Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) China has refused to sign the United Nations declaration calling for a ban on all human cloning. This, according to Wang Yanguang, a bio-ethics analyst from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Philosophy, is due to consensus that has emerged in the country that stem cells could be used to assist patients or enhance medical treatment. "In Chinese culture, a life starts the minute a foetus is born, so from a Chinese ethical perspective, tests on human cells are OK," she said.
However, far from being old this attitude represents a break with the past and is the result of government policy
Traditionally, Chinese babies were said to live in their mothers' wombs. The nine month gestation period was in fact considered as the first year of life. But the destruction of traditional culture and a brutal population control policy explain the change in attitude.
Aborting a three-month-old foetus is not only legal and widely applied to enforce the one-child policy, but to a scientist like Ms Wang and to many ordinary Chinese citizens the use of cells taken from an aborted embryo is acceptable if it is going to keep someone alive.
For Duan Enkui, of the Chinese Academy of Science's Institute of Zoology, the UN "political statement wants to protect human dignity and life, but that's what we are trying to achieve through our work".
The UN legal committee received this statement on Friday, February 18. It urges governments to prohibit all forms of human cloningincluding techniques used in research on human embryonic stem cells. China and another 34 countries, including Japan, Great Britain and Singapore, voted against it. Another 71, including the US, Germany and Brazil, voted in favour.
Beijing contends that it will conduct research on cloning for therapeutic purposes, not for cloning itself. For this purpose it has set up some 30 scientific bodies where research on cloning and genetics is carried out. Most of them receive funding from the government's National High Technology Research and Development Programme, also known as the 863 programmewhich was launched in 1986.
By 2001, more than 20,000 researchers and administrative staff from more than 3,000 research institutions, universities and enterprises across the country were involved in this programme.
That year, China's research and development budget was a whopping US$ 60 billion, with three-fifths coming from foreign and domestic firms and the rest from the government.
In early 2004, the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Health came out in support of human embryonic stem cell research for therapeutic purposes and have pledged additional funding.
The quality of research in China has so far impressed the international scientific community. Last year, a team of stem cell scientists dispatched by the British government's Trade and Industry Department as well as scientists from Singapore and South Korea visited some Chinese research facilities and liked what they saw.
They are not the only ones. Multinational corporations have been keen to set up research centres in China due to its favourable regulatory environment and its large and more affordable pool of scientists and engineers.
Beijing acknowledges a more active role for United Nations but sets no timetable for reforms. Activitsts hope for greater interest in human right violations.