Starting from Xinjiang and Tibet, the Chinese government wants to collect DNA and other biological data of all citizens. Yes, it may help solving unsolved crimes, but also persecuting dissidents and ethnic minorities more effectively.
by Ruth Ingram
How it worked in Xinjiang
“Free physicals for all! Why the hesitation?” The Kashgar community leader was at a loss to know why everyone crammed into the square before him was not jumping at the chance to embrace the latest freebie offered by the Party. Didn’t people want to know what life-threatening time bombs were ticking away inside them? They should be grateful, he told them.
This was back in May 2017, during the CCP’s campaign to trawl in every possible bio marker from the citizens of Xinjiang. Blood tests, tissue typing, iris scanning, DNA harvesting and even facial, voice, and gait recognition were on offer to the people in the crowd of 500 at the compulsory Monday morning reveille. They should not drag their heels any longer, he said.
And three years later with hindsight, we know the consequences of reluctance or non-compliance. And we know now too, with hindsight that by October 2017, 23 million samples of bio data had been amassed from the entire population of Xinjiang, whose disquieting purposes are still open to conjecture.
The world’s largest DNA database
Beijing has been collecting DNA from criminals to build its forensic data base as far back as 2003, but indiscriminate collection among almost the entire population of the Tibetan Autonomous region was first reported by Human Rights Watch in 2013 under the guise of free annual checkups.
But Beijing has now gone a step further. Not content with having simply mapped the so-called troublesome regions, new findings have been unearthed detailing its plan to chart the entire male population of China. By harvesting DNA samples from millions of men and boys who have never committed a crime, the CCP appears to be in the process of something more far reaching and all encompassing, but also illegal, even according to China’s own laws.
A new report, “Genomic surveillance, Inside China’s DNA dragnet,” that blows the whistle on this disturbing plan has been released by the Australian Social Policy Institute (ASPI) and calls out Beijing for violating Chinese domestic law and global human rights norms, which it says will “increase the power of the Chinese state and further enable domestic repression in the name of stability maintenance and social control.”
Worryingly, the Chinese Government’s genomic dataset is now estimated to be the world’s largest DNA database with more than 100 million profiles and possibly as many as 140 million. And there appears to be no end in sight.
With a little help from foreign friends
Authors James Leibold, Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy at La Trobe University and a non-resident Senior Fellow at ASPI, and Emile Dirks, a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Toronto, also shine the spotlight on foreign biotechnology companies riding on the back of this lucrative exercise, worth more than 1.4 billion US dollars, which they warn could make them complicit in a raft of human rights violations.
The role of US-based Thermo Fisher Scientific in selling testing kits, and major Chinese companies such as AGCU Scientific and Microread Genetics have been highlighted. “All these companies have an ethical responsibility to ensure that their products and processes don’t violate the fundamental human rights and civil liberties of Chinese citizens,” states the report.
“This ASPI report provides the first comprehensive analysis of the Chinese Government’s forensic DNA database and the close collaboration between Chinese and multinational companies and the Chinese police in the database’s construction,” it claims. Drawing on more than 700 open-source documents, including Chinese government bid tenders and procurement orders, public security bureaus’ Weibo and Weixin (WeChat) posts, domestic news coverage, social media posts, and corporate documents and promotional material, this report provides “new evidence of how Xinjiang’s well-documented bio-surveillance program is being rolled out across China, further deepening the Chinese Government’s control over society while violating the human and civil liberties of millions of the country’s citizens.”
Why it is dangerous
“The forensic use of DNA has the potential to solve crimes and save lives; yet it can also be misused and reinforce discriminatory law enforcement and authoritarian political control,” it explains, but it is deeply disturbed by the implications of its findings.
“In China’s authoritarian one-party system, there’s no division between policing crime and suppressing political dissent,” it says. A Ministry of Public Security-run national database of samples connected to detailed family records for each sample “would have a chilling impact not only on dissidents, activists and members of ethnic and religious minorities, but on their extended family members as well.”
After the wholesale testing campaign in Tibet and Xinjiang, late 2017 heralded a more cost-effective but equally powerful method whereby selected male citizens were chosen for their DNA. Spurred on by a case covered by the Wall Street Journal in 2017, when the murder of two shopkeepers killed nine years before in Qianwei, was solved by gathering the DNA of thousands of schoolboys and using it to identify biological traits common to their blood relatives, a more scaled-back form of DNA harvesting was conceived.
The plan had originally been to test all 130,000 of the town’s residents, but police decided against this due to the possibility of public opposition and prohibitive costs. “Realising DNA was hereditary,” wrote the WSJ, “they decided all they needed were samples from each clan in the area, most of whom would have at least one child in school.”
This targeted approach gathers Y-STR data—the ‘short tandem repeat’ or unique DNA sequences that occur on the male (Y) chromosome. When these samples are linked to multigenerational family trees created by the police, they have the potential to link any DNA sample from an unknown male back to a specific family and even to an individual man.
