Conflict of Interest in Scientific Research in China: A Socio-ethical Analysis of He Jiankui’s Human Genome-editing Experiment


Extensive conflicts of interest (COI) at both individual and institutional levels are identifiable in scientific research and healthcare in China, as in many other parts of the world. A prominent new case from China is He Jiankui’s experiment that produced the world’s first gene-edited babies and that raises numerous ethical, political, socio-cultural, and transnational questions. Serious financial and other COI were involved in He’s genetic adventure. Using He’s infamous experiment as a case study, this paper explores the wider issue of financial and other COI in scientific research and healthcare in China, especially institutional conflict of interest (ICOI) and policy-related COI. Taking a socio-ethical perspective, it examines China’s state policies and its massive efforts to transform and commercialize scientific research, the lack of policies and oversight mechanisms for regulating COI, as well as major ethical issues arising from COI including the undermining of public trust. Some practical suggestions are offered for institutional reform and institutional development so that COI, particularly ICOI, can be avoided or more effectively managed in scientific research in China.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Bekelman, J.E., Y. Li, and C.P. Gross. 2003. Scope and impact of financial conflict of interest in biomedical research. Journal of American Association of Medicine 289(4): 454-465.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Blumenthal, D., and W. Hsiao. 2015. Lessons from the East—China’s rapid evolving health care system. New England Journal of Medicine 372(14): 1281-1285.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. China Daily. 2019. National science and technology ethics committee. China Daily, July 31.

  4. Cong, Y. 2019. Comments on the CRISPR gene-edited babies’ case. Indian Journal of Medical Ethics 4(4): 297-300.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Cohen, J. 2019. The untold story of the “circle of trust” behind the world’s first gene-edited babies. Science, August 1.

  6. Cyranosky, D., and N. Ledford. 2018. International outcry over genome-edited baby claim. Nature 363(7733): 607-608.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. CRISPR Journal. 2019. Retraction of: Draft ethical principles for therapeutic assisted reproductive technologies by He, J et al., CRISPR J 2018; fast track. The CRISPR Journal 2(1): 65.

  8. Duckett J. 2011. The Chinese state’s retreat from health: Policy and the politics of retrenchment. London and New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Emanuel, E.J., and D. Steiner. 1995. Institutional conflict of interest. New England Journal of Medicine 332: 262-268.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Fang, L. 2015. Conflict of interest in universities’ research activities and responding strategies. Jiaoshu Yuren: Gaodeng Jiaoyu [Teaching and Cultivating People: Higher Education] 3: 8-10.

  11. Gong, T., and J. Ren. 2011. The theory and practice of the COI management]. Zhongguo Gonggong Guanli [China Public Administration] 10: 96-100.

  12. He, L., J. Zhang, and L. Moon. 2018. Who are the investors supporting He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist behind the gene-edited babies? Southern China Morning Post, November 9.

  13. Lander, E., F. Baylis, F. Zhang, et al. 2019. Adopt a moratorium on heritable genome editing. Nature 567: 165-168.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Li, J., S. Walker, J.B. Nie, and X. Zhang. 2019. Experiments that led to the first gene-edited babies: The ethical failings and the urgent need for better governance. Journal of Zhejiang University SCIENCE B (Biomedicine & Biotechnology) 20(1): 32-38.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Liu, S., and L. Zhang. 2019. Conflict of interest and its management in our country’s [China’s] scientific periodicals in foreign languages. Zhongguo Keji Qikan Yanjiu [Chinese Studies of Scientific Periodicals] 30(8): 878-884.

  16. Lo, B., and M.J. Field (eds). 2009. Conflict of interest in medical research, education and practice. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Maienschein, J., M. Sunderland, R.A. Ankeny, and J.S. Robert. 2008. The ethos and ethics of translational research. American Journal of Bioethics 8(3): 43-51.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Nie, J.B. 2016. Erosion of eldercare in China: A socio-ethical inquiry in population aging, elderly suicide and the government’s responsibility in the context of the one-child policy. Ageing International 41(4): 350-365.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. -----. 2018. He Jiankui’s genetic misadventure, Part 1: Why him? Why China? Hastings Bioethics Forum, December 5. Accessed April 2, 2020.

  20. Nie, J.B., and A. Cheung. 2019. He Jiankui’s genetic misadventure Part 3: What are major ethical issues? Hastings Bioethics Forum, January 10. Accessed April 2, 2020.

  21. Nie, J.B., Y. Cheng, X. Zou, et al. 2018. The vicious circles of patient-physician mistrust in China: Health professionals’ perspectives, institutional conflict of interest, and building trust through medical professionalism. Developing World Bioethics 18(1): 26-34.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Norris, S.L, H.K. Holmer, L.A. Ogden, and B.U. Burda. 2011. Conflict of interest in clinical practice guideline development: A systematic review. PLoS One 6(10): e25153.

  23. PRC (People’s Republic of China) Ministry of Education and Ministry of Science and Technology. 2016. Opinions on strengthening the role of higher education institutions in transfer and transformation of scientific and technological achievements.

  24. PRC (People’s Republic of China). 1996.Law on promoting the transformation of scientific and technological achievements]. .

  25. PRC (People's Republic of China). 1993. Law of on science and technology progress. .

  26. Slaughter, S., M.P. Feldman, and S.L. Thomas. 2009. U.S. research universities’ institutional conflict of interest policies. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics 4(3): 3–20.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Sofaer, N., and N. Eyal. 2010. The diverse ethics of translational research. American Journal of Bioethics 10(8): 19-30.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Wee, S.L. 2018. Scandals catch up to private Chinese hospitals, after fortunes are made. New York Times, November 18.

  29. Xie, G., and Y. Cong. 2015. Conflict of interest. Encyclopedia of Global Bioethics. Dordrecht: Springer.

  30. Xinhua News. 2019a. Guangdong has investigated “the event of gene-edited babies.” Xinhua Net, January 19.

  31. -----. 2019b. He Jiankui jailed for illegal human embryo gene-editing. Xinhua Net, December 30.

  32. -----. 2019c. Xi presides over 9th meeting of central committee for deepening overall reform. Xinhua Net, July 25.

  33. Yan, D., and Y. Zheng. 2018. Revealing the crazy gene-editing scientist: The orchestrated announcement of a secret 20-month experiment and the partnership with the US experts and the owners of Putian hospitals. AI Caijing [AI Finance], December.

  34. Zhao, T., T. He, Y. Xin, Q. Wu, and A. Sun. 2018. Questioning the deed of designing babies: What has induced He Jiankui’s scientific misadventure. Caijing [Finance], December.

  35. Zhou, C. 2018. Conflict of interest in university researchers’ undertaking of business and its regulations. Keji Guanli Yanju [Science and Technology Management Research] 3: 142-147.

Download references


We are grateful to Professor Ian Kerridge and Ms Miriam Wiersma for their invitation and generous support. We also thank two anonymous reviewers of the JBI for their positive comments and helpful advice on the initially submitted version. Dr Paul Sorrell’s able professional editing is highly appreciated too. This paper was revised and finalized when one of us (Nie) was a Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study, Durham University, United Kingdom.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jing-Bao Nie.

Additional information

Publisher’s note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Nie, JB., Xie, G., Chen, H. et al. Conflict of Interest in Scientific Research in China: A Socio-ethical Analysis of He Jiankui’s Human Genome-editing Experiment. Bioethical Inquiry 17, 191–201 (2020).

Download citation


  • Conflict of interest
  • Research ethics
  • Human genome editing
  • Science policy
  • Scientific integrity
  • China