The De-nationalization and Re-nationalization of the Life Sciences in China: A Cosmopolitan Practicality?

This text was written while Dr. Joy Zhang was attached to the Chaire of Ulrich Beck entitled « Cosmopolitan Risk Communities » at the Collège d’études mondiales.

Stem cell research and synthetic biology offer complementary insights on the nature of scientific governance in China. Stem cells were essentially promoted by top-down semi-governmental initiatives. Yet it was through a process of ‘de-nationalization’ (in which a diversity of cross-border communications initiated by scientists effaced the dominance of a singular national voice) that China’s stem cell researchgained global recognition. Meanwhile, the emergence of synthetic biology has shown a reverse pathway. While many ‘Chinese’ synthetic biology projects are primarily associated with international programs, this ‘de-nationalized’ start did not lead to an abandonment of a national agenda. Rather, synthetic biology in China has been transformed into a grassroots proposition of a ‘Big Question’ approach, which in effect creates a ‘re-nationalization’ by bringing synergy among domestic experts. Chinese stakeholders’ experience seems to indicate that scientific development is steered by a (cosmopolitan) practicality, which has lead to a bottom-up instrumentalization of the nation-state.