January 19, 2022

Old habits die hard

Should China get an F in bioethics?

“Practice birth control for the revolution – freely supplied contraceptives”. 1975 poster promoting the one-child policy

Writing in the magazine Foreign Policy, a Chinese scientist has a gloomy prediction for bioethicists: “China Will Always Be Bad at Bioethics”. Yangyang Cheng, a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University, believes that the Chinese state is not fundamentally interested in fostering a culture of respect for human dignity. In this environment, observing bioethical norms runs second. He cites a number of issues.

The ethics review process is often a mere rubber stamp and exists more on paper than in reality. Rampant corruption allows dangerous and illegal practices to flourish. Massive social engineering projects ignore the welfare of individuals. The old one-child policy was the most egregious example – but the impulse has not disappeared. Nowadays the government is promoting the “right quality of women” and preventing “new births of inferior quality”.  

Privacy will be non-existent in a society with a strong AI system. “Biotechnology will become a powerful tool in the Chinese security state.” Most concerning of all,” writes Cheng, “is how the Chinese state’s understanding of science discounts the autonomy of an individual body for the collective notion of a strong national body.”

He concludes that China will only observe bioethical principles if it is forced to by the international community – “when its membership in the global political and scientific community depends on it — in other words, when it has no other choice.”

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