[Paleopsych] Betterhumans: From Third World to Brave New World

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Betterhumans > Features > Columns > Transitory Human > From Third
World to Brave New World

[Notice that, while Dvorsky would rather have Chinese eugenics proceed in 
a democratic fashion, he does not call for armed American intervention.]

China's embrace of state-driven eugenics should be of concern to
bioconservatives and bioliberals alike

George Dvorsky
Betterhumans Staff

    Monday, October 27, 2003, 9:20:24 AM CT

    China took a great leap forward on October 15 by becoming only the
    third nation in history to put a man in space. On top of a Long March
    rocket, China's first manned spacecraft, Shenzhou 5, soared into the
    heavens along with taikonaut Yang Liwei and a profound sense of

    While the feat lagged the US and the former USSR by 40 years, anyone
    who doubted the inexorable nature of technological progress even among
    the developing nations had their doubts put to rest. The Chinese
    success story revealed that, given enough time and patience, high-tech
    makes its way into even the most unlikeliest of places--including
    former third world countries. While once the exclusive domain of the
    Cold War superpowers, space is now accessible by such countries as
    India, Japan and various nations of the European community.

    However, one unfortunate reality of the great catch-up game being
    played by the former have-not countries is that for many of them
    social modernization has not caught up with technological
    modernization. Yes, it's a positive sign that China is catching up
    technologically, but the [2]communist country currently resembles an
    infant who has stumbled upon his father's toolbox.

    Nowhere is this more so than with biotechnology. The authoritarian
    Chinese government is using advances in the health sciences to further
    entrench and realize its [3]eugenic agenda. Beyond the "one child, one
    family" policy, Chinese eugenics is startlingly reminiscent of 20th
    century social experiments--including the forced sterilization of
    citizens deemed unsuitable for procreation--conducted not just by the
    Nazis, but by many nations.

    This is exactly the kind of [4]Brave New World scenario that keeps
    bioconservatives up at night. But it's also the kind of state-driven
    eugenic imposition that even the techno-utopian and biolibertarian
    [5]transhumanists worry about. The vision of a centralized,
    ideological and hyper-bureaucratized politburo hammering out design
    schematics for its future citizens is abhorrent, representing
    everything to which ideals of democracy and self-actualization are

    Consequently, liberal democracies should continue to pressure China to
    embark upon a path of increasing democratization in hopes that its
    citizens will eventually demand procreative, cognitive and
    morphological freedoms. At the very least, the Chinese example should
    act as a continual reminder of where we do not wish to go.

    Primed for reproductive restrictions

    Historically, the Chinese have operated with the understanding that
    citizens are obligated with personal duties to the state, and it is
    partly due to this tendency that Western ideas of individual autonomy
    are lost. The [6]Confucian tradition, along with its early agnostic
    and humanist character, placed emphasis on the orderly arrangement of
    society and stressed appropriate personal relationships.

    In conjunction with ancient customs in medicine, Chinese tradition
    holds that every aspect of an expectant mother's life must be
    controlled. It was commonly held that maintaining a balance in cosmic
    forces, in essential bodily fluids and in lifestyle both before and
    after conception was paramount if you hoped to have a healthy baby.

    The Chinese also subscribed to the patrilineal model of descent, in
    which a person is viewed as the culmination of his or her ancestors
    and is held responsible for the health of all future generations.
    Thus, an expectant mother's behavior and attitude is believed to
    directly influence the well-being of her future baby, and a deformed
    or developmentally disabled child reflects a moral failing on the part
    of the parents. As historian [7]Frank Dikötter has noted, "Herein lies
    the basic eugenic belief that human intervention--in the form of
    behavior and morality--can shape heredity."

    It was not until after World War I that modern science was introduced
    to China. It was during the Republican Era (1911 to 1948) that elites
    called for increased intervention of medical professionals and the
    state into the sexual lives of its citizens. It was also during this
    time that Western eugenics was imported and combined with existing
    fears of cultural, racial and biological degeneration in Chinese
    society, leading to government regulation of sexual reproduction.
    Compounding these impulses were the Chinese cultural currents that
    feared anything deviant and the urge to draw clear boundaries between
    the normal and the abnormal.

    Moreover, it is this emphasis on the collective good that has driven
    modern eugenics in China since the late 19th Century, when, as
    Dikötter explains, "Chinese intellectuals, the well-to-do gentry, and
    government officials explored how to improve the Chinese race after
    the arrival of the stronger Western imperialist nations." Indeed, as
    Dikötter has aptly observed, [8]nationalism in its many forms remains
    an important force in eugenics today. And without question, the
    Confucian ethic, which emphasized the individual's responsibility to
    the collective, is still felt across China today, and has hybridized
    itself quite effortlessly with [9]Marxist notions of communalism and

    A dubious leap forward

    The introduction of communism in China did not do much to change these
    historical notions or tendencies. In fact, Marxist notions of the
    [10]blank slate and the creation of the "new man" have inspired
    Chinese thinkers to mesh Marxist ideals into their already
    eugenic-primed view of population management.

