China’s Military Biotech Frontier: CRISPR, Military-Civil Fusion, and the New Revolution in Military Affairs

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 18

A November 10, 2017 article from the PLA Daily titled: “How Gene Weapons Could Affect Future Warfare” (基因武器如何影响未来战争, Jiyin Wuqi Ruhe Yingxiang Weilai Zhanzheng). (Source: Baijiahao)

Introduction

China’s national strategy of military-civil fusion (军民融合, junmin ronghe) has highlighted biology as a priority. [1] It is hardly surprising that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is looking to leverage synergies among defense, scientific, and commercial developments in biological interdisciplinary (生物交叉, shengwu jiaocha) technologies. Chinese military scientists and strategists have consistently emphasized that biotechnology could become a “new strategic commanding heights of the future Revolution in Military Affairs” (军事革命, junshi geming) (PLA Daily, October 2015). Certainly, the PRC is not alone in recognizing the potential of biotechnology on the future battlefield, but the ways in which Chinese research is seeking to integrate developments among industry, academic institutions, and military-oriented programs—including through research collaborations and the procurement of dual-purpose commercial technologies—may prove striking. In particular, China is at the forefront of today’s breakthroughs in CRISPR-Cas, a new technique for gene editing that has demonstrated unique potential and precision despite its current limitations. [2] 

The Biological Revolution in Military Affairs 

Chinese military officers and scientists anticipate that current advances will contribute to an ongoing transformation in the character of conflict. Indeed, senior officers and academics in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have not only highlighted concerns about “national biological security (and) defense” (国家生物安全防御, guojia shengwu anquan fangyu) in response to the threats of infectious diseases, but also emphasized the importance of exploring the military potential and even offensive applications of biotechnology (China News Network, February 15, 2012; Ministry of Science and Technology, April 18). [3] For instance, Senior Colonel Guo Jiwei (郭继卫) of the PLA’s Third Military Medical University co-authored War for Biological Dominance (制生权战争, Zhishengquan Zhanzheng), which examined the impact of biotechnology on the Revolution in Military Affairs. [4] The concept zhishengquan (制生权), which might be translated variously as “biological dominance” or “command/superiority in biology,” is starting to become more prevalent in PLA writings on future warfare of varying degrees of authoritativeness. [5]

Notably, Major General He Fuchu (贺福初), former president of the Academy of Military Medical Sciences (AMMS) and now vice president of the Academy of Military Sciences, has long been a prominent proponent of the militarization of biotechnology (PLA Daily, October 6, 2015). Maj. Gen. He has anticipated that “Modern biotechnology and its integration with information, nano(technology), and the cognitive, etc. domains will have revolutionary influences upon weapons and equipment, the combat spaces, the forms of warfare, and military theories” (Reference News, August 24, 2017). Consequently, pursuant to this new “Revolution in Military Affairs,” success on the future battlefield will require achieving “biological dominance,” and this “biological frontier” (生物疆域, shengwu jiangyu) of warfare will emerge as a new domain for new methods of confrontation. In the course of this transformation, the progress of such techniques as brain-machine interfaces could render human-machine integration (人机一体化, renji yitihua) a reality for future combat platforms. For instance, AMMS researchers have engaged with a commercial enterprise known as Cogrowth (酷成长, ku chengzhang) that specializes in the development of a line of products involving electroencephalograms (EEG) for brain-computer interfaces, which is exploring leveraging artificial intelligence to interpret bio-signals (Economics Daily, December 25, 2017; Sina, December 28, 2017).

Chinese military researchers have closely examined American initiatives and international advancements, which have seemed to inform and inspire the direction of developments underway in China today. For instance, DARPA’s launch of the Biological Technologies Office has drawn attention, and PLA scholars have also examined exotic accounts Russia’s “zombie gun” (僵尸枪, jiangshi qiang), based on electromagnetic radiation, and referenced supposed Israeli programs to target Arabs with genetic weapons (Sohu, 2012). [6] The salience of these concerns about foreign programs and the tragedy of China’s own history does not appear to have resulted in restraint against considering the potential operational advantages of such offensive applications. [7] For instance, although writings about “genetic weapons” should not be interpreted as official doctrine or formal concepts of operations, it is noteworthy to see striking parallels in themes repeated by a number of PLA scholars and scientists from influential institutions.

