OMG evil Chinese eugenics!!!

November 2013

This Edge article has recently been making the rounds. I don’t have a particular opinion about its topic–China’s “eugenics” program–but I do take serious issue with its logic and coherence, or lack thereof.

For generations, Chinese intellectuals have emphasized close ties between the state (guojia), the nation (minzu), the population (renkou), the Han race (zhongzu), and, more recently, the Chinese gene-pool (jiyinku). Traditional Chinese medicine focused on preventing birth defects, promoting maternal health and “fetal education” (taijiao) during pregnancy, and nourishing the father’s semen (yangjing) and mother’s blood (pingxue) to produce bright, healthy babies (see Frank Dikötter’s book Imperfect Conceptions). Many scientists and reformers… worried about racial extinction (miezhong) and “the science of deformed fetuses” (jitaixue), and saw eugenics as a way to restore China’s rightful place as the world’s leading civilization after a century of humiliation by European colonialism.

Now, maybe it’s the case that these terms have no close analogue in English, and that’s why Miller feels the need to include the Chinese translation. But since he barges on with simple English synonyms anyway, that seems unlikely. More plausible is that, consciously or unconsciously, he’s playing on his readers’ xenophobic prejudices, using non-English words to emphasize how foreign those evil Chinese are.

[Deng Xiaoping] liberalized markets, but implemented the one-child policy–partly to curtail China’s population explosion, but also to reduce dysgenic fertility among rural peasants. Throughout the 1980s, Chinese propaganda urges couples to have children “later, longer, fewer, better”–at a later age, with a longer interval between birth, resulting in fewer children of higher quality.

Sure, maybe it was eugenics driving the one-child policy, or maybe it was an attempt to drive a demographic transition. It’s standard sociology that such a transition is an important step in industrialization. There’s really no need to invoke images of cackling elitist scientists to explain why a demographic transition is a good idea.

Deng also encouraged assortative mating through promoting urbanization and higher education…

Or maybe… Deng realized that this urbanization and higher ed are good ways to go from a nation of starving subsistence farmers to a nation of competent productive people? Nah, must have been eugenics.

There is unusually close cooperation in China between government, academia, medicine, education, media, parents, and consumerism in promoting a utopian Han ethno-state.

This is some serious abuse of connotations. If there are any actually racist memes informing Chinese population policy, the author hasn’t mentioned them. (Minorities are exempted from the one-child policy, for crying out loud!) If there are any utopian memes in the sense in which the author obviously means it–i.e. “if we achieve eugenics everything will be awesome forever” rather than “if we achieve eugenics our population will be happier, healthier, and better able to optimize for difficult goals in complex environments”, the author has completely omitted them.

The BGI Cognitive Genomics Project is currently doing whole-genome sequencing of 1,000 very-high-IQ people around the world, hunting for sets of sets of IQ-predicting alleles. I know because I recently contributed my DNA to the project, not fully understanding the implications. These IQ gene-sets will be found eventually–but will probably be used mostly in China, for China.

Sure, except their core team is like 66% American and 16% Dutch, and their advisors are 80% US, 20% UK, and they get funding from the NIH and stuff. The results will be there for us to use if we want.

So this method of “preimplantation embryo selection” might allow IQ within every Chinese family to increase by 5 to 15 IQ points per generation. After a couple of generations, it would be game over for Western global competitiveness.

Why do we care about Western global competitiveness? Jingoism? I care about people who live good lives. If China outcompetes America because they’ve figured out how to have a much healthier, happier and smarter population, while we’re all comparatively dull, depressed and saddled with birth defects, I question whether this is a losing scenario for humans.

Given what I understand of evolutionary behavior genetics, I expect–and hope–that they will succeed. The welfare and happiness of the world’s most populous country depends upon it.

This is completely inconsistent with the fearmongering tone of the rest of the article. Given the author’s many implicit appeals to political correctness, it’s pretty clear whose side he’s on.1 This aside sounds more like he’s trying to cover his rear to me.

A more mature response would be based on mutual civilizational respect, asking–what can we learn from what the Chinese are doing, how can we help them, and how can they help us to keep up as they create their brave new world?

It’s really not kosher to sneak in accusations of totalitarian dystopia a la Huxley, in the last sentence of your article, without even treating it as a point that needs support. Is there some reason that people assume that every attempt at improving genetic stock is a terrible idea that will lead to Huxley-style catastrophe without providing justification (that I’ve seen)? I mean, I think it’s plausible that that’s true, but people seem to assume it as a background fact in these types of discussions.

Can anyone point me to an actually good version of these arguments? I feel like there must be better cases out there, but I keep seeing stuff like this pop up with confused and sneaky rhetoric instead of actual points.


  1. Then again, perhaps he’s not actually that into political correctness, since he was recently censured by UNM for lying about fat-shaming tweets he made. Maybe he really doesn’t think that anything vaguely resembling eugenics is evil, but in that case I’m pretty confused about the slimy rhetoric in the rest of the article. 


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Lucy Chen

This dude clearly has no understanding of Chinese culture and values whatsoever. His article sounds like he’s parroting ideas from a fear-mongering talk about “Chinese eugenics” that he had heard earlier. But the fact of the matter is that almost all articles in Western media show blatant lack of understanding or respect for Chinese anything, and are incredibly biased against China. So while it’s sad that such a measly excuse of an article is making the rounds, I’m not surprised at all.

In response to the parenthetical inclusion of the romanized Chinese terms–it’s true that the terms do not translate over well to English; I for one have a much better understanding of about which ideas he is talking because of that inclusion, but for the average reader, the inclusion only serves to heighten the “foreign” nature of these Chinese terms and is entirely a play of xenophobic fears and prejudices. Again, sad but unsurprising.

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Wang

Agree with Lucy’s comment that giving the Chinese terms does add something. The distinction between state and nation is not clear in English, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to guess that “nourishing the father’s semen” meant yangjing. The only exception I see is “the Han race.” That’s pretty specific. I think the English equivalents he provides are more hand-wavy than you think. Sort of like saying “how algorithms scale” instead of “asymptotics,” to give a CS equivalent.

I also think you may be ascribing a little too much intent to the population control. The one family one child policy was preceded by a period where women were hailed as heroes of the nation for bearing five or more children. When my parents talk about the reversal in policy, their version goes more like, somebody finally grok’ed exponential growth and then they realized they had to shut that down. (But then again, people are famously bad at explaining their own societies, so you should take my parents’ story with a grain of salt.)

Good points otherwise, though.

(Also, yay, you got the comment box to work in Edit in Emacs!)

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Nat

Yeah, my relatively uninformed impression at the time was that the “one-child” policy was intended to avoid continued cycles of famine rather than either racial perfectionism or “trying to induce a demographic transition.”

On the other hand, if you’re trying to sell a highly unpopular policy, the idea that by having fewer kids you could have “better” kids might be appealing. So it’s entirely conceivable to me that any eugenic implications might have been a marketing ploy.

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Ben

Hmm, okay, seems like I was being a bit uncharitable with the Chinese terms.

About the one-child policy–thanks for correcting me, I probably should have looked that up before posting. (Ironically, this actually illustrates my main point, that Miller is also ascribing too much intent to the population control, and I can tell unsubstantiated just-so stories just as well as he can…)

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Eric

Nice post Ben. This kind of ‘China-bashing’ is far too popular in US media these days. I think you put more thought into your response than the author put into the original work. I’m disappointed that this kind of article could be published on Edge.

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