China is looking to extend its growing economic reach and match its forays into space and cyberspace with a bid to become a global power in bio-engineering. Economic planners, biologists, botanists and even farmers are joining the long march into this brave new world, and Beijing is pouring resources in pursuit of that goal. "In terms of public expenditures on agricultural biotechnology, China is almost the largest in the world," says Professor Scott Rozelle, an expert on agriculture at the University of California, who has extensively studied and written about Chinese breakthroughs in this field.
Rozelle adds that a survey he and two Chinese counterparts conducted of China's leading genetics labs showed that, "China is developing the largest plant biotechnology capacity outside of North America."
China is already working on plans to use cloning to save its endangered pandas, though so far it has not reached its goal of successfully cloning one of these increasingly rare animals. Scientists are also experimenting with gene-splicing techniques on everything from vegetables to cows and goats to produce medical advances that could directly benefit man.
One of the strongest backers of a bioengineered future for China, Professor Chen Zhangliang, told reporters at the Chineselanguage journal Knowledge Economy that, "the cloning technology that produced Dolly [the sheep] will have a big effect on the livestock and dairy industry." The US-educated Chen, a member of China's National People's Congress who now heads the University of Agriculture in Beijing, adds that many laboratories in China are now working on this technology, "which could be used, for example, to genetically modify cows to produce medicines in their milk". Chen also said that Chinese biologists are trying to alter the blood of farm animals for use in human transfusions, and to create transgenic organs for cross-species transplants. A report issued by Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade states that a joint Sino-Danish study of such 'xeno-transplants' followed earlier experiments with genetically modifying potatoes to protect people from the hepatitis B virus. Tens of millions of Chinese are infected with the virus, so China's State Drug Administration has quickly approved phase-one human testing of the new potatoproduced bio-pharmaceutical product, which acts as a vaccine against hepatitis B, the Canadian government added.
The foreign affairs department report, issued in Ottawa, said "biotechnology has been targeted as one of the six key industrial technologies intended to fuel growth in [China's] economy."
During Beijing's gene-tech push over the last decade, bio engineering parks have sprouted up around major Chinese cities. The newest bio-pharmaceutical park, being built on the outskirts of Beijing, is slated to become China's biggest over the next decade, and is expected to record sales of about US$1.25bn within five years, Xinhua recently reported.
Beijing's strong backing for genetic experimentation, and a tightly controlled government press, has resulted in only minimal public opposition to what some in the West describe as 'Frankenfoods'. While China has signed the international Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which mandates testing and labelling of genetically modified (GM) foods, there have been only weak and sporadic attempts to enforce those rules.
Opportunity to close the gap
Some Chinese officials have whispered fears that an expansion of GM plantations could hurt food exports. But the University of Agriculture's Chen says that the burning of GM fields and other anti-biotech protests staged in the West, which have prompted a slowdown in the commercialisation of genealtered foods, are presenting China with a golden opportunity to close the gap with the leaders in this area.
Chen, who is also vice chairman of the China Biotechnology Association, says that Greenpeace-directed demonstrations in the West, along with the EU's four-year ban on GM imports, are crippling biotech advances abroad. "We can take advantage of the European Union's four-year ban to turn China into a world power in genetically modified organisms," he explains.
In contrast with the public and political constraints on biotech experimentation in Europe and the US, China's state support for the sector could ultimately help Chinese researchers pull ahead of their American counterparts in the areas of GM crops and embryonic stem cell research, says Nathan Zhang, founder of Chinese biopharmaceutical start-up Chipscreen Biosciences.
Zhang obtained a PhD in pharmacology from the University of Pennsylvania before returning to China three years ago to set up bio-drug and bio-informatics concern Chipscreen. "In the US, when we talk about biotech, there are a lot of ethics and sociology behind it," he says. But back in China, government leaders are much more likely to see fields of genetic gold.
Yet many Chinese geneticists and would be bio-entrepreneurs say that the state should dismantle the last remnants of its Soviet-style controls on the economy, education, research and innovation to truly unleash a biotech revolution here. Wang Qinfang, an associate professor at the Biotechnology Research Institute under the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing, says that to become a bio-engineering superpower, the country should carry out "institutional reform of the science and technology system… the evaluation of research programmes should rely more on scientific committees, not government officials." She adds that researchers should be rewarded for individual innovations, and that more money should go into building modern laboratories and into improving living conditions for scientists.
Accelerating investment in research
Despite those drawbacks, Wang says China has made impressive strides in the field of agricultural biotechnology over the last several years. Wang, who with Scott Rozelle co-authored a study on plant biotechnology in China that was published in the prestigious Science journal, says that while private funding for biotech ventures seems to be shrinking in the West, the Chinese government "is accelerating its investments in agricultural biotechnology research and is focusing on commodities that have been mostly ignored in the laboratories of industrialised countries."
Wang goes on to say that research here has been aimed in part on developing disease- or pest-resistant crops, or those adaptable to varying climates, for family-scale farms across the country. She says that "small farmers in China have begun to aggressively adopt GM crops when permitted to do so."
Wang and Rozelle's survey of China's laboratories identified "over 50 plant species and more than 120 functional genes that scientists are using in plant genetic engineering, making China a global leader in the field." And although the state has dominated funding for gene-tech research so far in China, as well as dictated its overall direction, a small but growing number of venture capitalists are beginning to invest in its emerging biofuture.
Lee Zhang, a Harvard-educated entrepreneur who raised US$1m to help found a Chinese dotcom in 1999 and sold it to the US-based Mail.com for US$67m a year later, recently left his post as chief executive of the Beijing-based web firm to join the country's nascent genetics revolution. Zhang recently paid US$2m to take over a gene-tech start-up formed with the Gene Research Centre under Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University. He plans to guide the center's geneticists from the university's labs to the global pharmaceuticals market, and that he expects to really become even richer in the process. Zhang says that, as the internet revolution fades into history, "we are living on the eve of the age of biotechnology." Ultimately, he wants to help China attain its goal of becoming a global biotech leader.