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He Jiankui speaks at the podium at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing

In the fall of 2017, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV aired a series promoting China's achievements in science and technology. One episode profiled a Chinese scientist who claimed to have invented a gene-sequencing machine that outperformed those in the West.

"Somebody said we shocked the world with our machine," a man in his mid-30s says with a proud smile into the camera. "Yes, they're right! I did that — He Jiankui! That's me who did that!"

It wasn't the last time He Jiankui would shock the world.

Last November, as the scientist walked across a stage to a lectern inside a Hong Kong conference hall, there was tepid, hesitant applause from an audience of peers uncomfortable with what he was about to announce: that he had successfully edited the genes of twin girls to help them resist HIV infection. A third gene-edited baby is on the way, according to He.

He said he used a technology known as CRISPR to edit the genes of human embryos that led to live births, something that had never been done before. Chinese investigators later...