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Richard Weikart

Brave New China

Is eugenics—the movement for improving human characteristics by controlling heredity—reviving? No more than two decades ago, such a revival would have seemed extremely improbable. Eugenics was almost universally condemned as a horrifying example of science run amok, conjuring up grotesque images of Nazi death camps and "euthanasia" centers, where German physicians murdered millions in an attempt to fulfill Hitler's dreams of a racially pure breed of Germans, free from genetic "defects."

Other factors had also contributed to the decline of eugenics in the mid-twentieth century. By the 1960s, the social sciences and psychology had for the most part rejected biological determinism, which exerted a powerful hold on many intellectuals in the early twentieth century. Social scientists in the 1960s placed far greater emphasis on the power of the environment to shape individuals and their character. The civil-rights campaign and the women's movement brought intense pressure against all forms of biological determinism. The new emphasis on reproductive freedom that accompanied the abortion-rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s dealt a further blow to eugenics. Progressives, who earlier in the century promoted government measures to control reproduction, were now appalled by eugenics legislation of the early twentieth century, such as compulsory sterilization of the mentally handicapped. Individual choice supplanted responsibility to society in reproductive matters.

In Imperfect Conceptions: Medical Knowledge, Birth Defects, and Eugenics in China, Frank Dikotter explains that the trajectory of eugenics in twentieth-century China has roughly paralleled developments in the rest of the world. Despite the popularity of eugenics among physicians and intellectuals in early twentieth-century China, after the success of the Communist revolution in 1949 eugenics lost official approval. Chinese Communists, like their Soviet counterparts, rejected Mendelian genetics in favor of Lysenkoism—that is, a neo-Lamarckian view of heredity holding that organisms can pass to their offspring traits acquired through environmental influences. China was thus in step with the rest of the world in rejecting eugenics in the 1960s and 1970s (though not necessarily for all the same reasons).

Despite considerable opposition, eugenics is experiencing a comeback today, and not only in China. Memories of the abuses of Nazi Germany or of compulsory sterilization in the United States and several countries of Europe are less vivid. Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have made biological determinism intellectually respectable again, despite intense op position in some circles. Finally, abortion is now seen by many as a valid way to select human traits; mentally or physically handicapped fetuses often never see the light of day. New reproductive technologies, such as in vitro fertilization and amniocentesis, have emerged in the past decades, slowly accustoming us to some forms of artificial selection of humans. The Human Genome Project is currently mapping all the genetic information contained in human DNA; the prospects for both good and ill are enormous.

To be sure, eugenics is still controversial, and many still fear the specter of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, where technocrats supervised the biological engineering of human beings, who were manufactured in assembly-line fashion to fit into their intended niche in society. Some of these fears were expressed in an issue of Time magazine (Jan. 11, 1999) featuring a discussion of recent advances in genetic technology. But other articles in that issue of Time actually promoted eugenics: Robert Wright, a popularizer of evolutionary psychology, argued that since eugenics is already a reality we cannot evade (he merely assumes this without argument), the government should subsidize eugenics for the poor to avoid social stratification that will allegedly be caused by unequal access to genetic technologies. Even more remarkable than his suggestions is his frank use of the notorious term eugenics to describe his proposals. This was still unthinkable just a decade ago.

Judging from the flood of scholarship on the history of eugenics pouring forth from academic presses over the past decade, it seems that fears of eugenics are not abating as fast as Wright would like. The history of eugenics is a cautionary tale, the contemporary relevance of which is all too apparent.

In 1995 China passed a eugenics law requiring that prospective brides and grooms have physical examinations to determine their "fitness" for procreation. If physicians deem one of the prospective marriage partners unsuitable to bear children (usually because of physical or mental disability), he or she will be encouraged to be sterilized or to abort any child that may be conceived. While compliance is technically voluntary, Dikotter is skeptical that it works out that way in practice, because the Chinese government is known for enforcing its will and suppressing dissent. Furthermore, some Chinese provinces have their own laws making sterilization compulsory for certain categories of people with physical or mental disabilities.

China's one-child policy to curb population growth also strengthens the drive for "better quality" children, and not only from government pressure. Any good parent is solicitous of his or her child's health, but it be comes even more urgent to have a perfectly healthy child if you only have one chance. Thus eugenics has become a popular concern in China, not just a government mandate. By focusing on birth defects in Chinese medical writings over the past several centuries, Dikotter helps illuminate how eugenics in the twentieth century reflects both continuities and discontinuities with Chinese medical discourse relating to the health of children in utero. Dikotter's early discussion of reproductive health takes us back to the early days of the Qing period (1644–1911) where medical manuals stressed various environmental factors, such as time of conception and moods of the mother during pregnancy, as influences on the developing child. Though Dikotter ably shows us the advice Chinese physicians gave to promote good fetal health, he constantly resorts to supposition and educated guesses when discussing the treatment of disabled children during the Qing period. Without a shred of evidence, he assumes that many if not most disabled children were discarded by their parents: "Most babies with severe birth defects were considered to be inauspicious and ill-fated, and were probably destroyed at birth." Notice the word probably, which recurs rather frequently in the first part of Dikotter's book.

