Gene-Edited Babies in China Reveal Regime’s Attitude Toward Life

December 19, 2018 Updated: December 21, 2018

News Analysis

To much fanfare, a top Chinese scientist in late November announced the creation of the first genetically edited babies. Since then, the scientist has disappeared, a TV program celebrating his feat has been taken offline, and his home institutions have disavowed him.

The Chinese regime appears to have only suddenly discovered that what it considers to be a great success has been widely rejected by international scientists. Behind this misunderstanding lies a more fundamental difference: how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views human life, compared to the rest of the world.

On Nov. 25, two days before the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong, biophysics researcher He Jiankui announced his triumph in several professionally produced YouTube videos. In these videos, He triumphantly claimed that “two beautiful little Chinese girls, Lulu and Nana, came crying into this world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago.”

The People’s Daily, the CCP’s official publication, published a report Nov. 26 about Lulu and Nana, headlined “The World’s First Gene-Edited Babies Immune to HIV Created in China.”

With pride, the report celebrated Lulu and Nana’s creation as “a historic breakthrough in China applying gene-editing technology in the disease-prevention domain.”

He’s current whereabouts are unknown. Some media reports say that he is missing, while his former employer released a statement denying that he had been detained.

An Angry Response From the World

Perhaps neither He nor the editors of the People’s Daily expected that what awaited them were not statements of congratulations, but rather a global outcry from mainstream scientific and medical communities. Even 122 Chinese biomedical researchers posted a strongly worded statement online condemning He’s claims.

Scientists condemned He’s experiment as “illegal,” “unethical,” “unacceptable,” and “reckless.”

Chinese scientist He Jiankui speaks at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing in Hong Kong on Nov. 28, 2018. (Song Bilong/The Epoch Times)

Leaving aside moral objections to tinkering with what a human being is, the technology is ethically charged because changes to an embryo would be inherited by future generations and might eventually affect the entire gene pool.

The genetic editing of a speck-size human embryo also carries significant risks, such as introducing unwanted mutations or yielding a baby whose body is composed of some edited and some unedited cells.

Jennifer Doudna, a co-inventor of the CRISPR gene-editing tool, which He used to edit the babies’ genes, questioned He’s motives. “I think we still need to understand the motivation for the study and what the process was for informed consent,” Doudna said.

Lone Wolf, or a Party-Supported Enterprise?

The Southern University of Science and Technology, which He worked for, was quick to cut ties. The university indicated that He had been on unpaid leave since February 2018; his research was conducted outside of their campus; and the university and He’s department said that they were unaware of the project.

Shenzhen Hemei Women and Children’s Hospital, where the gene-edited babies, Lulu and Nana, were born, also denied any involvement with He’s experiment.

However, some China experts are highly skeptical about the institutions’ sudden protestations of ignorance or non-involvement.

Wen Zhao, a Chinese commentator, said on his YouTube show that, according to the materials He submitted to the Chinese clinical trials registry, the date He was granted permission to conduct his experiment by the Ethical Committee of Shenzhen Hemei Women and Children’s Hospital was March 7, 2017. At that time, He was still working for the Southern University of Science and Technology, even if the university’s claim that He had been on unpaid leave from February 2018 was true.

The image of He’s “Ethical Review Application Form,” visible on several Chinese websites, shows an official stamp of Shenzhen Hemei Women and Children’s Hospital and signatures of seven Ethics Committee members. The review concludes, “The experiment complies with ethical standards and permission was granted from this committee.”

According to materials that He submitted to the Chinese clinical trials registry, his project was funded by Shenzhen Municipal Science and Technology Innovation Council, which has since denied He’s claim.

Wen is very skeptical about the denial by the Shenzhen Municipal Science and Technology Innovation Council, saying that unless He could print cash at home, there was no way for him to carry out such a huge project without funding from somewhere.