Certain discussions about the future of “military struggle in the domain of biology” are troubling. For instance, seemingly authoritative textbooks have included references to the possibility of “specific ethnic genetic attacks” (特定种族基因攻击, teding zhongzu jiyin gongji), while other military experts characterize the notion of a “ethic bionation” as erroneous (China News, July 19, 2018). [8] According to Gen. Zhang Shibo (张仕波), former president of the PLA’s National Defense University, today’s biotech advances unlock the possibility to create new synthetic pathogens that are “more toxic, more contagious, and more resistant.” [9] “Obviously, genetic weapons possess many advantages over traditional biological weapons,” as one researcher from the Academy of Military Medical Sciences has argued (China Military Network, November 10, 2017). In particular, the weaponization of CRISPR is expected to prove more lethal and more precise in ways that could cause major changes in the dynamics of future warfare, despite the risks that would be inherent in its employment and the current limitations of this nascent technology. In the long term, genetic weapons are anticipated to have more of a “strategic deterrent function,” and the AMMS researcher has warned that “willful abuse of genetic weapons will bring unpredictable disasters to all mankind” (China Military Network, November 10, 2017). Such theories and speculation about future capabilities could become actual possibilities for the PLA pursuant to academic and commercial research that is currently underway.

CRISPR at the Frontier in China

At the most basic level, “CRISPR” is a tool for gene editing that possesses immense potential for precise and efficient modifications. [10] Chinese scientists across academic institutions and commercial enterprises have been at the forefront of experimentation with this technique from the start, including the company BGI (formerly known as “Beijing Genomics Inc.”), which also manages China’s National Genebank. [11] PRC research in CRISPR has rapidly progressed into clinical trials that involve the application of these gene editing techniques to animals and to humans, including because some of the regulatory requirements for medical research in China have been less strict and demanding. [12] For instance, there are currently at least fourteen trials of CRISPR underway across Chinese hospitals, which are primarily exploring its potential to  treat cancer. [13] Strikingly, PLA medical institutions, particularly the PLA General Hospital and also the Academy of Military Medical Sciences, are involved in five of the trials known to be underway at present. [14]

To date, the use of CRISPR in animals has been a very prominent element of Chinese research. [15] For example, the use of gene-edited animals to grow human-like organs for use in transplants may prove not only lucrative but also medically promising, given continued shortages of organs (Bloomberg, August 10). The creation of highly muscular dogs for use in policing illustrates the potential for gene-edited animals to contribute to state coercion (MIT Review, October 19, 2015).  Meanwhile, BGI has attempted to market cloned or gene-edited animals, including ‘micro-pigs’ as pets, and another company, Beijing Xinuo Valley Biotechnology Co. Ltd. (北京希诺谷生物科技有限公司) has cloned a number of dogs as pets and for policing (Netease S&T, August 22). Chinese researchers have leveraged gene editing of animals to optimize their use as models for human diseases or characteristics, such as the study of intelligence. For instance, Mu-Ming Pu (蒲慕明), who has been a leader in designing the “China Brain Plan,” has pursued cloning and genetic alteration of macaque monkeys at the Institute of Neuroscience (ION) in Shanghai to “customize” them for specific research requirements. [16] For instance, by rendering the gene BMAL1 (which is linked to the circadian sleep rhythm) inoperable with CRISPR, the ION team has sought to create and study circadian disorders, such as sleep disorders and depression. [17]

Although CRISPR has numerous exciting, clearly beneficial applications, particularly in medicine and agriculture, other aspects of Chinese research in CRISPR raise ethical or security concerns. [18] Infamously, the first humans to be subject to genetic engineering were also born in China as a result of the research of He Jianqui, who removed the gene CCR5 to give twin babies immunity to HIV. [19] However, some scientists speculate that He may have removed the gene to boost the babies’ cognitive power, which is believed to be an added bonus of that modification. (MIT Review, February 21). This breach of ethics has been condemned by the scientific community within China and worldwide, while also prompting the development of a new law on human gene editing. [20] Meanwhile, there appear to be relevant synergies among military, academic, and commercial research directions. BGI’s collaboration with researchers at the PLA’s National University of Defense Technology  (NUDT)—as evident across co-authored publications, including the design of tools for the use of CRISPR—is hardly unexpected but nonetheless noteworthy. [21] For instance, one former professor who remains affiliated with NUDT also holds a position with BGI as a specially-appointed professor concentrating on research in bioinformatics (which leverages supercomputing for the processing of large-scale genetic information).

