CCCH6001 China: Culture, State and Society

Human Monkeys: Unethical Research in Manchuria

This course is under the thematic cluster(s) of:

  • The Quest for a Meaningful Life (UQM)

[This is a 3-credit Common Core Microcredential course focused on transdisciplinary project-based learning in a highly compressed format. It is open to undergraduate students seeking to fulfill their Common Core requirements after they have successfully completed one 6-credit course in each of the Common Core’s Area(s) of Inquiry (AoIs): Science, Technology and Big Data; Arts and Humanities; Global Issues; and China: Culture, State and Society (See note below). Eligible students can take two Microcredentials courses in place of one standard 6-credit Common Core course.

Note: Except for students who have been granted Advanced Standing / Credit Transfer / Course Exemption / Internal Transfer in their current programme.]

[This is a certified Communication-intensive (CI) Course which meets all of the requirements endorsed by HKU’s Senate, including (i) the teaching assessment of written and visual communication ‘literacies’; and (ii) at least 40% of the course grade is assigned to communication-rich assessment tasks.]

Course Description

At a time where challenge trials are becoming commonplace, and controversy surrounds heritable gene editing research, research ethics is particularly timely. This intense, experiential learning course will introduce medical and non-medical students to research ethics in general and specifically to research conducted by the Japanese Unit 731 in Manchuria during WWII. Called ‘logs,’ and designated as monkeys in scientific publications, Chinese citizens as well as Soviet prisoners of war were experimented on using biological and chemical materials, all in the name of science. Japanese researchers later found asylum in the USA, with their research findings potentially being used during the Korea war and elsewhere. Walking in the footsteps of the research subjects in Manchuria, visiting what was once the headquarters of Unit 731, and learning more about the hideous studies that were conducted, students will be encouraged to reflect on the past and future of research ethics. We will specifically explore common topics and dilemmas in research ethics such as informed consent, whether it is justified to use data that were gained through unethical research, and can we judge past research based on current regulations and guidelines.

[This course has a 7-day compulsory field trip to Manchuria which will be held during the summer from June 10 to 17, 2024. Students will be expected to contribute towards necessary travel costs for this course.]

[Students will be eligible to apply individually for “Non-means-tested Mainland Experience Scheme for Post-secondary Students” after the field trip.]

Course Learning Outcomes

On completing the course, students will be able to:

  1. Cite and explain key concepts and arguments in research ethics such as informed consent, autonomy and challenge trials.
  2. Cite and explain significant signposts in the historical development of research ethics in the world, including questionable studies and documents such as the Belmont Report.
  3. Critically review current and future research across various disciplines.
  4. Apply the insights gained during the course in developing ethically sound research projects in the future.
  5. Explain the Unit 731 episode in its wider social and historical context both within and outside of China.

Offer Semester and Day of Teaching

Summer Semester

One week during the summer (from June 10 to 17, 2024)

Study Load

Activities Number of hours
Lectures 17
Fieldwork / Visits 30
Reading / Self-study 15
Assessment: Essay / Report writing 6
Assessment: Group project 10
Total: 78

Assessment: 100% coursework

Assessment Tasks Weighting
Written reflections 30
In-class discussion and debate 20
Final project 50

Required Reading

  • Beecher, H. K. (1966). Ethics and clinical research. The New England journal of medicine, 274(24), 1354–1360. From
  • Bülow, W., Godskesen, T. E., Helgesson, G., & Eriksson, S. (2020). Why unethical papers should be retracted. Journal of medical ethics, medethics-2020-106140. From
  • Czech, H, et. al. (2023, November 18). The Lancet Commission on medicine, Nazism, and the Holocaust: historical evidence, implications for today, teaching for tomorrow. The Lancet, 402(10415), 1867–1940. From
  • Emanuel, E. J., Wendler, D., & Grady, C. (2000). What makes clinical research ethical?. JAMA, 283(20), 2701–2711. From
  • Emanuel, E. J., Wendler, D., Killen, J., & Grady, C. (2004). What Makes Clinical Research in Developing Countries Ethical? The Benchmarks of Ethical Research, The Journal of infectious Diseases, 189(5), 930-937. From
  • Harris, S. H. (1994/2002). Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-45 and the American Cover-Up.
  • Millum, J., & Grady, C. (2013). The ethics of placebo-controlled trials: methodological justifications. Contemporary clinical trials, 36(2), 510–514. From
  • Shepherd, L., & Macklin, R. (2019). Erosion of informed consent in U.S. research. Bioethics, 33(1), 4-12. From
  • Su, Z., McDonnell, D., Cheshmehzangi, A., Abbas, J., Li, X., & Cai, Y. (2021). The promise and perils of Unit 731 data to advance COVID-19 research. BMJ global health, 6(5), e004772. From 

Course Co-ordinator and Teacher(s)

Course Co-ordinator Contact
Dr Z. Lederman
Medical Ethics and Humanities Unit, Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine
Teacher(s) Contact
Dr Z. Lederman
Medical Ethics and Humanities Unit, Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine
Dr Aaron Hames
Society of Fellows in the Humanities, Faculty of Arts