics in China. It is made clear by historical and current contributions of Chinese geneticists that there actually is a 'small but beautiful' tradition of international up to date scholarship and innovative research in China dating back to the thirties of our century. This tradition has been newly encouraged since 1978, and is now unfolding again remarkably at some elite centers on mainland China. Still there are countless obstacles to this development, which not only restrict to material supply and facilities of the laboratories, but are also rooted in the known problems of China's political culture, the low-standard health-care system, an inadequate infrastructure, and the poor education of the masses. Those effect the ethical discussions most seriously, which are mostly a matter for the view of adequately taught academics. The study observes a very high interest and open-mindedness of Chinese scientists regarding the ethics of human genetics. There are serious grass-root attempts on several Chinese sites, amounting to an ELSI-project in Beijing, putting forward greater ethical awareness on the national scale. International values, traditional Chinese ethics, new approaches towards a modern ethics with Chinese shape, are being discussed. A systematic coordination and institutionalization of the debate within China is still to come.

Hong Kong shows a highly developed genetics integrated into its modern health-care system, with relatively few material wishes remaining, but no considerable popular and scientific focus on the special ELSI-questions. As Hong Kong seems to have all prerequisites for this enterprise, it is supposedly but a matter of time until it is going to be grasped as one more resource for the international contest to handle the sensible ethics of human genetics properly.

Taiwan does not seem to have discovered all of the hopeful and worrisome potentials of human genetics so far. Yet there are few institutions and scientists dedicated to research on an international level. Inspired from academics trained abroad Taiwan currently faces weak attempts to organize an interdisciplinary platform about applied ethical questions which might turn out as an initial step and impetus for a future debate even about human genetics and ethics.

Internationally, China may be regarded as a potential coming rival and partner in new bio-technologies including human genetics, owing to its strong intellectual capacities and human resources. In the issues of ethics there are new chances for the global debate to further develop towards a modern applied ethics beyond patterns of cultural imperialism and relativism, co-inspired by contributions of traditional and nowadays' Chinese concepts. The study sums up stating five thesis for the current description and the prospects of human genetics and ethics in China:

(1) It is promising to deal with China on the field of human genetics, especially because it now seems to be possible to influence this important sector of future markets and human cultures while it is still developing on an early and still comprehensible stage.

(2) There is a considerable elite's interest in the ethical, social and legal implications of human genetics to be found in China. Expectedly these are starting points to be picked up by an increasing number of groups and people along with the ongoing process of China's infrastructural modernization, and to unfold an innovating impact for the intercultural debate about ethics.

(3) In China human genetics is understood as a refined medical skill. Chinese scientists discuss the ethics of human genetics mainly in terms analogue to their international colleagues, but reject such religious arguments which are based on the notion of an absolute value of life. The heterogeneous debate tends to rely on a pragmatic minimax-calculation, to achieve the best results possible while diminishing the dangers for the people. The value of individuals relative to their family, the collective units and the state is being differentiated and controversial discussed within China.

(4) Chinese human geneticists are hopeful that tighter international cooperations will result in scientific stimulation, material support and the reinforcement of prestige against the well reputed genetics. The enormous need for modernization gives a motive for them to cooperate openly with international scientists, for the sake of both, technical and ethical development, in order to achieve a better nation-wide level of health.

(5) German and. European science and economy could take the role of supporting the human genetics in China materially, and of moderating its internationalization as a partner. Because every partner may profit from the scientific knowledge and creativity of Chinese experts, and from favourable conditions on the field of genetic pharmaceutical industries in China, there are prospects of a growing international interest in scientific and commercial cooperation with China.


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