    While scientific and technological advancements were stunted during
    the [11]Maoist era, recent decades have witnessed the revitalization
    of health-based issues. [12]Deng Xiaoping's reforms of the late 1970s
    emphasized the rapid development of scientific knowledge and
    technological innovation, along with the acknowledgement that
    Western-style capitalism was necessary to both increase economic
    efficiency and state power.

    While these reforms have led many to conclude that China has finally
    embarked on the path towards democracy, the truth of the matter is
    that the [13]totalitarian infrastructure has remained intact; the
    Chinese political regime has shown no willingness to abandon Marxism
    anytime soon. This has been made painfully apparent by China's ongoing
    poor human rights track record, including 1989's [14]Tiananmen
    massacre, its suppression of religious and cultural freedoms, its
    stringent control of information (including its own [15]internal
    Internet) and, of course, its devotion to eugenics.

    As a result of Xiaoping's reforms, the standard of living has steadily
    improved, as has Chinese proficiency with technology, causing a number
    of thinkers to push for a renewed commitment for eugenic measures. In
    1995, the [16]Law of the People's Republic of China on Maternal and
    Infant Health Care went into effect. The move was greeted with near
    unanimous international uproar.

    The law primarily seeks to ensure the "health of mothers and infants
    and [to improve] the quality of the newborn population" while reducing
    the burden of disabilities. Among the many provisions of the
    legislation was the requirement that all couples seeking to marry
    submit to a physical examination by a physician to "see whether they
    suffer from any disease that may have an adverse effect on marriage
    and child-bearing." The diseases include "genetic diseases of a
    serious nature.that may totally or partially deprive the victim of the
    ability to live independently, that are highly possible to recur in
    generations to come." Also covered by the law are infectious diseases,
    such as AIDS, gonorrhea, syphilis and leprosy, and relevant mental
    diseases, including "schizophrenia, manic-depressive psychosis and
    other mental diseases of a serious nature."

    Physicians who perform these premarital checkups "explain and give
    medical advice to both the male and the female who have been diagnosed
    with certain genetic disease[s] of a serious nature which [are]
    considered to be inappropriate for child-bearing from a medical point
    of view." The couple can marry "only if both sides agree to take
    long-term contraceptive measures" or to undergo permanent

    Couples not satisfied with the results of the check-up may apply for
    an appeal mechanism. When applying for marriage registration couples
    "shall produce their pre-marital physical check-up certificates or
    medical technical appraisement certificates." Diagnosis will be
    verified prenatally if an abnormality is "detected or suspected," such
    as by ultrasound or because of family history, after an antenatal
    examination. If a serious disease or defect is found, physicians will
    offer the couple "medical advice for a termination of pregnancy."

    Applications to terminate a pregnancy or to undergo sterilization must
    "be agreed [to] and signed by the person concerned." Couples that are
    identified by this process "shall take measures in accordance with the
    physician's medical advice." In other words, they will be compelled to
    do what their doctor tells them to do.

    Even though this law came into effect in 1995, it is estimated that
    hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens have been sterilized against
    their will since 1986. Clinic-based and mobile birth control teams,
    dubiously known as the "womb police," have been known to travel across
    the countryside enforcing both the number of births and the "quality"
    of the newborn population, assessing such things as feeble-mindedness
    and mental illness.

    There is little doubt that the Maternal and Infant Health Care law is
    a throwback to 20th century style eugenics. During the first half of
    the previous century, it was fashionable for the politicians of many
    countries to implement sterilization schemes that targeted
    questionable deficiencies while greatly diminishing the reproductive
    freedoms of their citizens. Two primary factors that led to these
    policies--two factors that still exist in the Chinese worldview
    today--are nationally and racially fed conceptions of [17]social
    Darwinism and an immature understanding of medicine, genetics and
    science--not to mention unenlightened and socially primitive stances
    on democracy and the moral and practical efficacy of individual

    And typically, the law went into effect in China without any real
    discussion by bioethicists proper. In fact, it is arguable as to
    whether China even has a [18]bioethics discipline by Western
    standards. China doesn't even have the same conception of eugenics; in
    Mandarin, "yousheng" is the closest word that corresponds to
    "eugenics," and it simply means "healthy birth." (This is interesting,
    because "eugenics" is a Greek term meaning "good origin," but has gone
    on to mean a centralized, preconceived and imposed vision of

    Moreover, legislators in China don't have to face the political
    hurdles, scrutiny and heated discourse that tend to greet new
    biolegislation in other countries. Simply put, the communist Chinese
    government is not held to the same ethical standards as are
    governments in the more developed and socially mature nations of the

    Marching into the 21st century

    Of course, in my condemnation of Chinese eugenics I could be accused
    of both cultural and social relativism. As medical doctor [19]Patrick
    MacLeod has observed, China is struggling with issues of population
    health beyond our comprehension in the West.

