Two months ago, John Ratcliffe, the head of America’s intelligence community, revealed that the Chinese Communist Party is developing biologically enhanced soldiers.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled “China Is National Security Threat No. 1.,” Ratcliffe told readers that “resisting Beijing’s attempt to reshape and dominate the world is the challenge of our generation.”
According to Ratcliffe — who, until the inauguration of President Biden, was responsible for presenting the President’s daily top-secret intelligence brief — American intelligence assets know that “China has even conducted human testing on members of the People’s Liberation Army in hope of developing soldiers with biologically enhanced capabilities.”
“The intelligence is clear: Beijing intends to dominate the U.S. and the rest of the planet economically, militarily and technologically,” explained Ratcliffe. “Many of China’s major public initiatives and prominent companies offer only a layer of camouflage to the activities of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Ratcliffe detailed the Chinese government’s “rob, replicate and replace” strategy of stealing intellectual property from American companies and universities.
“There are no ethical boundaries to Beijing’s pursuit of power,” he added.
A decade of bioethics breaches
The willingness of Chinese researchers to cross ethical lines has accelerated alongside advances in genomics and bioengineering.
One year before the publication of Ratcliffe’s op-ed — which was the first public revelation that China is augmenting military personnel — China Cyber and Intelligence Studies Institute co-founder Elsa Kania and national security consultant Wilson VornDick published a comprehensive report hinting at China’s attempts to use biotechnology for military applications.
At the time, Kania and VornDick’s report acknowledged Chinese military applications of genomics as “only a hypothetical possibility,” though they noticed definitive synergies among China’s “military, academic, and commercial” sectors.
Kania and VornDick wrote for the Jamestown Foundation that leaders within the People’s Liberation Army consider bioengineering the “new strategic commanding heights of the future Revolution in Military Affairs.”
For the past ten years, Chinese officials have repeatedly floated the potential intersection between warfare and biotechnology. Guo Jiwei — senior colonel of the PLA’s Third Military Medical University — published a book entitled “War for Biological Dominance” in 2010. Major General He Fuchu — vice president of the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences — said in 2017 that the integration of genomics, information, and cognitive domains will have “revolutionary influences upon weapons and equipment.”
The Jamestown Foundation paper added that China is an emerging leader in the use of CRISPR, an emerging gene-editing technology.
CRISPR — which stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” — was developed by an American company called CRISPR Therapeutics. The technology locates a specific gene segment and employs “molecular scissors” to splice the appropriate DNA strand. The process can “modify, delete or correct precise regions of our DNA.”
It is unclear how Chinese military officials are currently using gene-editing technology. However, the Jamestown Foundation paper highlights several well-documented Chinese research applications of CRISPR — applications that unreservedly leap over ethical lines, often to the disdain of Western scientists.
Two Chinese companies have genetically modified animals for sale as novelty pets. BGI — formerly known as Beijing Genomics Inc. — created “micro-pigs” as a byproduct of their genomics research. Karia and VornDick wrote that Beijing Xinuo Valley Biotechnology cloned dogs to be sold as pets and police assets.
In 2015, Chinese scientists used CRISPR to modify more canines, including a beagle with double the amount of typical muscle mass. Liangxue Lai — a researcher with the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health — told MIT Technology Review that the dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications.”
“Dogs are very close to humans in terms of metabolic, physiological, and anatomical characteristics,” he added.
Chinese scientists hardly skipped a beat as they applied similar experimentation to humans.
Researchers at Sun Yat-Sen University made the global scientific community uneasy after they announced the first removal of a blood disease from human embryos in 2015. The scientists used CRISPR technology on more than 80 embryos obtained from an in vitro fertilization clinic. Yangyang Cheng — a postdoctoral research associate at Cornell University — highlighted the effort in a Foreign Policy article entitled “China Will Always Be Bad at Bioethics.”
Chinese scientists have also turned their attention to gene editing techniques that boost human cognitive abilities. A team at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen recruited couples in an effort to create babies immune to HIV, smallpox, and cholera. By early 2019, the researchers succeeded in creating HIV immunity in twin girls by deleting the gene CCR5, though the leader of the initiative earned himself a short prison sentence in the process.
A few years earlier, Alcino Silva — a UCLA neurobiologist — discovered that the removal of CCR5 in mice led to enhanced intelligence. He suspected that this was the goal of the Chinese researchers all along.
“I suddenly realized — Oh, holy shit, they are really serious about this bullshit,” said Dr. Silva when he heard about the twins’ birth. “My reaction was visceral repulsion and sadness.”
An uncertain impact
Though foreign policy experts are by no means surprised that China is experimenting with genomics’ military applications, the extent to which they will meaningfully alter the future of global conflict is still unclear.
Ivan Eland, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and director of its Center on Peace and Liberty, certainly maintains this sentiment.
“The project does seem like something the Chinese communists would undertake, but I am skeptical of its decisive impact on the battlefield,” he explained to The Daily Wire.
Likewise, Bryan Clark — director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Defense Concepts and Technology — suspects that gene editing will have a limited impact on warfare in the short run.
“The U.S. government funds research that involves CRISPR and other genetic therapies, but experimentation is limited to animals or medical use treating specific illnesses in humans,” Clark told The Daily Wire. Though the United States government has explored the use of other biotechnology such as drugs and supplements to enhance human performance, “gene editing by itself… will have a limited ability to improve performance at least in the near-term.”
“Most human characteristics result from the impact of multiple genes, and often the genes involved and their interrelationships are not well understood,” he added. “Epigenetic factors such as environment or developmental influences during childhood are also important drivers of human performance.”
Clark sees a greater potential for the use of machine interfaces in enhancing performance on the battlefield.
“This is probably the area from which performance advancements are most likely to emerge, since the operation of the human side of the technology is better understood compared to genetics,” he said.
According to Eland, China’s efforts to harness biotechnology could nevertheless “cause other authoritarian countries to experiment with it too.”
Clark agrees, noting that CRISPR and other gene editing technologies “are widely understood and accessible,” thereby presenting “a lower barrier to entry than machine interfaces.” Still, CRISPR presents “more risk of unintended consequences and is less likely to produce useful results in terms of performance enhancement.”
Accounting for all factors, both experts predict that the United States can compete with China while staying within the bounds of bioethical norms.
“The U.S. should not engage in a symmetric competition with China in human genetic experimentation,” said Clark. “Setting common ethical standards and rules is important, which the U.S. works to establish globally.”
Given America’s present military dominance, Eland also believes that the United States has no need to breach bioethical standards to counter the Chinese threat.
“The United States has been so dominant in cumulative military spending over the decades compared to China and every other known great power that we have so many other battlefield advantages,” he said. “We are the most powerful military in world history, both absolutely and relative to other nations.”
Indeed, the United States spent $732 billion on its military in 2019 — nearly three times more than China’s $261 billion.
President Biden and his intelligence team have not issued a statement about the information revealed by Ratcliffe’s op-ed. The BBC asked Avril Haines — a former CIA deputy director and President Biden’s new Director of National Intelligence — if she shares the assessment of her predecessor with respect to China’s genetic augmentation of soldiers. Her office told the outlet that she has not yet commented.
Haines told members of the United States Senate during her confirmation hearing that an “aggressive” strategy toward China is necessary.
“Our approach to China has to evolve and essentially meet the reality of the particularly assertive and aggressive China that we see today,” she said. “I do support an aggressive stance, in a sense, to deal with the challenge that we are facing.”
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.