The react of Chinese media to the “’world’s first gene-edited babies‘

He Jiankui is a Chinese scientist, who works in the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen. On 26th November 2018, a news from named China Created the Word’s First Gene-edited babies aroused huge attention in media. He Jiankui and his team used a gene-editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the embryonic genes of twin girls Lulu and Nana whose father carries HIV virus.

A stunning medical achievement

According to this article, the official media regarded it as a stunning medical achievement against serious illness by editing gene to remove and replacing a strand with pinpoint precision. Almost at the same day, the news swept the Internet and got criticized by scientists. Hundreds of Chinese scientists from the mainland and abroad signed a letter on social media condemning the research, claiming that “The Pandora’s Box has been opened, but we may still have a chance to close it before it is irreparable”.

Critical voices

The first group of people who criticized about conducting clinical trials on humans using CRISPR are Chinese medical doctors and biologists. They published their options on social media platform such as wechat and weibo, meantime, there are burgeoning articles and news wide-spread in we-media and most of them are angry and feel shame of him. The reaction suggests ethical concerns of gene-editing and we-media reflex why the first gene-edited babies were born in China.

We-media posted many articles about He Jiankui. For instance, we-media Intellectual posted an article in wechat named Four weeks ago, He Jiankui has visited William B. Hurlbutt a medical ethics professor of Stanford University; Wandou Echo another we-media released the presentation of He Jiankui—- Back to the Truth: Speech and Presentation of He Jiankui. The article posted in detail about his speech at The Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing. Further, an article named A Village Man Become Famous within a Night: How a Millionaire Supervisor Shaped He Jiankui. The article posted He Jiankui’s personal life, such as how he changed his destiny with good academic performance and catches China’s Thousand Talents Projectthat gives him an opportunity to become a professor as well as an entrepreneur.

A couple of days later, more than 300 Chinese scientists signed their name again and asked Saixiansheng and Intellectual the two we-media platform to publish their request which called Ten Questions for He Jiankui. These questions are 1) Is the research really safe? 2) Does the research really work? 3) Where does the research money come from? 4) Who else involved in his experiment? 5) Where does the experiment start? 6) whether the entire issue is a planned advertisement? 7) The experiment babies, Lulu and Nana, whether their rights are guaranteed? 8) How many babies in total are involved in this experiment? 9) whether the participants have been well informed about the experiment as well as risks?  10) what is the aim of He Jiankui when he starts this experiment. 

The mainstream news platform such as xinlang and wangyi published articles and show concern regarding this experiment. Articles from we-media spread very fast, with serval hours thousands of people clicked. However, as all eyes turn to He Jiankui, the article which published on 26th November 2018 in one of the official media in China was deleted as well as most wide-spread articles about He Jiankui have been deleted as well.

However, compared to the reaction of we-media, official media and party press all keep silent in terms of this issue. Except National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China posted on their website with two sentences which written: on 26th November, there are media published articles about Chinese scientists used a gene-editing technology to apply to babies. We attach great importance to this issue, and have asked the Health Commission of Guangdong province to do investigations and will publish our result to the masses.

The official media’s attitude is equivocal. With historical reasons, China afraid of knowledge blockade from the West, and tries to cultivate and attracts more Chinese scientists dedicate their knowledge to the country and privilege to support start-up founders with abroad education background.

Genome technologies belong to China’s important scientific research plan which is part of 973 Program also known as the National Basic Research Program. The research plan includes six fields: protein, quantum control, nanotechnology, developmental and reproductive toxicology (DART), stem cell and global change. Behind the shock of the masses and the experiment is the government bankrolling research into a number of “firsts”.

For example, on 16th November 2016 a news named First! Chinese Scientists Finished the Third-Generation DNA Base Editor suggests that China competes with US genome team to be a top player in the field of genome technologies. This article said because of the slow process of FDA, the US competitor has not started their Clinical Trials and laggard behind. On 28th December 2017, China started their first big Genomes Project, which aims to sequence 100,000 genomes.

The top student wants to achieve something first. According to Open multi-faces of He Jiankui from we-media AI caijing she, He Jiankui comes from a poor family and used to rank as the Nr.1 student in his high school. With a high score, he was enrolled by University of Science & Technology of China and studied physics. Afterward, he went to Rice University, changed his major into biochemical and genetic engineer since he believes genetic engineer enters into a golden age. He was under guided by Michael W. Deem, who is not only a star professor but also a remarkable innovator. Within 4 years, He Jiankui finished his doctoral study and got postdoc position in Stanford University, his supervisor Stephen Ronald Quake is an American scientist, inventor and entrepreneur, he is rich and has great success in the academic field. He Jiankui decides to return to China because he wants to “achieve something big” like his professors.

The abroad experience of He Jiankui has great influences on his research. When he was 28, he becomes the youngest professor in Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen. Inspired a patient from Berlin, he starts his “first adventure trip”. Being member of Shenzhen Talent Peacock Plan guaranteed He Jiankui will have a promising future in China. He combined his academic resources in the West, built his own team and announced that all the team members have experience study in US or Europe.

The reactions of we-media and official media are very special this time. In the past, official media always play a key role to transfer information. However, this time not only we-media are very active but also Chinese scientists gathered with one voice immediately and criticized He Jiankui. They even asked we-media to publish their signed declaration and want to give press to He Jiankui and hope he can stop the experiment.

Back to the root

After gene-edited babies boomed the Internet, the public asked why the experiment happened in China, why Jiankui and his team have less ethical concerns? Why the technics of Crispr exists many years and western scientist did not apply to human but Chinese scientists did.

Except the governmental will to make China becomes a lead scientific and technological country, scientists in China have more opportunities to apply their results to the society and the country has a high willingness to accept new things than the West. During the past years, China has invested heavily in gene-editing technology, AI, new energy, etc. these high technology fields and promote the talent project massively to be a leading player.

For 1980ers and 1990ers, students start from high school were divided into two fields, namely, science and art. However, most students choose science, as they believe it is more useful and can have a bright future. When they choose science, they don’t need to study humanity subjects anymore, which means many of natural scientist lack of social and philosophical thinking. Scientists in nature field get more respects and have chances to get funding than scientists in humanity filed in China. This phenomenon is not new, since Mao’s period, natural scientists are expected to undertake the task to bring China becomes a powerful country. However, space of scholars in humanity field is compressed many years. Humanity scholars play less role and very careful about what they say.

As Pandora’s Box has been opened, the criticizes and condemn voices from everywhere in the world gathered together to ask him to stop the experiment. He Jiankui’s university and Guangdong government all claimed that He Jiankui did the experiment secretly that they were not informed. However, as an academic star, from establishing his companies, innovating the first gene sequencer machine in Asia, publishing his volunteer information and conducting the experiment, his every step gets many attentions. It is ironical to say that they were not informed and keep distance with He Jiankui.

The popular articles are deleted continuously, official media still keep silent, we-media still in the level of condemning and criticize. No action, no result.