The ASPI report document hundreds of police-led DNA data-collection sorties in 22 of China’s 31 administrative regions (excluding Hong Kong and Macau) and across more than a hundred municipalities between late 2017 and April 2020.
Children are included
Officials have been recorded rounding up kindergarten infants, school children at their desks, migrant workers, and farmers laboring on remote mountainsides for the tests. “The scale and nature of this program are astounding,” say the authors, who have detailed the strenuous efforts made by China’s authorities since late 2017 to collect samples from 5-10 per cent of the country’s male population, or roughly 35-70 million people. Ordinary citizens are powerless to object and have no say over how their genomic data is used.
Emile Dirks, describing his compiling of the report as mainly detective work “peering into dark corners” of Chinese Government websites, has concluded that reports of the DNA project were not intended for world consumption. “They are keeping their heads down,” he said at a recent webinar presenting the ASPI report. Reports of the DNA collection were primarily directed towards a local audience at village and city level, he noted. Co-author James Leibold thought CCP silence was “interesting.” “They are usually quick to criticize ASPI,” he said. “This program seems to have been carried out at a local level and surreptitiously,” he concluded. “Perhaps they are worried about push back.” More ominously it appears that Beijing is looking to complete the program before admitting that it exists, and before Chinese citizens and the world wake up to what is happening, he said.
A new international problem
According to an email sent to the WSJ, Thermo Fisher was confident that it could “adequately protect personal privacy while appropriately balancing the public safety and national security needs of government.” But Dirks, author of the report doubted whether this would be possible since harvested material is shared with China’s central police database, he said. Nothing is private.
A major concern is that China’s success in data gathering will be a spur to the rest of the world to collect data unilaterally and forcibly from their most vulnerable and marginalized communities. The USA, UK and Kuwait have already dipped their feet in the water and Thailand, Malaysia and India are all contemplating the same.
“We feel that the issue of genomic surveillance is going to be one of the defining ethical problems of the twenty first century,” said Dirks, saying that this was an issue that extends beyond China. But China’s lack of opposition political parties, independent judiciary, free press, and robust civil society, he said, made the situation there more critical. He urged civil society in the west to step up on behalf of China’s citizens, expose the abuses and promote public discussion.
James Leibold pointed out that apart from a few minimal and sketchy UN agreements, the absence of strict regulation over ownership of genetic data, enables China to shift global norms. If civil society outside China stays silent, the CCP will becoming a litmus test for the treatment of biodata.
“These things are evolving before our eyes quite quickly,” he added. “Without a clear sense of guard rail or what the limits are, China can lead the way in pushing those guard rails out.”
A magic pill to solve unsolved crimes—or something else?
The authors of the report doubt the motives of DNA harvesters. Far from being a magic pill to solve unsolved crimes, they suspect a more troubling agenda.
“Chinese state has an extensive history of using threats and violence against the families of regime targets in order to stamp out opposition to the Communist Party,” they write, citing leaked documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and The New York Times, which reveal that collection by authorities in Xinjiang on family members of detainees in the region’s re-education camps, and a detainee’s release is conditional upon the behavior of their family members outside the camps. “The repression of family members extends far beyond Xinjiang. Parents and children of prominent human rights lawyers, and the siblings of overseas government critics, are routinely detained and tortured by Chinese police,” they conclude.
Continuing, “by forcing a dissident’s family to pay the price for their relative’s activism, these tactics cruelly yet effectively increase the cost of resistance. A police-run Y-STR database containing biometric samples and detailed multigenerational genealogies from all of China’s patrilineal families is likely to increase state repression against the family members of dissidents and further undermine the civil and human rights of dissidents and minority communities.”
Knowledge that Chinese researchers are increasingly interested in forensic DNA phenotyping have flagged up more danger for minorities in the CCP cross hairs. The authors found that Chinese scientists, through analysis of biogeographical characteristics of an unknown sample, such as hair and eye color, skin pigmentation, geographical location, and age, can determine whether the sample belongs to an ethnic Uyghur or a Tibetan, among other ethnic groups. They are using these methods to help Chinese police to target ethnic minority populations for greater surveillance, while Chinese and foreign companies are competing to provide the Chinese police with the tools to do their work, says the report. “A national database containing the genetic information of tens of millions of ordinary Chinese citizens is a clear expansion of the already unchecked authority of the Chinese Government and its Ministry of Public Security,” worry the authors. “Chinese citizens are already subjected to extensive surveillance. Even beyond Tibet and Xinjiang, religious believers and citizen petitioners across China are added to police databases to track their movements, while surveillance cameras have expanded across the country’s rural and urban areas. The expansion of compulsory biometric data collection only increases the power of the Chinese state to undermine the human rights of its citizens.”