One of the central foci of the work of BIOS concerned the development of biomedical research and biotechnology in China, in particular at a moment of rapid growth of research and development in reproductive technologies, stem cell technologies, biobanking and as a locus for the conduct of clinical trials by non-Chinese researchers. My own interest in this work turned from a longstanding interest in the development of science and technology and China to active collaborative research with Chinese and European colleagues almost as a matter of chance. When I moved from Goldsmiths to the LSE, and was setting up BIOS, I met with an acquaintance of mine, Professor Athar Hussain, a formidable international economise now working on China. Athar, who had become a fluent speaker in Mandarin, persuaded me to visit China, obtained a British Council grant and accompanied me on my first visit, and helped organized my visits to various in Changsha – officially the Institute of Human Reproduction and Stem Cell Engineering and the National Center for Human Stem Cell Research & Engineering directed by Professor LU Guangxiu. The work of this clinic had become controversial because of a rather inaccurate article in the US media about its work in reproductive technology, suggesting wrongly that it was undertaking the cloning of human embryos. This visit led to the development of excellent relations between BIOS and Professor Lu and other leading Chinese bioscience researchers, notably Dr YANG Huanming, Director of the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) which was a word leader in genetic sequencing and related technologies, and also with the leading Chinese bioethicist, Professor QIU Renzong, Professor of Bioethics, Director of Program in Bioethics, Institute of Philosophy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, China.
At this time – in the first years of the current century – there was a perception in the UK and China that when it came to this kind of biomedical research, China was ‘the Wild East’ where researchers could carry out experiments that would be unethical in other regions, with no regard for fundamental bioethical principles such as informed consent. Collaboration of non-Chinese researchers with their Chinese counterparts was thought to be fraught with ethical dilemmas. This concern led to two initiatives, and BIOS was at the heart of both of them.
The first was established and funded by the European Commission, and I took on the role of directing a 21 partner collaboration for a three year project involving multiple visits to China to visit research sites, discuss key challenges with Chinese researchers and set up interdisciplinary workshops and conferences to debate key issues – this was the project known as BIONET and full details can be found at https://bionet-china.com/ including all the workshop reports and a BIONET textbook bringing together many of the presentations and insights from the three years of the BIONET project, including the work of the BIONET exchange students. The second was a more limited project, motivated by the same concerns, and set up by the UK’s Medical Research Council known as the China – UK Research Ethics Committee or CURE led by Professor David Warrell, Emeritus Professor of Tropical Medicine at the University of Oxford and closely linked to BIONET through my membership. The Report of this Committee, and its recommendations, can be found here. From the BIOS side, much of this work was very ably supported by Ayo Walhlberg, a former BIOS research student and now Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen, and Joy Zhang, also a former BIOS research student, and now Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, both of whom have gone on to produce key work in this area. BIONET, with its variety of partners and its array of activities, not to mention the funding regime it was subject to – ably managed by our Centre Administrator Sabrina Fernandez, was undoubtedly both the most complex and demanding project I have ever been involved in, and the most rewarding, not only because of the importance of the issues we were exploring, but also because of the opportunity to work on issues of governance with Professor Herbert Gottweiss, of the University of Vienna, who sadly died far too young, and to collaborate so closely with Chinese scholars and bioethicists, who were as committed as we were to ensuring the effective bioethical regulation of these emerging fields of research, but also to demonstrate that there were alterative rigorous value systems in Chinese history that could and should not only challenge some of the assumptions of Anglo-American bioethics, but also provide more effective ways of engaging with the messy realities of ethics on the ground in research and clinical practice.
The many visits to different Chinese cities and regions during CURE and BIONET, and the many discussions with Chinese colleagues – from very senior academicians to the many undergraduate and graduate students who supported us throughout – also intensified my interest in exploring the challenges faced in ‘governing China’ as it rapidly urbanised, modernised, technologist and transformed, indirectly continued in the focus on the wonderful and captivating city of Shanghai, and the millions of migrants who had come to the city from the Chinese countryside, which is explored in our work on ‘the urban brain’ discussed elsewhere on this website.