Cloning Humans? The Chinese Debate and Why It Matters

- Gerhold K. Becker, Ph.D.
Centre for Applied Ethics, Hong Kong Baptist University
224 Waterloo Rd, Kowloon, HONG KONG

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 7 (1997), 175-8.

Ethics in Uncharted Waters

Recent developments seem to confirm Hans Jonas' earlier observation that the dramatic scientific advances we are witnessing pose problems "for which there is no precedent in the standards and canons of ethics." Many believe the prospect of cloning humans is a case in point.

Yet, there are others arguing that cloning neither presents an entirely new set of problems which could not be resolved by traditional ethics, nor that human cloning deserves the condemnation it has received the world over. 31 eminent scientists and philosophers stated recently in a Declaration in Defense of Cloning and the Integrity of Scientific Research that they "see no inherent ethical dilemmas in cloning nonhuman higher animals. Nor is it clear to us that future developments in cloning human tissues or even cloning human beings will create moral predicaments beyond the capacity of human reason to resolve. (...) We call for continued, responsible development of cloning technologies, and for a broad-based commitment to ensuring that traditionalist and obscurantist views do not irrelevantly obstruct beneficial scientific developments (1). The declaration was signed, among others, by Isaiah Berlin, Francis Crick, Richard Dawkins, Antony Flew, W. V. Quine, J.J.C. Smart, and Edward O. Wilson.

The U.S. National Bioethics Advisory Commission which, at the request of the US President, reviewed the legal and ethical implications of cloning issues arrived at an intermediate position. The Commission concluded in their report Cloning Human Beings (Rockeville, June 1997) that at the present time "it is morally unacceptable for anyone in the public or private sector, whether in a research or clinical setting, to attempt to create a child using somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning." The single most important reason in support of this conclusion was the commission's concern about safety. While other factors were given due consideration, members' consensus was mainly based on the fact that "current scientific information indicates that this technique is not safe to use in humans at this time." While the commission recommended that appropriate legislation should be enacted, such legislation should include "a sunset clause to ensure that Congress will review the issue after a specified period (three to five years) in order to decide whether the prohibition continues to be needed." It was further suggested that the United States government should "cooperate with other nations and international organizations to enforce any common aspects of their respective policies on the cloning of human beings." Meanwhile, these recommendations have been endorsed by the Clinton administration (2).

The urgency of the matter is vividly illustrated by companies such as Clone Me Labs of Texas which boasts on the web to have completed feasibility studies for cell banks as a first step towards human cloning: "Whether human cloning takes the path of producing complete replacements, or a source of spare body parts a professionally harvested supply of your cells will be required." In their view "it is only a matter of time before cloning of humans is not only attempted but is an accepted procedure (3)".

China: Test Case for Western Ethics

The controversy about human cloning may indicate that it is too narrowly focused. I will argue that satisfactory solutions to ethical problems of a new dimension can reasonably be expected only if we are prepared considerably to broaden the scope of our ethical discourse so as to draw on and make available the ethical resources of all humanity. Such 'universalization' of ethics is not only warranted because in the 'global village' new technologies directly affect all humankind, but, more importantly, because moral intuitions, traditions and values are scarce resources which must not be wasted.

I suggest to explore ways of how the resources of a civilization that spans five thousand years of history and comprises one fifth of the world's population, China, could be made available for the current ethical debate on cloning.

Yet, this is not a numbers game; it is, above all, a philosophical necessity. China provides in many ways an almost ideal test case for universal ethical theories. The relative independence of the dominant Chinese moral tradition, Confucianism, from Western, particularly Christian, influence and its ability to react to and to absorb other Asian moral traditions such as Taoism and, more importantly, Buddhism, can benefit ethical discourse and alert us to the dangers of ethical parochialism. In this context, it is worth noting that in spite of the all too apparent political overtones in the recent, high-profile debate about conflicting Asian and Western values, its root is the genuine desire of representatives of venerable Asian traditions not to be left aside and ignored, but be invited to contribute to the solution of moral issues which concern all humankind.

