Flashback: Chinese Military Scientists Have Been Experimenting With Biotech As ‘New Domain Of Warfare’
While the topic of Chinese government research dominating headlines thanks to a new report that COVID-19 escaped from a BSL-4 facility in Wuhan (reportedly not a bioweapon), it bears mention that the CCP has been pouring significant resources into the militarization of biotech.
To that end, last September Elsa Kania of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and national security expert Wilson VornDick penned a chilling look into China’s efforts to weaponize biotechnology in search of a “bloodless victory” over their adversaries.
According to their report in Defense One, “China’s national strategy of military-civil fusion (军民融合) has highlighted biology as a priority, and the People’s Liberation Army could be at the forefront of expanding and exploiting this knowledge.”
As evidence, the authors provide several examples of the PLA’s strategic writings and research which make clear that they intend to ‘change the form or character of conflict.’ (via Defense One, emphasis ours):
- In 2010’s War for Biological Dominance (制生权战争), Guo Jiwei (郭继卫), a professor with the Third Military Medical University, emphasizes the impact of biology on future warfare.
- In 2015, then-president of the Academy of Military Medical Sciences He Fuchu (贺福初) argued that biotechnology will become the new “strategic commanding heights” of national defense, from biomaterials to “brain control” weapons. Maj. Gen. He has since become the vice president of the Academy of Military Sciences, which leads China’s military science enterprise.
- Biology is among seven “new domains of warfare” discussed in a 2017 book by Zhang Shibo (张仕波), a retired general and former president of the National Defense University, who concludes: “Modern biotechnology development is gradually showing strong signs characteristic of an offensive capability,” including the possibility that “specific ethnic genetic attacks” (特定种族基因攻击) could be employed.
- The 2017 edition of Science of Military Strategy (战略学), a textbook published by the PLA’s National Defense University that is considered to be relatively authoritative, debuted a section about biology as a domain of military struggle, similarly mentioning the potential for new kinds of biological warfare to include “specific ethnic genetic attacks.”
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Indeed, China’s military researchers have been attempting to weaponize biology along with advances in other scientific fields of study, such as brain science, supercomputing and artificial intelligence. According to the report, China’s Central Military Commission has been behind projects on military brain science, advanced biomimetic systems, biological and biomimetic materials, human performance enhancement, and “new concept” biotechnology.
In particular, China has focused tremendous efforts on gene editing in humans through CRISPER technology, with over a dozen known clinical trials having been undertaken – including those by controversial Chinese scientist He Jiankui into cloning ‘HIV-resistant’ genetically modified humans. It is unknown if his research was sanctioned or even funded by the CCP, however the Chinese government introduced new watchdog legislation to govern such experiments after He’s research drew international condemnation.
But it is striking how many of China’s CRISPR trials are taking place at the PLA General Hospital, including to fight cancer. Indeed, the PLA’s medical institutions have emerged as major centers for research in gene editing and other new frontiers of military medicine and biotechnology. The PLA’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences, or AMMS, which China touts as its “cradle of training for military medical talent,” was recently placed directly under the purview of the Academy of Military Science, which itself has been transformed to concentrate on scientific and technological innovation. This change could indicate a closer integration of medical science with military research. -Defense One
And in 2016, a PLA doctoral research published a dissertation titled “Research on the Evaluation of Human Performance Enhancement Technology,” which outlined how CRISPR-Cas was one of three primary technologies which could be used to enhance the combat effectiveness of military troops. According to the report, “he supporting research looked at the effectiveness of the drug Modafinil, which has applications in cognitive enhancement; and at transcranial magnetic stimulation, a type of brain stimulation, while also contending that the “great potential” of CRISPR-Cas as a “military deterrence technology in which China should “grasp the initiative” in development.”
Biotech meets AI
Another concerning area of Chinese biotech is the intersection with artificial intelligence. In particular, “The vastness of the human genome — among the biggest of big data — all but requires AI and machine learning to point the way for CRISPR-related advances in therapeutics or enhancement,” write the authors.
In 2016, the potential strategic value of genetic information led the Chinese government to launch the National Genebank (国家基因库), which intends to become the world’s largest repository of such data. It aims to “develop and utilize China’s valuable genetic resources, safeguard national security in bioinformatics (生物信息学), and enhance China’s capability to seize the strategic commanding heights” in the domain of biotechnology.
The effort is administered by BGI, formerly known as Beijing Genomics Inc., which is Beijing’s de facto national champion in the field. BGI has established an edge in cheap gene sequencing, concentrating on amassing massive amounts of data from a diverse array of sources. The company has a global presence, including laboratories in California and Australia. -Defense One
Great concern has been expressed over BGI’s access to genetic information of Americans as the company partners with the likes of the University of California and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on human genome sequencing. The company’s research and partnerships in Xinjiang also raise red flags over potential links to human rights abuses – such as the forced collection of genetic information on Uighurs in Xinjiang.
What’s more, BGI appears to have links to the PLA’s military research activities – and in particular the National University of Defense Technology. According to the report, “BGI’s bioinformatics research has used Tianhe supercomputers to process genetic information for biomedical applications, while BGI and NUDT researchers have collaborated on several publications, including the design of tools for the use of CRISPR.”
In closing, the authors recommend keeping tabs on China’s ongoing military interest in biotechnology as an emerging domain of warfare, “guided by strategists who talk about potential “genetic weapons” and the possibility of a “bloodless victory” over adversaries.