In September 2021, the British Embassy in Beijing approached the Nuffield Council with a proposal to collaborate with Chinese scholars, especially those advising their Government on basic bioethics law. The intention was that those framing and drafting the law in China should benefit from the experience and knowledge of those familiar with bioethical regulation, ethics, law and policy in the United Kingdom.

To date, this collaboration has comprised two workshops – one on genome editing, and a second on issues in reproduction. In arranging these workshops, the Nuffield Council was able to draw on the expertise and experience not only of those within the organisation, but also of UK bioethicists and regulators familiar with the issues. I am hugely grateful to those who gave their time, providing carefully crafted surveys of the legal and ethical issues, as well as answering the many questions put to them. Further workshops are envisaged over the next year or so, and hopefully we can have face to face sessions.

In the first instance, the invitation from the British Embassy was tribute to the reputation and status of the Nuffield Council. Many of those participating from the Chinese side also testified to the importance and influence of our work. However, the meetings are also of great significance as evidence of the extent to which China is seeking to regulate in health practice and biomedical research. The workshops were extremely well attended, comprising both senior figures in law and bioethics as well as younger academics. Their enthusiasm and concern to make proper sense of the issues was all too evident throughout the sessions, and the resultant discussion was of the highest order.

Three things are worth emphasising:

  • The first is that the collaboration – and what we learned from our Chinese colleagues – disproves the simple ‘wild east’ trope that all too often dominates European discussions of China, one in which Chinese medicine and science are completely unregulated, and where in consequence anything goes. Of course, the scandal of He Jiankui, the Chinese researcher who in November 2018 announced that he had created the world’s first gene edited babies, might seem to support the wild east view. Yet Dr He was subject to severe penal measures for what the Chinese government characterised as ‘illegal medical practice’ and leading Chinese bioethicists called for a major ‘overhaul’ of official regulation of biomedical research with harsh penalties for those violating the regulations. The fact that our Chinese colleagues chose genome editing as the topic of our first workshop, and all the signatories of the Nature open letter were present at the workshop, shows their concern both to learn from the UK and also to make clear their own commitments to the proper regulation of genomic research.
  • The second thing that should be emphasised is that it would be a mistake to simply to view the workshops and any continuing cooperation as a one-way process. Certainly, the Chinese are keen to learn from us. But there is much that we can learn from them. It was interesting - as well as something of a surprise - to hear views expressed about the different motivations of women seeking to have children through a surrogate. Equally, whilst there are many in China who see bioethics – especially in the now familiar form of the ’four principles’ theory of Beauchamp and Childress – as globally uniform, there are others who will insist that there is a distinctively Chinese intellectual approach to these matters, one rooted most obviously in traditional Confucian ideas. The Nuffield Council is the UK’s foremost bioethics body seeking to ensure that ethics is embedded in all the relevant law and policy. Our work has global reach, and our publications are admired across the world. Yet modesty and humility is demanded. We should always recognise what others beyond our own shores have to contribute, and never simply assume that what we do is self-evidently right (and the best).
  • The third thing that is worth emphasising is the existence of evident links between policy making, law, regulation, and academic bioethics. The latter is a comparatively young subject in China but is growing at a great rate and those who teach and research it are a younger generation, keen to learn and play their role. I hope to visit China over the next few years to meet that younger cohort of bioethicists with a view to a constructive, mutually rewarding exchange of ideas.

I have been visiting China regularly since 1988; I have participated in summer schools, conferences, and workshops, as well providing guest lectures at various Chinese universities. I count myself fortunate to enjoy the longstanding friendship of the father of Chinese bioethics, Professor Qiu Renzong. It has been astonishing to witness the pace of change in China over the last twenty-five years. China is now world-leading in many areas of science. So, it is an honour and a privilege to be - on behalf of the Nuffield Council - a very small part of the conversation about how this fast-paced science can develop with ethical thinking at its core.

Comments (2)

  • Chris Hughes   

    Interesting contribution. The Georgetown Mantra is merely an heuristic, a partial exploration of ethics in the humaist tradition applied to a limited set of circumstances. Is there ny such heuristic in the Confucian tradition?

  • Xiaomin Wang   

    That were very impressive discussion between British and China. Looking forward to more avtiivies between two side.

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