Accepted Paper:

Stem cell tourism to China, the 'innovation imperative' and strategic blind spots.  


Jane Brophy (Monash University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper presents empirical insights into how discourses around innovation are invoked strategically and, within commercial stem cell clinics, employed to obscure underlying power differentials in the context of stem cell tourism to China.

Paper long abstract:

As a form of medical innovation, stem cell research and clinical translation has been viewed by many governments as a priority in addressing health concerns of ageing populations, attracting foreign investment and partnerships, and raising international reputations in the global competition over 'innovation'. In China, driven by the dream of ganchao (to catch up and overtake), the prioritization of innovation in stem cell research created both purposeful and unforeseen blind spots, often requiring post hoc regulation. Throughout the 2000s, China became one of a number of leading destinations for people travelling to access stem cell treatments considered unproven by normative scientific standards and therefore unavailable in their home countries, leading some to characterize China as a 'Wild East' of stem cells. Such nationalized discourses obscure the international flow of patients, doctors and entrepreneurs also benefiting from the so-called 'failure' of China to regulate the market for unproven treatments. This paper draws on interviews conducted in China in 2014 with people involved in the provision of commercial stem cell treatments, as well as representatives of the Chinese Academy of Science. It addresses the second key theme of the conference around the antagonisms between citizen science, private partnerships and global assemblages. It contributes to the discussion in the track entitled 'Innovation: Discourses, politics, societies, and blind spots' by offering empirical insights into the way discourses of innovation are employed strategically in this particular context, and how they obscure other considerations such as the underlying power differentials in the co-production of scientific knowledge.

Panel T071
Innovation: Discourses, politics, societies, and blind spots