While the potential leveraging of CRISPR to increase human capabilities on the future battlefield remains only a hypothetical possibility at the present, there are indications that Chinese military researchers are starting to explore its potential. Of course, genetic engineering has numerous military applications in materials science, such as those that can involve maritime and aerospace applications. However, at a time when the Central Military Commission (CMC) Science and Technology Commission is also supporting research in human performance enhancement and “new concept” biotechnology, the potential intersections of these interests merit concern and consideration. For instance, a doctoral dissertation titled “Evaluation and Research on Human Performance Enhancement Technology,” published in 2016, envisions CRISPR as one of three primary “human performance enhancement technologies” (人效能增强技术, ren xiaoneng zengqiang jishu) that can be utilized to boost personnel combat effectiveness. The researcher argues that because CRISPR holds such “great potential” as a “disruptive” technology, China must “seize the initiative.”

Conclusion and Implications

Ultimately, today’s advances in biotechnology may prove revolutionary, and the strategic implications, whether for medicine or the military or aggregate national competitiveness, are only just starting to be appreciated. [22] Today, the PRC is actively exploring new frontiers of such biological cross-disciplinary technologies: from these prominent developments in CRISPR to bionic robotics, intelligentized exoskeletons, and techniques for human-machine collaboration. So too, at a time when Chinese universities and enterprises are pursuing investment and expanding global research collaborations in such fields, it is important that their foreign partners remain cognizant of the interests and involvements of their counterparts. For instance, although biomedical research involves numerous promising applications in medicine and therapeutics, there are also reasons for concern about some of the ethical and security externalities of these research engagements. [23] Going forward, these trends will merit continued analytic attention.

Elsa Kania is an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Wilson VornDick consults on national security, emerging technologies, and China for Duco and Rane. Their views are their own.

Notes

[1] See the: “13th Five-Year S&T Military-Civil Fusion Development Special Plan” (Full Text)” [“十三五”科技军民融合发展专项规划》全文], http://www.aisixiang.com/data/106161.html. For further context on this initiative, see this “authoritative interpretation” of it: 《“十三五”科技军民融合发展专项规划》热点问题权威解读], Xinhua, August 23, 2017, http://www.mod.gov.cn/regulatory/2017-08/23/content_4789748.htm.

[2] “CRISPR” is named for leveraging “Clustering Regular Interval Short Palindromic Repeats,” which can act as ‘scissors’ to enable precise editing of the genome, and the Chinese phrasing for CRISPR is: chengcu guilu jiange duan huiwen chongfu xulie 成簇规律间隔短回文重复序列. For general background on CRISPR, see: Ran, F. Ann, Patrick D. Hsu, Jason Wright, Vineeta Agarwala, David A. Scott, and Feng Zhang, “Genome engineering using the CRISPR-Cas9 system,” Nature Protocols 8, no. 11 (2013), pp. 2281.

[3] Guo Jiwei(郭继卫) and Li Hongjun (李洪军), “An Analysis of the Impact of Modern Biological Technology on Future Forms of Warfare” [试析现代生物科技对未来战争形成模式的影响], China Military Studies, no. 3 (November 2016), pp. 31-36. See also Li Hongjun (郭继卫) and Guo Jiwei (李洪军), “Thinking on Modern Biological Science and Technology Promoting The Evolution of the Form of Warfare” [现代生物科技推动战争形态演变的思考], Military Medical Sciences, no. 1 2016, pp. 1-6.

[4] See: Guo Jiwei (郭继卫), War for Biological Dominance (制生权战争), Xinhua Press, 2010.

[5] See this recent article discussing translations and interpretations: Yi Biyi [易比一], Li Xiang [李翔],Huang Shiliang [黄世亮], and Lei Erqing [雷二庆], “Concept research of Zhishengquan” [制生权概念研究], Mil Med Sci. [军事医学], Vol 42, No 1, Jan,2018.

[6] Zhang Shibo [张仕波], New Highland of War [战争新高地], National Defense University Press [国防大学出版社, January 2017, pp. 232.

