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Months after his daughter’s birth in 2017, Chris Jung dropped off a test-tube of her saliva to his company’s genetic testing lab in Hong Kong. He had grand ambitions for the baby, and was seeking clues to the future in her DNA. She might become a prominent professional, he thought, possibly even a doctor.

But Jung’s plans shifted after analysis by his firm, Gene Discovery, suggested his daughter had strong abilities in music, math and sports—though a lesser aptitude for memorizing details. As the little girl grows up, Jung said he will pour resources into developing those talents, while steering her away from professions that require a lot of memorization.

“Originally, I would like her to become a professional like a doctor or lawyer," said Jung, chief operating officer of Good Union Corp., the parent company of Gene Discovery. “But once I looked into the results, it talked about how her memory is so bad. I switched my expectations because if I would like her to become a professional, she needs to study a lot and remember a lot."

Gene Discovery does brisk business hawking DNA tests out of a warren of rooms in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district, near stores selling Prada bags and Dior watches. More than half of its clients are from China’s mainland, where parents eager to shape their offspring into prodigies are fuelling the advance of a growing but largely unregulated industry. It’s a Chinese version of helicopter parenting that reflects the country’s tendency to push the boundaries when it comes to genetics, part of a broader race to dominate the field with ramifications for how the life-altering science is used throughout the world.

DNA Crystal Ball

While gaining in popularity across the globe, consumer genetic testing is booming in China. Delaware-based research firm Global Market Insights Inc. sees sales of DNA testing services tripling to $135 million by 2025 from $41 million last year. Others, like Beijing-based consultancy EO Intelligence, project an even faster surge in the market, to $405 million in 2022. EO Intelligence also forecasts that by then, some 60 million Chinese consumers will be using DNA testing kits, up from 1.5 million people last year.

For now, the Chinese market is a fraction of the $300 million in the US, but the company expects the country’s growth to edge ahead, with annual sales growing nearly 17% through 2025 compared to 15% in the US, according to Global Market Insights.

Gene Discovery is among a wave of companies seeking to cater to that rising demand, playing the role of modern-day fortune tellers, with DNA as their crystal ball. A search of Chinese online shopping platform JD.com and the internet in Mandarin throw up dozens of firms offering genetic talent testing for babies and newborns.

Their promises are similarly lofty, vowing to help parents uncover their children’s “potential talents" in everything from logic and math to sports and even emotional intelligence. Help your child “win at the starting line" is a common marketing refrain. In a society like China, which saw 15 million babies born last year, the appeal is clear. But many of the claims from these newly minted companies—that DNA can be used to assess ability to memorize data, tolerate stress or show leadership—are more horoscope than actual science. Critics say that in many cases even those claims rooted in science, like assessing the risk of autism, are based on early-stage research that is not yet fully understood.

“There’s not a scientific basis on which you can say those things with any degree of certainty," said Gil McVean, an Oxford University geneticist who’s the director of the Big Data Institute.

The center focuses on analysing genetic and biological data to prevent and cure diseases. Gene Discovery’s executives say they aren’t giving direct or conclusive advice — only laying out potential health risks and talents parents can use as a reference in a hyper-competitive culture. After decades of strict population control laws that were repealed in 2016, most Chinese parents still only have one child who is the focal point of their ambitions.

Peeking into future

After her baby’s birth in 2017, Zhou Xiaoying checked into a postpartum center where she was taken care of by a staff of women, cooks and traditional healer —as is the custom in China for upwardly mobile mothers. There, a sales representative from a genetic testing firm made her a tantalizing offer: For about $1,500, the company would swab saliva from her son’s mouth to offer a peek into his future.

The test, which also analyzed the baby’s predisposition to genetic diseases, told Zhou her son was likely to be gifted in music and the arts — but weak in sports. Zhou says her now two-year-old son can hum a song in tune after hearing it once, and the family is moving into a bigger house where she intends to cultivate his talents. Zhou pulled the boy out of running and swimming classes and instead plans to buy a piano and start him soon on lessons.

“I wanted to know about his talents in the future so that I can set a direction for him," said the Shanghai mom, who used to work in the financial industry. “If you believe the results, then you can use it as a reference. If you don’t, that’s fine because it doesn’t hurt."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.

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