The Harvard case of Xu Xiping: exploitation of the people, scientific advance, or genetic theft?

New Genet Soc. 2005 Apr;24(1):57-78. doi: 10.1080/14636770500037776.


A unique history and make-up of a population may make it an attractive research target for population geneticists and pharmaco-genomic investors. The promise of pharmaceutical profits and advances in medical knowledge attracted Harvard researchers and the company Millennium Pharmaceuticals to remote areas in Anhui Province, Central China, leading to international diplomatic disagreements about issues such as the ownership of genetic material and informed consent (IC). This article discusses the role of genomics and genetic sampling in China, the way it is related to population policies (the new eugenics), the national importance of genetic materials and the conflicts it led to between the Chinese government and Harvard University. Here many consider the Xu Xiping case as textbook example of ruthless Western exploitation of development countries, illustrating the cold rationality of science in the process of globalisation. Ten perspectives on this case show that this view is simplistic and contributes little to an understanding of bioethical issues important to the population actually donating the samples. Viewing the Xu Xiping case as the nexus of the intertwinement of international, transnational, national, and local interest groups shows how different interest groups make use of different units of analysis. It also clarifies why the same practice of genetic sampling continues under a different regime, and why the discussion about genetic sampling has shifted from a concern with health care of the poor to an issue of international exploitation, terrorism and development.

MeSH terms

  • Biological Specimen Banks
  • Biological Warfare
  • Blood Specimen Collection / ethics
  • China
  • DNA
  • Databases, Genetic
  • Developed Countries
  • Developing Countries*
  • Drug Industry / economics
  • Drug Industry / ethics
  • Ethics Committees, Research
  • Ethnic Groups / genetics*
  • Eugenics
  • Genetic Research / ethics*
  • Genetic Variation*
  • Genetics, Population / ethics*
  • Genome, Human
  • Human Genome Project
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent
  • Internationality*
  • Minority Groups
  • National Institutes of Health (U.S.)
  • Newspapers as Topic
  • Pharmacogenetics
  • Politics
  • Research Personnel / ethics
  • Research Subjects
  • Research Support as Topic
  • Scientific Misconduct
  • United States
  • Universities
  • Vulnerable Populations
  • Western World


  • DNA