[7]  For historical contextualization, see: Peter Williams and David Wallace. Unit 731: Japan’s secret biological warfare in World War II. New York: Free Press, 1989.

[8] Surprisingly number of prominent individuals have highlighted this as a possibility: Elsa Kania and Wilson VornDick, “Weaponizing Biotech: How China’s Military Is Preparing for a ‘New Domain of Warfare,’” Defense One, August 14, 2019, https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2019/08/chinas-military-pursuing-biotech/159167/?oref=d-river. See, for instance:  Zhang Shibo [张仕波], New Highland of War [战争新高地], and Xiao Tianliang [肖天亮] (ed.), The Science of Military Strategy [战略学], National Defense University  Press, 2017.

[9] Zhang Shibo [张仕波], New Highland of War [战争新高地], National Defense University Press [国防大学出版社, January 2017, pp. 234.

[10] Sometimes CRISPR appears with the suffix -CAS and an alphanumeric sequence, such as CAS-12b. This phrasing designates that specific enzyme, such as the ‘associated protein 12b’ or ‘CAS12b.’ Generally, the shortened, generalized terminology CRISPR is used in both media reporting and scientific writings globally.

[11]  Li Jinsong and Caixia Gao. “Preface to the special topic on genome editing research in China.” National Science Review 6, no. 3 (2019): 389-390.

[12] See, for instance: Yangyang Cheng, “China Will Always Be Bad at Bioethics,” Foreign Policy, April 13, 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/04/13/china-will-always-be-bad-at-bioethics/.

[13] For instance, see this study: “Study of PD-1 Gene-knocked Out Mesothelin-directed CAR-T Cells With the Conditioning of PC in Mesothelin Positive Multiple Solid Tumors,” https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT03747965?term=CRISPR&cntry=CN&rank=7.

[14] See: “14 Studies found for: CRISPR | China,” undated, https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/results?cond=&term=CRISPR&cntry=CN&state=&city=&dist=.

[15] For a more detailed assessment, see: Sara Reardon, “Welcome to the CRISPR zoo,” Nature News 531, no. 7593 (2016): pp. 160.

[16] Mu-ming Poo, Jiu-lin Du, Nancy Y. Ip, Zhi-Qi Xiong, Bo Xu, and Tieniu Tan, “China brain project: basic neuroscience, brain diseases, and brain-inspired computing,” Neuron 92, no. 3 (2016): pp. 591-596;  Liu Zhen, Yijun Cai, Zhaodi Liao, Yuting Xu, Yan Wang, Zhanyang Wang, Xiaoyu Jiang et al. “Cloning of a gene-edited macaque monkey by somatic cell nuclear transfer.” National Science Review 6, no. 1 (2019): pp. 101-108.

[17]  Qiu, Peiyuan, Jian Jiang, Zhen Liu, Yijun Cai, Tao Huang, Yan Wang, Qiming Liu et al. “BMAL1 knockout macaque monkeys display reduced sleep and psychiatric disorders.” National Science Review 6, no. 1 (2019): pp. 87-100.

[18] Peng Yaojin, “The morality and ethics governing CRISPR–Cas9 patents in China,” Nature biotechnology 34, no. 6 (2016): 616.

[19] He Jiankui (贺建奎) completed doctorate work at Rice and Stanford universities and was recruited back to China as part of Beijing’s “Thousand Talents Plan” where he conducted research at Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech or 南方科技大学) in Shenzhen.

[20] Wei, Wensheng. “CRISPR twins: China academy responds.” Nature 563 (2018): pp. 607-608.

[21] See, for instance: Cui, Yingbo, Jiaming Xu, Minxia Cheng, Xiangke Liao, and Shaoliang Peng. “Review of CRISPR/Cas9 sgRNA design tools.” Interdisciplinary Sciences: Computational Life Sciences 10, no. 2 (2018): 455-465, accessed from https://www.pubfacts.com/detail/29644494/Review-of-CRISPRCas9-sgRNA-Design-Tools.

[22]  Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg, A Crack in Creation: Gene editing and the unthinkable power to control evolution, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.

[23] See, for instance: Mihir Zaveri. “Wary of Chinese Espionage, Houston Cancer Center Chose to Fire 3 Scientists,” New York Times, April 22, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/22/health/md-anderson-chinese-scientists.html.