According to a commentator who uses the alias Cao Ji on Twitter—and identifies himself as a former science professor at a university in Shanghai who now teaches at a university in Taiwan—the gene-edited baby project was driven by high-level CCP leaders, entrusted to the Southern University of Science and Technology, and executed by He’s team.

Cao argues that He’s project involves hundreds of millions of yuan. Such a huge amount of money can’t be just granted to an associate professor, and the project must have the backing of high-level government departments.

Cao also observes that He is an elite biologist who was recruited back to the Southern University of Science and Technology from the United States via the “Thousand Talents Plan,” which usually involves much higher salaries and research funding levels for its scientists than their locally trained peers. It is, therefore, impossible that He could gain long-term unpaid leave from the university to conduct his gene-editing project without support from high-level authorities.

Moreover, He’s experiment involved dozens of candidates screened and selected from over 200 people, Cao said. Each couple that eventually participated in the actual experiment could gain 280,000 yuan ($40,630) in compensation from the Southern University of Science and Technology.

Six companies are in He’s name and he owns shares in two others, according to Cao, and each has received investment from the Southern University of Science and Technology. One of He’s companies, Direct Genomics, has successfully raised 218 million yuan ($31.6 million) through its Series A financing and is on its way to becoming a listed company.

According to Cao, all of the above are impossible in a tightly controlled society such as China without high-level state support.

A China Central Television Star

He was featured as “a rising big gun in global genetics research” on a special program produced by China Central Television (CCTV) to “Happily Celebrate the 19th Communist Party of China National Congress,” on Sept. 23. During this program, He boasted about the advances he’d made with his third-generation DNA sequencer.

The camera followed him to many different places including his lab, his company, a hospital, and even the soccer field, portraying He as an awesome, promising, and much-loved science star. But after the “unexpected” outrage from the world in response to He’s experiment, the program was taken down from CCTV’s website, although an archived copy was available on YouTube on a channel called “Walled Video.”

The Communist View of Human Life

He’s expectation about the response of international scientists about his “historic breakthrough” turned out to be very different from the reality, or else he wouldn’t have released his YouTube videos. How is such a misunderstanding possible?  

Wang Zhiyuan, formerly a chief physician for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, a former histology research specialist at the Harvard Medical School, and president of the World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong, said he wasn’t surprised by He’s “unique” perspective about his own experiment.

In communist China, the dignity of human life isn’t respected, Wang said, while medical ethics have been ruthlessly trampled.

Dr. Wang Zhiyuan, president, World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong, speaks at a forum on Capitol Hill in Washington, on May 26, 2016. (Gary Feuerberg/ Epoch Times)

“For example, Wang Lijun, the former chief of the Public Security Bureau of Jinzhou City, Liaoning Province, and deputy mayor of Jinzhou City, founded the On-Site Psychology Research Center of the Public Security Bureau of Jinzhou City, and conducted experiments on thousands of live human beings, possibly Falun Gong practitioners, to study the psychological process during their deaths,” Wang said.

“Wang Lijun and his On-Site Psychology Research Center had actually received a research grant of 2 million yuan ($300,000) to conduct his ‘Research on Organ Transplantation from Donors Who Have Been Subjected to Drug Injection.’ The ‘drug’ here actually means execution by lethal injection.”

Wang Lijun also invented a patented high-tech product called the “Primary Brain Stem Injury Impact Apparatus,” which was used to “establish a simulation of a traumatic brain injury caused by a sudden impact.”

In the Korean documentary “Killing to Live: The Dark Side of Transplant Tourism in China,” this machine was called a “sinister … Brain Death Machine.” The film reports that the device was still being used in a military hospital.  

The “Brain Death Machine,” according to the documentary, was used to cause brain death while keeping other organs unaffected, which is an optimal condition for organ transplantation.

Wang Lijun, inventor of the Brain Death Machine, in March 2011. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

Wang Lijun’s patent application says that the subjects for the experiments were all male, age 26 to 38, and the experiments were conducted on 12 corpses’ heads.