Judging from what we know about infanticide in some other societies, Dikotter may not be wrong, but he admits that there is no evidence directly supporting his assumptions. Even in premodern European societies, where killing handicapped infants was not uncommon, neither authorities nor society in general condoned infanticide. The first Chinese statement that Dikotter could find actually articulating support of infanticide for handicapped children occurs in the secret journal of the scholar Wang Shiduo, written during the time of the Taiping Rebellion (1851–64). Wang stated in his journal, "Heaven has its material for slaughter. Among animals they are the sheep, the pigs, the chickens and the ducks; among humans they are the short and puny, ugly, mean-eyed, short-stepped, garrulous, effeminate and stupid people." Why did neither Wang nor any other Chinese scholar ever publish similar views before the twentieth century? Dikotter never draws what seems to me the obvious conclusion: The reason the Chinese did not discuss infanticide publicly is because the Chinese on the whole did not condone it but considered it immoral. Perhaps they practiced it; perhaps they didn't. But even if they did, that doesn't mean they considered it morally justifiable.

The overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911 brought a new elite into control of Chinese society who overturned traditional Confucian values. Dikotter informs us that "Republican China was characterised by an intense faith in the capacity of 'science' to dismantle 'tradition' and to achieve its opposite, dubbed 'modernity.' " Scientists and physicians, who were supposed to lead the world into a more enlightened age of progress, em braced the latest scientific theories from the West, including biological evolution, and this made them more open to eugenics. Dikotter notes that most of the Chinese scientists and physicians were neo-Lamarckians (upholding the inheritance of acquired characteristics), but they nonetheless believed that humans should practice some form of artificial selection in human reproduction to decrease the numbers of physically and mentally handicapped individuals. This neo-Lamarckian eugenics was not peculiar to China, but was also the dominant form of eugenics in France and Latin America. The eugenics mentality meshed well with more traditional Chinese notions emphasizing supremacy of the collective good of society and one's own progeny rather than the individual and his or her rights.

Though it became quite popular in medical and scientific circles in the 1920s and 1930s, eugenics did not be come institutionalized in China the way it did in the United States and Europe, where journals and societies specifically devoted to eugenics arose. By the late 1930s, however, eugenics was gaining support in Guomintang (Nationalist) government circles. The government's Ministry of Social Affairs formed a Committee for the Study of Population Policies, which in 1941 recommended segregation and sterilization to keep physically and mentally handicapped people from procreating. Dikotter believes that only the war against Japan and the civil war against the Communists prevented the Guomintang from implementing eugenics policies in the 1930s and 1940s.

After facing official disapproval during Mao's regime, eugenics has re-emerged in China in the post-Mao era. China is now the only country in the world to promote eugenics officially, both through legislation and propaganda. China currently has a Eugenics Society, and high Communist party officials hold leadership positions in it. In January 1989 a Eugenics Symposium was held in Beijing, and a national exhibition promoting eugenics, "Human Reproduction and Health," opened in 1993 in Shanghai.

The discourse of the present eugenics movement in China is hauntingly reminiscent of early twentieth-century eugenics proponents. Some Chinese eugenicists today estimate that there are 30 million "defective" individuals in China, and they continually stress the costs of supporting the physically and mentally disabled, whom they describe as burdens to society. They also relativize the value of an individual's life. Mu Guangzong, a lecturer at the Population Studies Center of the People's University, for example, argued in a 1991 article that the value of one's life is measured by one's contribution to society; he maintained therefore that "inferior" infants have no value at all. Based on this kind of reasoning, some Chinese eugenicists are advocating infanticide or abortion to rid society of disabilities. The geneticist Zhao Gongmin, a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Science, believes that infants with Down syndrome or hydrocephalus should be killed at birth. Many voices are likewise supporting abortion as a means to rid society of disabled persons.

Dikotter is clearly uneasy about the developments he discusses, but he criticizes Chinese eugenics legislation primarily because it is compulsory and restricts the reproductive freedom of individuals. He suggests in his conclusion that this problem will be solved if China follows the West by democratizing and giving individuals greater freedom of choice. But is it really right to assume that voluntary eugenics is more beneficent than compulsory eugenics? I don't think Dikotter sufficiently takes into account the dangers posed by voluntary eugenics. Is killing a handicapped infant any better because the father and/or mother make the decision rather than the state? The moral dilemma of eugenics is not solved by giving everyone the right to make his or her own reproductive choices, any more than the problem of racism will be solved by allowing individuals to practice racial discrimination wherever they see fit.

Dikotter's position is especially problematic since he so perceptively demonstrates how often eugenicists have been influenced by socially de fined categories—such as race, class, or disability—to discriminate against certain groups. If the intellectual elite in China and elsewhere have been so heavily influenced by their prejudices, what will stop the common people from making decisions based on social prejudices?

Dikotter's work should remind us of the perils of eugenics and the fragile position of the disabled in a world that is becoming increasingly schizophrenic about human rights. On the one hand, we can congratulate ourselves about more humane treatment of the disabled, reflected in the Americans with Disabilities Act and other international efforts on behalf of the disabled. On the other hand, we are becoming less hesitant to kill infants with disabilities since they allegedly have little or no value to themselves or others. Which side will win out? It may depend on how insistently we proclaim the truth of the dignity of all human life.

Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus.

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