Authorities are systematically gathering genomic data from tens of millions of people.
By Emile Dirks and James Leibold
Mr. Dirks is a Ph.D. candidate. Mr. Leibold is an expert on ethnic issues in modern China.
For several years now, the police and other authorities in China have been collecting across the country DNA samples from millions of men and boys who aren’t suspected of having committed any crime.
In a report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute last month, we exposed the extent of the Chinese government’s program of genetic surveillance: It no longer is limited to Xinjiang, Tibet and other areas mostly populated by ethnic minorities the government represses; DNA collection — serving no apparent immediate need — has spread across the entire country. We estimate that the authorities’ goal is to gather the DNA samples of 35 million to 70 million Chinese males.
Matched against official family records, surveillance footage or witness statements in police reports, these samples will become a powerful tool for the Chinese authorities to track down a man or boy — or, failing that, a relative of his — for whatever reason they deem fit.
The Chinese government denies the existence of any such program, but since our study’s publication, we have continued to uncover online scattered evidence revealing the program’s enormous scale, including government reports and official procurement orders for DNA kits and testing services.
DNA is being harvested across the country: in the southwestern provinces of Yunnan and Guizhou; in central-southern Hunan; in Shandong and Jiangsu, in the east; and up north, in the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia.
We have continued to find photographic evidence that the police are collecting blood from children, pinpricking their fingers at school — a clear violation of China’s responsibilities under the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.
And we have found fresh proof, including official documents, showing that DNA samples are also being gathered in major urban centers. (For a time, the focus seemed to be largely on rural communities.)
An official report dated June 16, available on a website of the government of Sichuan Province, details the creation of a DNA database by the Public Security Bureau of the city of Chengdu, the province’s capital, and seeks expert opinion on the creation of a “male ancestry investigation system.”
It documents how 17 public security offices have collected DNA samples from nearly 600,000 male residents across the city — that’s about 7 percent of Chengdu’s male population (assuming that roughly half of the city’s total population of about 16.6 million is male).
The Chengdu procurement report states that building a massive genetic database about local residents will help the police “maintain public order and stability as well as meet the needs of daily case work.” This is of no comfort.
In China, securing the public order essentially means maintaining the uncontested rule of the Communist Party. Dissent is a crime, and police operations are a key part of the state’s apparatus of repression.
The Chinese police are not doing this work alone. Evidence continues to accumulate that private companies, both Chinese and foreign, are complicit in this extraordinarily vast, and ominous, assault on the privacy of Chinese citizens.
In Hunan Province, Huangrui Scientific Instruments Ltd. — a company based in the provincial capital that produces a range of medical, chemical and scientific products — has sold to the Public Security Bureau of the city of Liuyang some 140,000 DNA testing kits produced by Thermo Fisher Scientific, a U.S.-based Fortune 500 company. That’s enough equipment to test roughly one in five men in the community.
In Fujian Province, Forensic Genomics International, a subsidiary of BGI Group — a Chinese gene-sequencing and biomedical company that describes itself as “one of the world’s leading life science and genomics organizations” — won a contract to analyze 16,000 blood samples collected by one district in the province’s capital as part of the authorities’ effort to build a “male ancestry investigation system.” The estimated total male population of the district is 43,500.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has contacted Thermo Fisher and Forensic Genomics International asking for comments on our report; neither company replied.
In a statement issued to The New York Times for a news story last month related to the report, a representative of Thermo Fisher said that the company was “proud to be a part of the many positive ways in which DNA identification has been applied, from tracking down criminals to stopping human trafficking and freeing the unjustly accused.”
The note, titled “Statement on Xinjiang,” did not address the concerns we raised about the potential for widespread abuse of genomic data by the Chinese police throughout the country.
Thermo Fisher had previously been criticized — by human rights organizations and scholars — for supplying DNA collection and analysis equipment to the Chinese authorities in support of their campaign of repression against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Already in February 2019, the company had vowed to cease any such sales in the region.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Commerce Department added to its list of sanctioned companies two other subsidiaries of BGI Group — the Chinese parent company of Forensic Genomics International — for “conducting genetic analyses used to further the repression of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities” in Xinjiang.
BGI Group has rejected the accusations. Yet the company is also reported to have agreed to build “a gene bank” in the region.
BGI Group has also been producing tens of millions of Covid-19 test kits for distribution to more than 80 countries — raising concerns in places like Australia and California that any DNA data collected in the process might then be misused.
For now, China appears to be the only country in the world where police are harvesting en masse DNA samples outside the scope of criminal investigations. But how much longer before others follow suit?
In other countries, including the United States, law enforcement authorities are also pushing the ethical boundaries of genetic data collection.
The police in New York routinely collect DNA samples from people they arrest or simply question — sometimes without saying. Across the United States, police officers search private ancestry sites like GEDmatch scouring genetic data looking for potential leads in cold cases — also without the knowledge or the consent of the people who uploaded their personal information.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration put in place a program requiring Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to collect with mouth swabs DNA samples from people in their custody and add that information to the FBI’s DNA database.
Global norms around how to handle genomic data are unsettled, and against that shifting background, the actions of superpowers like China and the United States are likely to set dangerous precedents for other states.
The high courts of some countries, like Kuwait and Kenya, have either banned as unconstitutional or restricted the mass collection of DNA by state authorities.
Other states are trying to forge ahead.
In India, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced a bill last year aimed at “expanding the application of DNA-based forensic technologies to support and strengthen the justice delivery system of the country.” But advocacy groups have identified the risk of potential misuses.
A senior judge had previously warned that legislation covering India’s vast system of biometric identification, Aadhaar, might be interpreted in the future to justify the collection, not only of people’s fingerprints and iris scans, but of DNA samples as well.
Last month, civil rights groups in Thailand raised concerns that Thai border authorities, including soldiers, had, without explanation, forcibly taken DNA samples from minority Muslim Thai citizens returning from Malaysia.
Malaysia, for its part, is mulling plans to create a national registration system that would link biometric and DNA data to existing ID documents — this purportedly to keep ineligible foreigners from fraudulently being added to the country’s citizenship rolls.
The battle over biometric privacy will be one of the defining civil liberty issues of the 21st century. And grimly, on this front, too, China seems to be leading the way.
Emile Dirks is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. James Leibold is a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the head of the department of Politics, Media and Philosophy at La Trobe University, in Melbourne.