“One cannot help asking: How can they prove whether the machine works or not if the experiments were conducted on corpse heads? I seriously doubt they were not done on living human beings, just as their thousands of other experiments,” Wang Zhiyuan said. “And, most importantly, why would they need such a machine?”

A New York Times article in June 2016 reported that Dr. Ren Xiaoping of Harbin Medical University was planning a full-body transplant.

The report said, “Dr. Ren has experimented with head transplants on mice, but they have lived only for a day. He said he had also begun practicing on human cadavers, but declined to give details.”

Wang Zhiyuan said he also seriously suspects that live human beings had been used to do these experiments, otherwise how could they know if the human brain would work with another person’s body?

Radio Free Asia reported that He Jiankui’s team told the parents in the experiment that if anything went wrong in the process, they would “deal with” the “faulty” babies.

“Am I surprised by He’s crazy action? Not at all, as the Chinese Communist Party’s nature is exactly like this. There is nothing they won’t do,” Wang Zhiyuan said.

According to an article in the mainland China participatory news website Mingjing News by Cheng Huiyong, more than 20 percent of the Chinese netizens who participated in online discussions about He’s gene-edited babies said that the research had great value and shouldn’t be criticized or condemned. Some even claimed that gene technology should be used in China to create smarter, healthier, longer-living, more powerful, and more beautiful humans, and bring about hyper-fast development in economics, science, and technology so that China can surpass all other peoples in the world in every field.

Some also believed, Mingjing reported, that if naturally born human beings are replaced by better, gene-edited humans, that will be progress made by humans, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Shenzhen City, a Coincidence?

In October, The Epoch Times reported about the content of a leaked internal Chinese government document, a 12-page proposal, titled “An Undeclared War: The Change of the Landscape of the World Will Be Faster and More Dramatic Than We Have Expected.”

A screenshot of the leaked internal document personally signed by Wu Sikang, the director of Development and Research Center of Shenzhen City , and addressed to Wang Weizhong, the Communist Party Secretary of Shenzhen City, with Wang Weizhong’s comments and instruction asking other city leaders to read this file. (Screenshot/Policy Research Office of Shenzhen People’s Government)

The document was drafted by Wu Sikang, the director of the Development and Research Center of Shenzhen City, on Sept. 29, and urged the provincial government to understand that the Trump administration would quickly step up the United States’ ability to prevent the theft of U.S. technology, changing the basis for China’s economic growth. Wu sought to give advice on how to deal with this new situation.

The fifth of the document’s many recommendations is to “seize opportunities brought about by the differences between the legal and institutional systems of China and the United States and to expedite the development of new types of industries and businesses.”

“The development of new technology, in areas such as biomedical, is closely related to regulations and rules. We can designate special zones as experimental areas, and adopt special policies in these areas to support, serve, and regulate these industries to expedite the development of new technology and new types of businesses,” the document says.

Commenting on the leaked document, economic analyst Qin Peng told The Epoch Times in October that while the Chinese communist regime’s position in the leaked file doesn’t differ from its longstanding policy of stealing and gaining by all means possible, he was particularly struck by the fifth recommendation.

Qin said the mention of differences between the legal and institutional systems of the United States and China, in connection with biomedical products, might mean the Communist regime is ready to use the Chinese people for medical testing that isn’t allowed by U.S. laws and regulations.

When news about He’s gene-edited babies was announced, Qin immediately realized that He and his team are based in Shenzhen City, where the leaked document was drafted and perhaps where its recommendations were adopted.

And surely enough, Qin said, while He’s experiment would have been prohibited in the United States and much of Europe, he could have free rein in a city where the authorities actually view “the differences between the legal and institutional systems of China and the United States” as its competitive advantage.

This article was revised to show Dr. Wang Zhiyuan’s correct job title at Harvard Medical School.

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