China 'Clone Factory' Scientist Eyes Human Replication
July 26, 2011 --
If you were to step into this Apple store in Kunming, China, you'd probably find what you'd expect to see at any other similar outlet around the world: a collection of iPhones, iPads, iPods and matching accessories. What makes this particular shopping experience unique? It's not an Apple store at all; it's a knock-off. A couple of other Apple imitators have been spotted in other areas of China. The store has become symbolic of how pervasive piracy and copyright infringement is in China. According to a report (PDF) released by the U.S. International Trade Commission, intellectual property infringements conducted by businesses in China resulted in the loss of $48.2 billion in "sales, royalties and licensing fees" for U.S. companies -- and 2.1 million U.S. jobs. And it's not just Chinese citizens buying counterfeit goods. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a total of $124 million worth of counterfeit goods was seized in 2010, two-thirds of which came from China.
If a counterfeit Apple store isn't enough, take a look at the Meizu M8 mobile phone, a virtual clone of Apple's iPhone. The design is almost identical with the same black outer shell and home button of Apple's phone. Even the interface copies Apple's operating system. Entire markets in China can be devoted to selling counterfeit electronics. As the New York Times reports from one such shopping district in Shenzhen, China: "Just as Chinese companies are trying to move up the value chain of manufacturing, from producing toys and garments to making computers and electric cars, so too are counterfeiters."
A few counterfeit Apple stores may seem like a major intellectual property infringement. But when it comes to violating copyright law, no single imitation is quite as big as Shijingshan Amusement Park in Beijing, China. Like Disneyland, the park's centerpiece is essentially a clone of Cinderella's Castle. A giant silver dome on the park's grounds is nearly identical to Epcot's Spaceship Earth. In fact, Shijingshan's characters are almost exact carbon copies of Disney's Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, as well as others, such as Bugs Bunny and Shrek, that belong to entirely separate media franchises. Although the park opened in 1986, the similarities between Shijingshan and Disneyland only came to the attention of Disney's lawyers in 2007.
Many Harry Potter fans bid farewell to their hero after seeing the final installment of the series, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 2," in theaters. Chinese fans were just as eager to see the movie and read the final chapter in Harry's saga. Although most die-hard Harry Potter admirers have read all the books on top of seeing the movies, chances are there may be a few titles they skipped along the way. Ever heard of "Harry Potter and Leopard Walk Up to Dragon?" How about the classic "Harry Potter and the Big Funnel?" Or maybe "Harry Potter and the Chinese Overseas Students at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?" Most Western audiences probably aren't familiar with these titles. And for one good reason: They're all knock-offs. (Click here for excerpts of all of Harry's roughly translated adventures.)
Chinese manufacturers in the business of counterfeiting produce all kinds of knock-offs and bootlegs from shoes and fashion accessories to DVDs and electronics. But when they start to dabble in food, the results can be dangerous. Although the United States is no stranger to bootleg liquor, in China it's a multi-billion dollar industry. One racket alone in China's Shaoxing city in Zhejiang province had amassed the equivalent of $305 million from counterfeit liquor sales. Operators use real bottles of brand-name and luxury alcohol distributors and fill them with a cheap replacement, according to the state-sponsored English language newspaper China Daily. The ingredients that counterfeiters use are often unsafe. In this photo, a patient recovers from poisoning after consuming counterfeit liquor laced with formaldehyde.
Of all the things to imitate, whoever would counterfeit fish food? Apparently, "renegade businessmen" in the Wudi region of China had just that idea in 2007. A pet food manufacturer slipped a cheap industrial chemical into fish food to cut costs, as detailed in a report by the New York Times. Eventually, as they sought a cheaper formula for their product, the fish food became more toxic, fish started to die, and the company earned a bad reputation. Fish weren't the only ones affected by tainted food. In 2007, more than 60 million cans of cat and dog food were recalled after more than a dozen pets died due to the introduction of a contaminated ingredient.
Prior to the boom that shaped China into the global economic superpower it is today, many Chinese citizens were largely unfamiliar with the U.S. economy. In 1980, this note was passed off by a criminal to a merchant conned into believing the shoddily scrawled sketch was a U.S. dollar note with a value of $250. Most people familiar with U.S. currency would have known that none of our notes carry crudely drawn outlines of knife-wielding naked women. Nor are any of them made of fabric. And good luck trying to figure out which president that is.
