This project examines the social and political setting in which human germline genome editing (GGE) trials using CRISPR/Cas9 have become possible in China within the last decade. It argues that despite its versatile usage for almost infinite possibilities (e.g., the “enhancement” of plants or livestock), CRISPR/Cas9 would eventually advance as a powerful tool to respond to a problem of (bio-)political significance: the increasing number of genetically-caused birth defects (BD). These are deemed, according to official parlance, an impairment of “population quality” (renkou suzhi, 人口素质). The problematization of BD, however, dates back to the late 1970s. In the course of the Four Modernizations, Chinese officials introduced various schemes to steer and “engineer” the Chinese population in terms of its quantity as well as its quality, ultimately to modernize the country. In this context, and as a result, the concept of “superior birth and rearing” (yousheng youyu, 优生优育) serves as a critical discursive mechanism to prevent the transmission of “genetic diseases,” e.g., through in-vitro fertilization, genetic counseling, and prenatal genetic diagnosis.
As this project argues, GGE using CRISPR/Cas9 is only the most recent—albeit arguably the most sophisticated—attempt to “improve population quality” based on a whole series of assisted reproductive technologies. To investigate the relationship between state (i.e., national) interests and sciences in China, and how and why the concept of “population quality” informs Chinese research and development strategies, this project will analyze Science & Technology in China: A Roadmap to 2050 by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Five-Year Plan.