From Confrontation to Dialogue and Mutual Respect

In addition, there are various pragmatic reasons for such an approach. Many observers concur in their view of China as a rising power which will assume a greater role on the world stage as we enter the new millennium. Yet, China is not simply a wakening economic giant with vast potentials for trade and investment which has begun to transform (irreversibly, as many hold) its own society; China is also the last remaining major communist power. These two factors alone suffice to make many in the West feel extremely uneasy. Suspicions, however, have emerged at both ends. Whereas some predict an inevitable clash of the world's major civilizations, others (like Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro in their new book) are more directly concerned about what they perceive as "The Coming Conflict With China" (Knopf: New York, 1997)(4).

The concerns in the West are echoed in China where not just politicians but also many intellectuals are apprehensive of signs of a politics of containment which would deny China the right to determine her own course and thus effectively deny her the rightful place in the community of nations. Yet, unlike in the past the answer of the new China to such attempts would be one of outrage and defiance. Alongside a revival of patriotism which received a tremendous boost by the peaceful return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, and the calls for a new "spiritual civilization" (whatever this might entail), these are ominous signs which must not be ignored.

I concur with Thomas A. Metzger's and Ramon H. Myers' recent recommendation that dialogue and not confrontation is the right answer in this situation: "the best way for the United States to pursue its human rights, economic, and security objectives is to negotiate with the Chinese on the basis of mutual respect and accommodation". He sees good reasons to believe that "the Chinese people will respond constructively to a friendly international environment, and that they indeed will join 'the world system'"(5). In the face of ethical problems of unprecedented proportions the West can ill afford to leave China to itself.

On the other hand, the prospects for a new engagement are quite good, at least as far as ethics is concerned. The ideological constraints and the barriers which not long ago burdened ethical discourse, as Tristram Engelhardt noted in his 1979 report on the situation of bioethics in China (6), have been replaced by a new interest in dialogue and an openness to Western ideas which should be seized upon (7). The resolution on ethical principles of reproductive health and women's rights endorsed by the Chinese participants from across the country in a 1994 seminar jointly sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences are a case in point. Against the backdrop of the recent debate on conflicting values, it seems remarkable that these principles are grounded in moral values so dear to the Western tradition as 'bodily integrity', 'autonomy', and 'human dignity'. The document states that "in no circumstances are women to be used as only a means to another end against their own will". In spite of all the doubts which still hang over the significance of such a document for governmental policies, it is an encouraging step in the right direction, which deserves due recognition. The same openness which, in the meantime, has been confirmed at various similar meetings with Chinese academics was also characteristic at the foundation of the East-Asian Association of Bioethics in Beijing in 1995 which marks a promising development.

Chinese Voices on Human Cloning

It appears that such openness to dialogue applies to the current Chinese debate on cloning as well. In the past decade China has made considerable progress in various areas of biotechnology, including mammalian cloning (8). Catching up with international research (9). China has been unusually successful to overcome quickly the disastrous consequences for serious genetic research first of Soviet-dominated Lysenkoism (1950-57)(10) and then of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) which brought all research to a halt. The successful cloning of a goat in 1995 in China (Institute of Developmental Biology, Beijing) was hailed by the Chinese press as one of top ten 'hot news' items of the year. Since 1993 Chinese scientists, using embryonic cells, have produced several cloned animals including rabbits, pigs, cows, goats and rats. There are, however, conflicting reports about the likely time-frame needed for the production of the Chinese version of "Dolly": Whereas some sources claim that a Dolly-clone could be expected within a year, others seem more cautious. According to the vice-chairman of the China Genetics Society (Zhao Shouyuan) it will be three or four years before China can repeat the success of the researchers at the Roslin Institute.

