China and Eugenics

02 Mar 2007

China finally came up on my one of my favorite blogs, Sentient Developments:

> When stripped of all its historical and social baggage, however, ‘eugenics‘ can be used to describe two general philosophical tendencies: 1) the notion that human hereditary stock can and should be improved, and 2) that such changes should be enforced by the state (or other influential social groups such as cults or religions).

> These two concepts are not married to one another. Transhumanists tend to subscribe to the first point but not the second, leading to the charge that they are liberal eugenicists. China, on the other hand, engages in a form of eugenics that draws from both agendas; the state is actively involved in the ongoing biological re-engineering of its citizens for ideological ends.

As usual, the article was a good read. In case you’re unclear of what the author meant by China’s engagement in eugenics, here’s a summary:

> [In 1995], China adopted a new law on maternal and infant health care. The law mandates that all persons have a premarital medical examination to detect serious genetic diseases, some infectious diseases, and “relevant” mental disorders. If a detected disorder is deemed serious, the couple is not permitted to marry without committing to contraception or tubal ligation. Prenatal testing is enforced, and pregnancy is terminated if the fetus has a serious genetic or somatic abnormality. [China’s Eugenics Law on Maternal and Infant Health Care]

The thing is, since 2003 the Chinese government no longer requires premarital medical exams. That leads to this kind of situation:

> The abolition of the national system of compulsory premarital medical checkups one year ago has led to a rapid increase in the rate of birth defects in China, and if the government fails to take measures, it could lead to a still more serious pubic health problem within three to five years, medical experts warned. [ChinaDaily]

So where does the Chinese government now stand with regards to eugenics?

Also interesting are some Chinese geneticists’ views on the issues related to eugenics:

> Most believed that partners should know each other’s genetic status before marriage (92%), that carriers of the same defective gene should not mate with each other (91%), and that women should have a prenatal diagnosis if medically indicated (91%). The majority said that in China decisions about family planning were shared by the couple (82%).

You might be surprised that I’m writing about such a “political” topic. Actually, I’m not. I’m writing about a question of ethics, which is also related to a lot of the futurism discussions I’ve been reading a lot about lately.

Also, according to the prominent Chinese view, it would appear that if my Chinese wife and I have children, we’ll be engaging in a form of “personal eugenics,” since around here everyone knows that 混血儿 (“mixed blood children”) are “better looking” and “smarter” than most people. Hmmm.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Smarter? Really?
    You know I don’t think I’ve ever heard the “smarter” argument before, though I’ve heard the better looking one a few times.
    And how DO you feel about this, really? I’m kinda curious. It’s a pretty neutral post…

  2. hummm your “hummm”.
    I have only heard the “better looking” one, hummm.

  3. I’ve seen some not-so-handsome hun xue ers in my time.

  4. The superiority of the so called ”mixed blood children”is a typical 19 century american topic. It’s real for animals but for humans there is no such different species.
    Is blood of a white american different from a black american, a latino american or a asian american ?
    Is there a superieur blood quality and inferieur blood quality ?
    In fact, the human reproduction is like crossing a black Border Collie with a black and white Border Collie not a Chihuahua or a Great Dane with a Border Collie.

  5. This reminds me of some of the stuff you hear in regards to the single-child policy — 少生优生 and the like. (Also, the constant reference to the low 素质 of 农民, which I find not only creepy and distasteful, but also very difficult to translate into anything resembling idiomatic English.)

    kmk – I don’t think John was suggesting that he believes that biracial children are at some kind of advantage so much as he was pointing out that the idea’s pretty common here, as 混血儿 are considered to be more attractive, intelligent, etc. than their peers. (I remember once hearing someone refer to 混血儿 as 改粮, i.e. “improved stock.”)

  6. I don’t think the state being involved is the same issue. On the one hand, you have eugenics. Should downs syndrome babies be aborted? That’s one ethical question. Should girls? Gays? What about genetic testing and the future ability to alter DNA? Whether it’s the individual or the state, it’s the same action.

    As for state compulsion, that’s a whole separate issue. You could pick many topics, from smoking, obesity, etc.

