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Chinese Scientist Responsible For Genetically Altered Twins Faces Intense Criticism


And now to China and the story of the genetically altered twins. The scientist who was responsible has faced intense criticism for his work. Researcher He Jiankui defended himself at a conference in Hong Kong. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us from Shanghai to talk about all this. Hey, Rob.


CHANG: He is claiming that he has successfully altered the DNA of twin girls to make them resistant to HIV. What is the scientific community in China saying about all of this?

SCHMITZ: Well, they're pretty up in arms, just like the scientific community is about this, and since the news broke, He's university has all but disowned him. They've insisted that they had no part in these experiments. They said they've lodged a police complaint against him despite online records showing they signed off on this experiment. And dozens of Chinese scientists have condemned him, calling what he did crazy unethical. As far as China's government is concerned, national and local health authorities here in China have already announced investigations into He's research. And this will likely be a big problem when he returns to China.

CHANG: But I thought for years China's government wanted to compete with the West in science and technology, so why is it reacting so strongly to a Chinese scientist being the first to accomplish something like this?

SCHMITZ: Well, this type of experiment is not what China's government wants to be known for. You know, the case of He Jiankui exposes some of the worst fears that the international community has long held about China, that in its zeal to become a world leader in science and technology, its scientists would cut corners. And He Jiankui's performance today in Hong Kong where he defended himself was full of half-truths, dodging questions. At one point, he said he had checked in with ethicists in America during clinical trials, so essentially shirking responsibility for what he had done.

You know, what's interesting here is that this behavior is strikingly similar to how China's government is often perceived as behaving when it defends its own actions to the West. So in some ways, He is just reinforcing this negative stereotype. And that is terrible public relations for China, which is busy fighting this negative image in nearly every sector, from the trade war with the U.S. to, you know, being blamed for influencing other countries, you name it. This is not the image China's government wants to portray on an international stage.

CHANG: If He Jiankui didn't have the government's support or even the support of his institution, how was he able to even do this experiment without anyone knowing about it?

SCHMITZ: Well, that's a question many in the scientific community are now rightly asking. And part of this boils down to how China's government runs its own country. Laws in China tend to be vague, and they're enforced in an ad hoc way. You know, this type of system gives the Communist Party more leverage when it wants to punish someone while the party itself can wriggle out of breaking its own laws. But this type of system also creates an environment where people tend to do something first and then ask for forgiveness later. And that's what's happened here.

China's only guideline for the type of experiment that He was working on states that clinical experiments that violate, quote, "ethical or moral principles," unquote, are illegal. But no further explanation is given under Chinese law. And what is and what is not ethical is not defined. So it's a very vague law. And in China, you've also got a government that is constantly pushing its scientists to break new ground to compete with the West. So it's likely that He took advantage of this environment to break new ground. And it seems like he's certainly done that.

CHANG: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from Shanghai. Thank you so much, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.