Published online by Cambridge University Press: 18 December 2021
Public opinion about Dr. He's experiment was still forming as I wrapped up brunch with Helen O’Neill and headed to mainland China. Some social media influencers were repeating Beijing's initial message: that Jiankui He had achieved what others only imagined, outpacing the international competition, bringing glory to the nation. “Pioneers will always be the target of an attack,” in the words of one viral post. Another said: “New things will always be questioned and criticized.” But many others saw the experiment as a national disgrace: “This is unfortunate for the children, it is unfortunate for China, and it is unfortunate for mankind.” A reckoning was coming: the values animating the biotechnology innovation economy and the profit-driven health care industry were headed for a collision with the old guard of the Communist Party.
Dr. He designed the world's first CRISPR babies just across the border from Hong Kong, in Shenzhen—a futuristic city known for speed and innovation. Just a week earlier, the young scientist had been at the peak of his power, with support from major investors, hospital administrators, established scientists, university leaders, and even government officials. As controversy reverberated out from the summit, his allies and supporters issued public statements, trying to distance themselves.
I was traveling to Shenzhen late on a Sunday afternoon, and there were long lines at the Futian Checkpoint, as throngs of people returned home after spending the weekend shopping or visiting family and friends in Hong Kong. In mainland China people were going about everyday life—walking dogs in parks, eating in cafes, making social media posts about Lulu and Nana but quickly moving on to other concerns. Before crossing the border, I had set up a burner phone with a virtual private network (VPN), giving me an electronic tunnel under the Great Firewall of China. Without it, the apps animating my life—Gmail, Facebook Messenger, and Google—would fail to load. Not wanting to get embroiled in controversy myself, I was tiptoeing around the edges of the scandal, slowly learning about the cultural and historical forces that enabled Dr. He's sudden emergence into the global spotlight.