If press releases are anything to go by, the reactions to the ethical implications of cloning confirm the new openness to a wide range of opinions I referred to earlier. The general thrust is one of caution and restraint in the face of unpredictable consequences. While animal cloning is widely seen as ethically unobjectionable, human cloning is not. Zhai Zhonghe, a biologist and academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences has gone on record in the official China Daily with his remark "that the technology should be off-limits for the duplication of human beings" (China Daily, March 20, 1997). The most comprehensive rejection comes from members of the Center for Applied Ethics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing who, firstly, pointed to undesirable social implications of human cloning such as the anticipated hostile social reaction to deliberately created human beings, the effect of cloning on traditional concepts of the family, and the distortion of sexual relationships. They referred, secondly, to the likely negative impact on natural evolution and the ultimate depletion of human genetic resources. Lastly, they expressed concern about a negative evaluation of life and death.

Yet, the reaction is not unanimous. Although there is much concern about the implications of human cloning for natural evolution as well as for established ethics and for human dignity and uniqueness, there is also the feeling that one might set up some new and unnecessary taboos: "Somehow human beings are secretly obsessed with taboos and able to adjust their mindset to the new reality after the initial panic, just as they now are at terms with contraception and artificial insemination" writes the China Daily. The unexpected strong reaction against human cloning reminded one commentator of the Lord Ye's love for dragons: he loves to paint dragons, but when a real one visits him, he panics and almost faints (China Daily).

With regard to animal cloning, Chinese scientists generally see three clear areas of application: to salvage endangered animals, to cultivate fine species and to replicate transgenic animals of great medical value (11). It has been well recognized that animal cloning could lead to new transplant resources. This is particularly important in a country where the aversion to organ donation is deeply rooted in traditional beliefs about the bodily inviolability and the duty of filial piety. Currently, only 1% of the patients suffering from kidney failure are able to receive a kidney transplant, because of various reasons. Heart and liver transplants occur even less frequently (China Daily, March 4, 1997).

Call For Legislation

Although traditional Confucianism is anthropocentric and does not accord moral status to animals, the long-term health risks, and potential ecological imbalances, as well as the current immature state of cloning technology are just some of the concerns which - on the account of Chinese scientists - call for tighter regulation of animal cloning and closer monitoring of research. These measures should be supplemented by the institution of a professional code of ethics for scientists, and strict guidelines for research funding.

There is some indication to suggest that the strong objection to human cloning both by scientists and the Chinese government will soon lead to a legislation similar to that currently being implemented in Hong Kong. The new Human Reproductive Technology Bill will not simply prohibit the cloning of any human embryo, but also specifically outlaw cloning by nuclear transfer (12). In Hong Kong, a statutory monitoring committee has been set up together with an ethics committee to exercise tight control of reproductive technology. A similar body comprising scientists, ethicists, and government agencies has been strongly advocated in mainland China. It has further been acknowledged that the general public has an active role to play in the process of ethical decision-making regarding cloning. This role not only requires research transparency and the full dissemination of its results, but also the provision of an effective mechanism for public consultation. Cloning issues need to be discussed at the national level, and the country should consider "all kinds of opinions" which, it is hoped, would lead to a "wise decision" (Zhao Shouyuan).

In the meantime, the Chinese minister of health has emphasized the "Policy of the Four Nos" towards research on human cloning: No support; No approval; No license; No acceptance. National policies, however, need to be supplemented by enforceable international agreements.

It is particularly noteworthy that the Chinese government has recognized the need for international cooperation towards a comprehensive regulatory framework. This latter aspect seems to reenforce the general thrust of my introductory remarks: The ethical issues of mammalian cloning can only temporarily be addressed at national levels. Ultimately, they require us to transcend national boundaries in search for a global solution which draws on the intellectual resources of all humankind.

In practical terms, this amounts to the plea that the issue should be taken up by the relevant bodies of the United Nations with active support by the whole range of NGOs which, as a first step, might sponsor a truly representative world conference on the ethical implications of new reproductive technologies (13).