    In a country like China that accepts far more state interference than the United States, the second question is already settled. An interesting question is, would China be better able to enforce laws to protect the unborn, for instance laws against aborting girls, whereas the United States would actually allow more socially harmful changes because of individual choice (separate out the one child policy)? Just because people haven’t made sex selection abortions before doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. There are cases of deaf people, for instance, wanting the embryos that have deafness to be implanted during IVF. I’m sure China would not allow people to choose for deafness.

    Of course, I think the unborn child also has rights, so I answer both questions from a different point of view. But it is a very interesting topic.

  7. Here’s hoping that your children have: Your analytic mind; Your wife’s keen wit; Your poofy hair (boy children at least); Your wife’s brilliant smile; Your intensity; Your wife’s sophistication…

    I am expecting great things from you two.

    恭喜恭喜你個頭兒

  8. China has a very interesting situation here. I don’t think eugeneics should be stripped of its historical and social baggage, though. Eugenics mainly calls to mind one group: the Nazis.

  9. kmk – “race” may be just a set of arbitrarily assigned definitions, but each one of us is still different when it comes to genes – and groups can still be recognized. I’m a caucasian. My wife, too. A kid would have a greatly reduced risk of sickle-cell anemia. My wife is of European Jewish descent. I’m not. Our child probably wouldn’t have Tay-Sachs. Increased risk of CF.

    Blood isn’t superior or inferior. But genes make a difference. And that “mixed blood” factor does, too.

    There’s actually MORE danger in crossing a border collie with another border collie than there would be crossing a chihuahua with a border collie. Right?

    I don’t know about you, but dalmatians make me uncomfortable. Either they’re deaf, blind or jumpy.

    “the superiority of mixed blood children is a typical 19th century american topic. It’s real for animals but for humans there is no such different species.”
    – If there were such a different species, we wouldn’t be able to breed viable offspring with them, anyway. Too bad. Lord knows I’ve tried.

    “Here is a monkey with four asses!”

    John – the Transhumanists are just Futurists in the computer age, without the sexy Italian accent or the bad architecture. Stay away.

  10. It’s not only “around [China] everyone knows that” mixed blood has an advantage. It’s well established – if not generally known – science. The effect is called ‘heterosis’ and I personally learned about it when studying agricultural science and more specifically animal husbandry at my alma mater (yeah, in Belgium you can study agriculture in college). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heterosis.

    It’s actually more a rule of thumb than a ‘natural law’. Generally speaking there is an ‘optimum’ genetic difference between the lines being crossed beyond which you encounter some kind of ‘outbreeding depression’. Typically the first trait to suffer is fertility, mules being a good example: stronger, healthier, longer-lived but almost totally infertile. This is however not at all an issue in humans, who are as a species uncommonly genetically uniform (chimpanzees for instance are much more genetically diverse between races while still absolutely a single species which is not the case for horses and donkeys – the parent species of mules).

    Keep it in mind when watching the next Olympic Games. I personally guarantee a disproportionate number of gold medals will go to people of mixed race – as was the case in all games past and innumerable other sports events.

    For the record: I absolutely adore my four-month son even if his mother is 100 percent Flemish like me 😉

  11. I think the 混血儿 get a positive reputation is largely because they’re a 20th century novelty – mixed race couples became much more common in the last few decades, and thus 混血儿 have as well. People naturally take notice of what is fresh and new, and racial categories are no different.

  12. Brendan: perhaps the only way to translate “low suzhi/素质” into English without sounding like you’re from the 18th century (or an expat ranting about “uncivilized” Chinese) would be “low level of education”. Although the idea of partitioning up a society in this way seems distasteful to those of us from a Western background, I have to say that after having lived a rural area, I think the concept of “low suzhi” is real and valid. And it definitely has a lot to do with education…nothing to do with the content that’s in textbooks, but everything to do with broadening the mind, school culture, new role models, etc.

  13. Hello. I have a question for John, since you mentioned having “children”. Will you and your wife be subject to the “one child” policy, if you continue to live in China? I guess this question just popped into my mind because I remember reading somewhere that you are Catholic. I know this is a very personal question, hope you don’t mind my asking!

  14. the one child policy doesnt really exist anymore.most chinese i know have siblings. In the country side they even have big families. Its extreamities were always overexaggerated, thanks BBC.

