It’s no secret that China is leading the way when it comes to medical advances, but are they necessarily doing it in the right way?

What I’m referring to here are their obvious dangerous ethical lapses. Writing in Foreign Policy, postdoctoral research associate, Yangyang Cheng, believes that the Chinese state is not fundamentally interested in fostering a culture of respect for human dignity. Thus, observing bioethical norms run second. 

Yes, the country is able to boast that they produced the world’s first cloned primates through somatic cell nuclear transfer, and successfully used gene-editing technology CRISPR for the first time to edit a gene associated with a disease in human embryos, but how valuable is this when it seems power is prioritised over ethics? It would actually look like there is a lot to be concerned about. 

Back in 1998 the Chinese Ministry of Health established an ethics committee and issued the first set of guidelines on medical ethics in China. Over the past two decades, China has made apparent efforts toward the ethical practice of biomedicine. However, just like a lot of country’s rules and regulations, they exist more on paper than in practice. According to a presentation at the World Health Organisation by one of China’s leading medical ethicists, Hu Qingli, only about half of Chinese provinces had set up ethics committees by the early 2010s; the same went for individual hospitals. In addition, even though the Ministry of Health’s ethics guidelines state that ethical reviews are “based upon the principles of ethics accepted by the international community,” they lack enforcement mechanisms and provide few instructions for investigators. In turn, Hu brands the ethics review process as “a rubber stamp.” Such a lax ethical environment has China to gain the reputation as the “Wild East” in biomedical research. 

The volatile bioethics system is further weakened by regular corruption. This was made apparent in 2006, after a large-scale investigation into the Chinese State Food and Drug Administration resulted in arrests and imprisonment of several of its highest officials for allegedly accepting bribes, including the administration’s director Zheng Xiaoyu, who was executed. 

It can’t go ignored that the willingness to overlook safety for financial gain hints at more of a greater challenge with bioethics in China, this isn’t just structural, but ideological. Authoritarian states naturally prioritise the strength of their own power, including the size of their economy, above all else; this runs contrary to and inevitably undermines, the healing purpose of medicine. This politicized approach to science also abets the trampling of ethical boundaries. 

What’s more of a concern is the fact that the Chinese government has always explicitly pushed for “civil-military fusion,” which leads one to believe that its new technology will inhabit dual-use, with military uses applying both to national defense and internal suppression. The government is already collecting DNA samples from other biometrics data, as well as building up a massive surveillance state using artificial intelligence. There is no denying that biotechnology will become a powerful tool in the Chinese security state. 

Biological threats recognise no borders. In order for this concerns to be squashed, it is the responsibility of liberal democracies to take advantage of the openness of their system to educate the public, live up to the highest ethical standards in protecting human rights and safeguarding the environment, and make such standards the foundation of universal principles. Let’s be honest, China is likely to abide by such standards is they have no other choice in the matter.