1. Free Inquiry. The International Secular Humanist Magazine. Vol. 17/3 (1997):11-12.

2. For the legal situation of cloning in various European countries see: Richard Nicholson. "Two of a Kind - or None?" The Hastings Report (May-June) 1997, p. 5.

3. http://www.

4. The PRC, "the world's most populous country, and the US, its most powerful, have become global rivals" (3). There is "little question that China over the next decade or two will be ascendant on its side of the Pacific. But even without actual war, the rivalry between China and the US will be the major global rivalry in the first decades of the 21st. century" (4).

5. Thomas A. Metzger, and Ramon H. Myers. Greater China and US Foreign Policy. The Choice between Conflict and Mutual Respect. Hoover Institution Press: Stanford, 1996, p. 24; 25.

6. H. Tristram Engelhardt. "Bioethics in the People's Republic of China". Robert M. Veatch, ed. Cross Cultural Perspectives in Medical Ethics: Readings. Jones and Bartlett Publ.:Boston, 1989, pp. 112-119.

7. One reason for this new openness is the genuine desire to respond to the apparent value vacuum resulting from the increasing doubts about the viability of the official Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideology and its replacement by functionalism of the (oxymoron-like) doctrine of "socialist market economy" with Chinese characteristics. "A fundamental question for China toady is: What values and institutions can help to restructure a civil society within the apparent vacuum?" (Perry Link. "China's Core Problem". Tu Wei-ming, ed. China in Transformation. Harvard UP: Cambridge, 1994, p. 191). According to Link, the "most 'Chinese" answer" would be: "some kind of moral education" (191). He notes, however, currently there "is no publicly accepted set of moral values to define proper behavior. Intellectuals speak today of a sixiang weiji (crisis of ideology) and even a jingshen weiji (spiritual crisis)" (192).-

The fact that similar observations have been made all along with regard to the West (most recently in a highly persuasive editorial in the Wallstreet Journal of June 10, 1997) adds to the urgency for a genuine dialogue on the moral values, which can be shared cross-culturally.

8. James F. Crow. "Genetics in Postwar China". John Z. Bowers, et al., ed. Science and Medicine in Twentieth-Century China: Research and Education. Center for Chinese Studies: Ann Arbor, 1988: "Serious growth of genetics began about 1978" (163).- Similarly: Dean H. Hamer, and Shain-dow Kung. Biotechnology in China. National Academy Press: Washington, 1989: "since 1986, China has made great progress developing the capacity for biotechnology research, which will lead eventually to its application and commercialization". Yet, "despite Chinese advances, China's level of biotechnology research and development remains far below that in developed countries" (75).

9. Research is fully government-funded and organized mainly through the Chinese Academy of Science and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, both of which comprise numerous individual research institutions. The role of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences with its 19 member institutes has been compared with that of the National Institutes of Health (NIH); it has a staff of 12000, of which are 800 at professorial level and 900 at the level of associate professor. The Institute of Medical Biotechnology so far has developed 96 new antibiotics. See: John F. DeLamarter. "Gene Therapy in China". China Review. Spring 1997:32-35.

10. Michurin Lysenko "held that genes are non-existent hypothetical constructs, that chromosomes are irrelevant to heredity, and that the effects of environmental adaptations are inherited" (James F. Crow, loc. cit. 169).

11. See: China Daily, March 29, 1997. According to Cambridge-trained Prof. Sun Fangzhe, the director of the Institute of Developmental Biology, Beijing (who at one time worked alongside Dr. Wilmut), apart from transgenic goats, China has already produced transgenic pigs in their fourth generation.

12. The replacement of "the nucleus of a cell of an embryo with a nucleus taken from any other cell" (14, 1, e) will be explicitly prohibited by the new Bill.

13. This is a revised version of a paper read at the conference on Mammalian Cloning: Implications for Science and Society, held on 26-27 June 1997 in Washington, DC.

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