  15. Todd said:

    Brendan: perhaps the only way to translate “low suzhi/素质” into English… would be “low level of education”.

    I think that’s a good, correct and fair way to translate it. It’s something that can be improved through education and effort on one’s own part. There was that news story a year ago about a village government in Jiangnan that was giving cash and housing prizes to residents who could attract degreed spouses, graded by the bachelors, masters, and phd, the goal being to improve the town’s 素质. The problem is that 素质 in a lot of Chinese people’s minds gets morphed into a genetic quality, and in the story above the goal was seen as improving the town’s genetic stock; remember, they were attracting spouses, not independent 人才.

    heilong said:

    the one child policy doesnt really exist anymore.

    That’s a bold generalization. It exists in places where it’s enforced, usually in big cities and more strict government danwei.

    And the answer to the above question — as ephemeral and hearsay-based as this answer is — is that it depends on the nationality that John chooses for his children. Chinese? One child. US? No limit. Of course there will be exceptions… “I knew a guy in Shandong…”, “My friend in Chongqing…”, etc. But as I understand it, the above is how the law is interpreted (and for the most part enforced) in Shanghai. I’ll ask next time I’m at the visa office or maternity hospital.

    Of course, it’s not an easy decision: while Americans can travel between the US and China more coveniently, go to US colleges with less hassle, and have connections to a more affluent society, Chinese citizens living in China don’t need to worry about visas, have access to “free”/”cheap” education in public schools, can participate in Chinese social security and government medical insurance programs, and have a bigger stake in China’s potential future prosperity. There’s pros and cons, and everybody has to consider the decision within their own personal, economic and familial context.

  16. Thx for the interesting response to my question, Micah. Here in Singapore, boys who acquire “Permanent Resident” (“PR”) status through birth are liable for universal military service, just like citizens. To get out of military service, they have to renounce their PR before they are 16, the age at which the liability kicks in. The catch is that if they do so, any future applications — under their own steam — for PR, Employment Passes, Students Passes, Work Permits, or even a normal tourist visa — will probably be rejected. They will never be able to live and work here again. Sounds outlandish, but I’ve heard of PRs insisting that their sons complete military service here so that their future travel in and out of Singapore (which is a travel hub, after all, hard to avoid if the son works for a MNC one day) will never be a problem. I don’t imagine that John Junior will have to face this kind of situation, though! Happy weekend, all — Auntie

  17. Oh, I forgot to mention: The “silver lining” (if there ever can be one for two years of compulsory full-time military service, followed by 18 years of annual reservist training, Swiss-style) of electing to retain PR status is that the sons would be eligible for the very generous government scholarships offered to PRs and citizens, to places like uPenn, Beida, and Oxford. It’s not for everyone, but some people to chose it…

  18. “heilong said: the one child policy doesnt really exist anymore.

    That’s a bold generalization. It exists in places where it’s enforced, usually in big cities and more strict government danwei. “

    I stand by my statment. My wifes family (uncles) are all big city people and have at least 2 children. Most of my friends also have a sister or brother. The one child policy is more a mind set than a strict government enforced law, If asked most chinese would usually say they only want one child. But chinese people would never be manhandled to the hospital and forced to have an abortion, no way. The only negitive side to having more than one child here is that there are certain penalties in place, you get less aid from goverment bodys and must pay more for certain privileges. Talk to some chinese people who are not FLG and you will get a clearer picture.

  19. This explains why my wife is always asking me troubling questions about what we’ll do if we have a genetically defective fetus. It also explains why she is so keen to go to the hospital to have medical tests done related to our ability to reproduce before we start preparing to have a baby. I’d probably have similar conversations if my wife was American, but I doubt they would be in as much earnest as they are when it comes to my wife.

  20. Mel,

    And how DO you feel about this, really? I’m kinda curious. It’s a pretty neutral post…

    I’m against the second “philosophical tendency” (governemnt-sponsored eugenics programs), but I do think that further human evolution (improvement upon “human hereditary stock”) is inevitable, given enough time and the accompanying technological advances.

  21. JR,

    I’ve seen some not-so-handsome hun xue ers in my time.

    Ditto that!

  22. LD,

    Here’s hoping that your children have: Your analytic mind; Your wife’s keen wit; Your poofy hair (boy children at least); Your wife’s brilliant smile; Your intensity; Your wife’s sophistication…

    I am expecting great things from you two.

