U.S.-Led Experiment on Chinese Children Has Government Scrambling, and Netizens Crying Foul

Posted on September 13, 2012


A food scandal is almost nothing new in China these days. But what happens when you combine it with human experimentation, children, genetic engineering, and U.S.-China relations?

She’s cute, and also too young to consent to being the subject of a human experiment

On August 1, 2012, researchers published a study in the peer-reviewedAmerican Journal of Clinical Nutrition on the effectiveness of Golden Rice in delivering vitamin A to children. The topic sounds wholesome enough, but a troubling truth lies beneath: Golden Rice is a strain of genetically engineered (GE) rice that has not yet been approved for human consumption, yet the study was conducted on 68 children from a village in Hunan province.

The story comes to the fore

The study was actually conducted in 2008 in Jiangkou, Hengyang, Hunan province and led by Tufts University researcher Guangwen Tang (唐广文). According to the published article, 68 elementary school students between 6 and 8 years of age were randomly assigned to eat spinach, Golden Rice, or a beta carotene supplement (four additional children participated but were not included in the final data set). The children had their blood drawn throughout the study to measure vitamin A levels.

One month after the study’s publication in Clinical Nutrition, Greenpeace East Asia got the Middle Kingdom’s attention. In an August 30 post on its Chinese-language web site called “Exposing the Secret Behind ‘Golden Rice’: Children Were the Subjects of Genetically Engineered Experiments!”[Chinese] Greenpeace described the GE study and ended by exhorting “relevant departments…to conduct a full-scale investigation of this project.”

This particular study was not news in the West, but Greenpeace appears to have been the first to bring it to broader attention within mainland China. The ethics committees of Tufts University and the Zhejiang Academy of Medical Sciences both approved the project in late 2003. In 2009, a group of 22 scientists wrote a letter condemning the human health risks of Tufts University’s clinical trials of Golden Rice. But they had no recourse under American law; while U.S. federal regulations on human subject research recognize children as a “vulnerable population” requiring special consideration and review, studies carried out overseas are governed by regulations of the host country.

Greenpeace’s article promptly attracted attention on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. On August 31, user @雾满拦江 tweeted about the incident and asked the Chinese government to investigate, prompting over 36,000 retweets and over 11,000 comments. Many netizens were incensed. “Suddenly I feel the Chinese government is useless; Chinese kids have become lab rats,” wrote @Liu-yf亦, while many others demanded to know who was responsible for approving such an experiment.

Golden rice: Did they or didn’t they?

With the study’s newfound exposure in China, netizens began to ask which Chinese entities had signed off. The study’s Chinese authors were linked to the Hunan Center for Disease Control (Hunan CDC) and Prevention and the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Chinese CDC). At first, the Hunan CDC appeared to dissemble. On September 1, it issued a statement through the media office of the Hengyang government’s Weibo account @衡阳市新闻办 denying involvement in the research. But just a few days later on September 3, Tufts University confirmed both its own participation and that of the Chinese researchers.

A TV anchor in Zhejiang explains the issue to viewers. Via Sina

Nonetheless, the Chinese CDC and Hunan CDC continued to deny all involvement with GE rice. A September 5 statement from the Chinese CDC  denied participating in any human subject trials using Golden Rice. CDC researcher Ying Shi’an admitted to using spinach and beta carotene supplements in the study but claimed to have never seen Golden Rice. Hunan CDC researcher Hu Yuming went as far as to say that he had never read the published article, did not know anything about the research, and in short, did know even know that he was listed as a contributing author.

Chinese press quickly sought to debunk the institutional statements. On September 6, the Beijing News published an interview with parents and grandparents of children involved in the study. According to relatives, Jiangkou Elementary School had announced that it was providing free “nutritious lunches” and blood tests. Several parents said they did not know their children were part of an experiment, and that they had not seen a letter of consent. But He Zhongqiu, the now-retired school principal, disagreed. He claimed that the school organized two meetings with parents and distributed letters of consent, and that participation was not required.

It’s no wonder that netizens were angry and confused. As @枫木山黑黑wrote, “The current question … [is] who is lying, and why are they lying? How many guidelines did this experiment flout? Do people really have the right to know and the right to choose?”

Lab rats—a dangerous and painful image

Human experimentation is a dangerous subject in China, raising the specter of Japanese occupation during World War II, when occupying forces carried out horrific experiments on thousands of prisoners in northeast China. Many netizens reacted with outrage towards the U.S., calling to mind anti-Japanese rhetoric. @少华女先 commented, “How dare these collaborators help America turn Chinese children into lab rats and clear the way for American imperialists to set up their own inhumane Unit 731?! Any citizen with a shred of national pride should be outraged. Why does America not conduct tests on its own kids but on Chinese kids?” The implication was that China was still a weak country, unable to defend its children, and ruled by officials willing to betray their people for personal benefit.

Outrage, turned inward

Indeed, netizens were most angered at their own government’s seeming complicity and dishonesty. @糖果的地盘 asked, “But if Chinese people had not coordinated the connection, would Americans dare to conduct such an experiment?” @风华悠扬 remarked, “This amounts to slapping yourself in the face. America didn’t force you–you chose yourself to sell off the children of your own country. This sort of shameless thing can only happen in the celestial dynasty [天朝, slang for China’s government].”

@罔庞 put the controversy in a larger context: “Because of the past actions of government officials, the public debates, suspicion and grassroots anger resulting from the Golden Rice scandal extend far beyond the story itself. They reflect people’s confusion, dissatisfaction, and indignation over the government’s disrespect and outright deprivation of their right to know, right to participate, and right to oversight. The luxurious lifestyle of officials, their callousness toward the people, treating people as lab rats–these all amount to a deception of the people, an invasion and betrayal of the government’s contract with its citizens.”

Indeed, with Tufts’ confirmation as well as corroboration from NIH’s database of clinical trials, it is likely that the Chinese government is the one fibbing here. Even the Chinese CDC has been forced to backtrack: On September 10 it suspended–or, depending on one’s view, scapegoated–Ying Shi’an for his contradictory statements. The story continues to unfold on Weibo with over 420,000 comments, mentions, and retweets containing the term 黄金大米 (Golden Rice) thus far. Meanwhile, @落在武陵源 offers another potential avenue for falsehood: “What if the real story of the Golden Rice scandal was that China’s researchers deceived the American researchers? They threw out the rice, then made up some data.” For the sake of sixty-eight children in a Hunan village, let us hope that this scandalous version of the story is, in fact, the truth.

Shelley Jiang