Although counterfeits are common in the art world, China has a unique industry in which great works of art are mass produced by imitators -- albeit skilled imitators. Dafen, a single village in Southern China, produces about five million oil paintings annually, most of which are copies of masterpieces, according to a 2006 report by Der Spiegel. Oil paintings from this village are so common that the painters have been dubbed the "McDonalds of the art world." The point of the sale isn't to deceive buyers into thinking they're getting the genuine article (most of the time, anyway). But rather the idea is to give the buyer a copy of a portrait or landscape in the original medium with which it was created.
This final slide shows what happens when imitation in China sparks a real innovation. In this photo, aircraft perform an artificial precipitation enhancement mission. In other words, these planes are actually seeding clouds to create precipitation. Technicians also fire rockets loaded with chemicals like silver iodide to create rain. According to China Daily, the People's Republic "has been tinkering with artificial rainmaking for decades, using it frequently in the drought-plagued north."
The Chinese scientist behind the world's biggest cloning factory has technology advanced enough to replicate humans, he told AFP, and is only holding off for fear of the public reaction.
Boyalife Group and its partners are building the giant plant in the northern Chinese port of Tianjin, where it is due to go into production within the next seven months and aims for an output of one million cloned cows a year by 2020.
But cattle are only the beginning of chief executive Xu Xiaochun's ambitions.
In the factory pipeline are also thoroughbred racehorses, as well as pet and police dogs, specialised in searching and sniffing.
Boyalife is already working with its South Korean partner Sooam and the Chinese Academy of Sciences to improve primate cloning capacity to create better test animals for disease research.
And it is a short biological step from monkeys to humans -- potentially raising a host of moral and ethical controversies.
"The technology is already there," Xu said. "If this is allowed, I don't think there are other companies better than Boyalife that make better technology."
The firm does not currently engage in human cloning activities, Xu said, adding that it has to be "self-restrained" because of possible adverse reaction.
But social values can change, he pointed out, citing changing views of homosexuality and suggesting that in time humans could have more choices about their own reproduction.
"Unfortunately, currently, the only way to have a child is to have it be half its mum, half its dad," he said.
"Maybe in the future you have three choices instead of one," he went on. "You either have fifty-fifty, or you have a choice of having the genetics 100 percent from Daddy or 100 percent from Mummy. This is only a choice."
Xu, 44, went to university in Canada and the US, and has previously worked for US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, and in drug development.
Presenting cloning as a safeguard of biodiversity, the Tianjin facility will house a gene bank capable of holding up to approximately five million cell samples frozen in liquid nitrogen -– a catalogue of the world's endangered species for future regeneration.
Boyalife's South Korean partner Sooam is already working on a project to bring the woolly mammoth back from extinction by cloning cells preserved for thousands of years in the Siberian permafrost.
Sooam also serves a niche market recreating customers' dead pet dogs, reportedly for $100,000 a time.
Sooam founder Hwang Woo-Suk was a national hero with his own postage stamp before being embroiled in controversy a decade ago after his claims to be the first in the world to clone a human embryo were discredited.
Hwang, who created Snuppy, the world's first cloned dog, in 2005, lost his university position, had two major papers retracted, and was accused of crimes ranging from violation of bioethics laws to embezzling research funds.
Earlier this year he was quoted in South Korea's Dong-A Ilbo newspaper saying that his firm was planning a cloning joint venture in China "because of South Korea's bioethics law that prohibits the use of human eggs".
"We have decided to locate the facilities in China in case we enter the phase of applying the technology to human bodies," he was quoted as saying.
For now, Xu seeks to become the world's first purveyor of "cloned" beef, breeding genetically identical super-cattle that he promises will taste like Kobe and allow butchers to "slaughter less and produce more" to meet the demands of China's booming middle class.
Cloning differs from genetic modification, but its application to animals would enable the firm to homogenise its output.
"Everything in the supermarket looks good –- it’s almost all shiny, good-looking, and uniformly shaped. For animals, we weren't able to do that in the past. But with our cloning factory, we choose to do so now," Xu said.
"Remember, this is a food. We want it to be uniform, very consistent, very premium quality," he added.
There is controversy over whether cloned beef is safe for human consumption -- research by the US Food and Drug Adminstration says that it is, but the European parliament has backed a ban on cloned animals and products in the food chain.
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization has yet to review the issue.
Han Lanzhi, a GMO safety specialist at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, said Boyalife’s claims about the safety, scope and timeline of their operations were alarming -- and implausible.
"To get approval for the safety of cloned animals would be a very drawn-out process, so when I heard this news, I felt very surprised," she said.
"There must be strong regulation because as a company pursuing its own interests, they could very easily do other things in the future," she added.
Xu sought to be reassuring, telling AFP: "We want the public to see that cloning is really not that crazy, that scientists aren’t weird, dressed in lab coats, hiding behind a sealed door doing weird experiments."