    Ha ha, thanks.

  23. Josh,

    John – the Transhumanists are just Futurists in the computer age, without the sexy Italian accent or the bad architecture. Stay away.

    You make it sound like I’m joining a cult or something. They’re speculating about the future based on current technological trends, and it makes for extremely interesting reading. I have no intention of staying away…

  24. Auntie,

    Hello. I have a question for John, since you mentioned having “children”. Will you and your wife be subject to the “one child” policy, if you continue to live in China? I guess this question just popped into my mind because I remember reading somewhere that you are Catholic. I know this is a very personal question, hope you don’t mind my asking!

    Micah should know better than me, but I was under the impression that the rule didn’t apply to foreigners, perhaps because there are few enough of us having babies here that it wasn’t worth the possible human rights outcry.

    Micah, do let me know what you find out when you ask. It seems wrong to apply the policy to the children and not to the parents. It’s the parents that are supposed to be having only one child, right?? If the way you understand it is correct, does that mean we could have one child with Chinese citizenship, and then any others could have American citizenship and be fine? That seems a little wacky…

  25. Most of my friends also have a sister or brother. The one child policy is more a mind set than a strict government enforced law, If asked most chinese would usually say they only want one child.

    My anecdotal evidence contradicts your anecdotal evidence.

    Most of my friends have a lot of cousins (and some friends) that they call brothers and sisters. I don’t have any Chinese friends between the ages of 20 and 30 who have real brothers or sisters. Several people have told me that they would like to have more kids, but are limited to one by the government.

    In a rare example of a Chinese person recognizing irony, a taxi driver put it this way: “Americans don’t care about family at all, but they can have as many kids as they want. We Chinese are very family-oriented, but can only have one child.”

  26. Sorry, John. I was just kidding.

    I tried to end that last message with a smiley face – so you’d know that it was just a joke (admittedly a pretty bad one), but the Bluetooth-ready, emoticon generating microchip I have embedded in my cheek muscles seems to be on the fritz.

    🙂

  27. My girlfriend is Chinese and I am Jewish, so according to word on the street, not only will our children be “better looking” and “smarter,” than average, but they will be “wealthier” and “better at business” than John and his wife’s offspring.

  28. Todd/Micah — The problem is that 素质 also means something like “moral fibre” at times, and I think that people are also taking that into account, so 素质底 can vary in meaning depending on the context. I can’t really remember how I translated it in the past, but I suspect I tried to go for something a bit more palatable. As for the necessity of education — hey, no argument here. But I think there’s a difference between suzhi and sophistication – to be sure, I’ve seen plenty of educated, privileged haigui who had no suzhi at all.

  29. Brad,

    My anecdotal evidence is in agreement with yours.

  30. Josh,

    Oops. Now that you tell me you were kidding, it seems totally obvious…

    Ah well. It’s not the first time that tone was misunderstood on the internet… 🙂

  31. Ben Ross,

    Ah, but mine will also be 1/4 Irish and thus good drinkers! (Maybe.)

  32. “…around here everyone knows that 混血儿 (”mixed blood children”) are “better looking” and “smarter” than most people.”

    I’m surprised at the open mindedness of the Chinese! 😀

    So this attitude is extended to children who are 1/2 Black and 1/2 Chinese as well?

  33. “…it could lead to a still more serious pubic health problem within three to five years”…

    he he

  34. Alex,

    Ha! Never noticed that. I just copied and pasted, though… maybe I should add a [sic] in there…

  35. Just saying “everybody knows” or “it’s a rule of thumb” doesn’t make it a fact. There’s also cultural factors to mixing that are quite negative and confusing to people’s identity and sense of history. I’ve brought the idea of mixing to my students here, and still a greater portion of them are against it. Those that are for it even include women who would like to mix, but not allow a foreigner (which is defined by race) to play the father role.

    Ashkenazi Jews extremely successful, and they vehemently oppose mixing. But all non-Jews are supposed to mix and not be “racist”. I think all us goys should consider: if we don’t preserve races, then there will be no diversity. Everyone will be brown and have very little unique culture. Our own race will fall into the dustbin of history. Is that what people really want?

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