    For example, the UK has five percent of the population of China but 20
    times the number of medical geneticists and counselors to serve that
    population. Compounding the problem, China is largely rural, with
    health insurance programs that do not cover medical genetic
    assessments. Some estimates place the disabled population of China at
    more than 50 million. "It is from this perspective," says McLeod,
    "that one can understand why social planners might adopt eugenic
    solutions without any knowledge or understanding of the long-term
    consequences for the gene pool."

    And while the work of many health scientists in the West is stunted by
    debates about whether or not a microscopic clump of embryonic cells is
    a person or not, China marches on in terms of important medical
    research and development. Eric Brown, in his provocative but
    ultimately technophobic article "[20]Brave New China," notes, "China
    has made some brave leaps beyond the rest of the scientifically
    advanced nations in crucial areas of biogenetic research."

    Chinese researchers, for example, recently created 30 cloned human
    embryos and allowed them to develop to unprecedented stages. This work
    could eventually allow people to grow their own organs to replace
    failing ones. In Tianjin, a stem cell engineering institute is being
    constructed that will have its labs filled with half a million cloned
    embryonic cells. As Brown observes, "In the near future, China may
    well emerge as a major global dealer in human genomic expertise.
    Recognizing the opportunity China has to leap ahead of a comparatively
    reluctant West in the world biotechnology market, investors from both
    China and abroad may provide the capital necessary to drive China's
    genetic revolution to a much larger scale."

    Thus, over the next few decades, as the Chinese continue to develop
    innovative biotechnologies, and as they continue to impose their
    eugenic policies, they will have greater and greater control over how
    they actively re-engineer their citizens.

    A democratic transhumanist's nightmare

    From a democratic transhumanist perspective, these prospects are both
    exciting and troublesome. Transhumanists agree that stronger, smarter
    and healthier people are a good thing, as are reductions in suffering
    and various psychological and physical disabilities. But while
    progress in health sciences is a value unto itself, it shouldn't come
    without proper public debate or the proper bioethical infrastructure
    to gauge the impact of technologies on individuals, societies and the
    human condition as a whole.

    Worst of all, in China these technologies are being used as tools by
    the communist government to impose its idea of a healthy and evolving
    populace onto its "subjects." This idea, that of totalitarian
    transhumanism, is anathema to [21]democratic transhumanism, which
    insists that choices about whether and how to use these
    biotechnologies must be left to individuals. While some of the goals
    of transhumanists and Chinese politicians run in parallel, the manner
    and spirit in which they are applied makes all the difference, both
    from ethical and sociopolitical standpoints.

    It is understood by most transhumanists that parents, when empowered
    to make informed procreative decisions for themselves and their
    families, will make responsible choices that will result in the
    improved health of their offspring. How the human family evolves and
    develops as a result of these individual choices is anyone's guess,
    but it must be the role of future governments to help their citizens
    prosper along chosen paths, not to dictate preconceived and
    group-think notions of what it means to be normal or healthy, and
    certainly not to do so from a rigid ideological agenda.

    I can only hope that as China modernizes itself technologically,
    social and cultural modernization will quickly follow. The impact of
    the information revolution has only recently been felt in China, and
    has been greeted with great caution, resulting in the Great Firewall
    of China.

    Fortunately, technology often acts as the great equalizer, and as
    mobile phones, computers and other information technologies make their
    way into China, the Chinese will surely start to take advantage of
    these tools as they begin to democratize themselves at the grassroots
    level. The push for better science and technology, I can only hope,
    will be the ultimate undoing of the current communist regime, rather
    than further its state-driven eugenic goals.


    2. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communism
    3. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics
    4. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brave_new_world
    6. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confucian
    7. http://homepage.mac.com/dikotter/Menu4.html
    8. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nationalism
    9. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marxism
   10. http://www.thegreatdebate.org.uk/BlankslateCH.html
   11. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mao_Zedong
   12. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deng_Xiaoping
   13. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Totalitarianism
   14. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiananmen_Square_protests_of_1989
   15. http://www.computeruser.com/news/02/09/16/news2.html
   16. http://www.unescap.org/pop/database/law_china/ch_record006.htm
   17. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Darwinism
   18. http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioethics
   19. http://www.medgen.ubc.ca/faculty/macleod.htm
   20. http://www.eppc.org/news/newsID.1380/news_detail.asp
   21. http://www.changesurfer.com/Acad/DemocraticTranshumanism.htm

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