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Barriers to Neuroethics Engagement in China

By Jie Yin

Image courtesy of Pixabay
I am a philosopher doing biomedical ethics research and teaching ethics and Kant at Fudan
University (Shanghai, China). I received training in analytic philosophy and got my Ph.D. from
SUNY Albany in the US. In this short piece, I will discuss two aspects regarding the barriers to
the neuroethics engagement in current Chinese society; these two, as one might see, are
somehow related to each other. 

First, I suggest looking at the mechanism affecting the operationalization of neuroethics
engagement. A commonly seen phenomenon in current Chinese society is that the
communication among scientists, ethicists, the general public, and policy-makers is not very
effective. From my experience as a bioethicist working in academia, in order for the
stakeholders in our society to be actively involved into the neuroethics engagement,
governmental-level administrative order might be needed. 

Unlike in Western countries, administrative order in China can play a central role in almost
everything that involves a variety of stakeholders. It is not only that the general public has a
faith in the power and efficiency of the government (so they tend to follow the trend led by
the government), but also that the existing administrative infrastructure has already
regulated corresponding stakeholders, and thereby, shaped their beliefs and desires in
various aspects. In China, most scientists work for public universities and research
institutions, administrated by the Ministry of Science and Technology, the People’s Republic of China, which in turn is affiliated with the state council, the
highest administrative level office. The major funding resource, NSFC (National Natural Science Foundation of China) also has these affiliations. In spite of
NSFC being relatively independent in administrating and regulating on national science
foundation, as stated in its official introduction, it is also supervised by the Ministry of
Science and Technology of China. 

Image courtesy of Pixabay
I think most ethicists in China probably find that their work has limited influential power if it
is not backed up by administrative order. In a word, ethics can be “beautiful talks” that have
no genuine impact on neuroscience research and neurotechnology application. Scientists
might be able to appreciate the significance of integrating neuroethics into the research but
are simply lacking the “drive” to implement it. And that is why the recently established
National Science and Technology Ethics Committee (officially announced on July 24, 2019 by
Mr. Xi) might
have a positive impact on public engagement, as well as, in the long run, achieving a global

Second, I find there is a stereotyped pattern, “learning from moral models,” for a long time,
in the already adopted model of ethics training for scientists in China. I later found that this
pattern is also due to the administrative order, since moral education as such is required (the
official document webpage link is here),
starting from 2011, by the China Association for Science and Technology and the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China

In my opinion, scientists do not receive sufficient formal ethics training before they conduct
or initiate a research project. Instead, they are required to attend “moral education” style
lectures for the purpose of ethics training, which is composed of speeches on the topic of
moral virtue. Usually such speeches are composed of role model stories, in a rather unified
narrative. For example, a prestigious and welcomed scientist will tell the story of a
predecessor scientist who has conquered unimaginable obstacles and, most of the time, had
to sacrifice her or his personal life in order to wholeheartedly devote to the career for the
progress of the science and technology for the beloved country. Patriotism, selflessness, and
dedication are the key words. On the other hand, in China, administrative liability is stressed
as the focus of so-called “ethical governance.” That means, for example, if a scientist goes
against professional ethics and does something that basically anyone who hasn’t received
even a bit ethics training would deem wrong, then the institute or department that this “bad”
scientist works for will be facing administrative adjustment, or if serious enough,
punishment, which in turn will affect most researchers in the very unit. The consequences
could be more complicated approval procedures, more speeches to attend, and more
reports to write. The mandatory speeches that all graduate students as well as their
academic supervisors have to attend are usually delivered by political leaders, often they
used to be scientists or are not actually working routinely on science but instead focusing
more on administrative work regarding scientific research, not by ethicists, which might
magnify the impression that one only needs to be responsible when something becomes
actual administrative order. The over-emphasis on individual moral character and endeavor
might cover the problem that should be attributed to other factors, such as infrastructure. 

As I see it, the current situation of moral education style ethics training in China I mentioned
above could have a few consequences: 

  • (a) A confusion between moral character and ethical behavior, which either intimidates
    scientists and obstructs further communication, or engenders moral “mania” among the
    general public; 
  • (b) Using moral education for the purpose of ethical training might lead to a lack of
    awareness on ethical reasoning among scientists, or cause them to frame the ethical
    question incorrectly: they might either understand the ethical question as being irrelevant,
    or as going against the law; 
  • (c) over emphasis on science integrity, or on the responsibility/accountability at specific
    level of department and institutes—in other words, compliance—, might not raise among
    scientists sufficient awareness on ethics itself. Instead, it always reminds them of the
    administrative role played by the department, which in turn causes the situation in which no
    one or no department, as a matter of fact, has to take responsibility; therefore, it seems to
    be a dead end.
Image courtesy of Pixabay
In short, the administrative order can be very powerful in shaping the values and beliefs of
the professional scientist community as well as facilitating public engagement process; this
might be an advantage from a pragmatic point of view. Ethicists and scientists who seek to
promote neuroethics engagement should seize the opportunity at the moment when the
government is officially announcing its determination on ethics governance. However, it is
one thing to applaud the releasing of governmental level regulations or recommendation
documents, but another to substantially raise awareness among stakeholders and help
achieve ethical competence. To reach or even approach the goal, techniques and strategies
need to be implemented step by step and this requires a wide range of collaboration among
stakeholders. For example, social scientists, natural scientists and ethicists should work on
finding out what, as a matter of fact, hinders the process of public engagement on

What’s more, specifically for Chinese bioethicists, the big challenge also lies in what shall be
the things, in a normative sense, that currently Chinese value. In other words, normative
inquiry regarding what should be valued precedes the implementation of raising ethical
awareness and ethics training. In an era when eastern and western culture encounter at
various aspects, it remains to be discussed how to reconcile different values and attitudes
whilst an adapted value system is constructed. 


Dr. Jie Yin is currently an associate professor at School of Philosophy, Fudan University. She is an
interdisciplinary researcher specializing in bioethics, philosophy of medicine and Kant. She was trained in
both medical school (B.M./Fudan University) and philosophy department (Mphil/Fudan University,
PhD/SUNY Albany). She has won several teaching awards and is the principal investigator of a few research
projects on bioethics, including a state-funded research grant on just health. Dr. Yin is also collaborating
with her Fudan colleagues on several state-funded interdisciplinary research projects regarding ethics and
policy framework of emerging technologies as well as research ethics.  

Want to cite this post?

Yin, J. (2020). Barriers to Neuroethics Engagement in China. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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