By Maya Wang
Interim China Director and Associate Director
January 30, 2024
Police collecting DNA samples from residents in Dritoe county, Yushu municipality, Qinghai province. ("Zhahe police station caries out DNA blood sample collection," Zhidoi County Public Security, WeChat, September 10, 2021)
This opinion piece was co-authored by Maya Wang, acting China Director at Human Rights Watch, and Yves Moreau, professor of bioinformatics at the University of Leuven, Belgium.
The U.S. biomedical company Thermo Fisher Scientific announced on Jan. 5 that it will no longer sell human DNA identification technology to the Chinese police in the Tibet Autonomous Region. In 2019, it had made a similar decision to halt the sale of these products in Xinjiang, the northwestern region where the Chinese government’s persecution of ethnic Uyghurs amounts to a crime against humanity.
Helping to protect the rights of Tibetans and Uyghurs in China is essential, and Thermo Fisher’s decisions are important and welcome. But they fall short of what is needed, given the gravity of abuses. And within China, the problem of mass DNA surveillance goes beyond these two regions.
Thermo Fisher’s announcement sidesteps a key question: What about sales of its technology to Chinese police in other parts of the country?
In the past seven years, Human Rights Watch has documented that mass collection and cataloging of people’s DNA form a part of the Chinese police’s countrywide mass surveillance systems, which involves the use of facial and voice recognition technology, big data platforms, among other technologies. These technologies have empowered the Chinese government to maintain a vice-like grip on a complex society, from cities to its most remote borderlands, hunting down dissidents and neutralizing protests.
In 2017, Human Rights Watch exposed how the Chinese government was forcing ordinary people unconnected to crime throughout China to have their blood drawn and DNA samples taken. Without people’s consent, the police put this genetic information into nationally searchable databases, which may now contain more than 140 million DNA profiles or 10 percent of China’s population. The scale of such genomic surveillance is unprecedented in the world.
We also noted that Uyghurs in Xinjiang were being targeted in particular by the authorities for mass DNA surveillance schemes.
Human Rights Watch wrote to Thermo Fisher at that time about its findings. Thermo Fisher said then that “it is not possible” for the company to monitor the use of all its products, but that “we do expect all our customers to act in accordance with appropriate regulations and industry-standard best practices.” Thermo Fisher took no apparent action then and did not reply to a follow-up letter.
That year, the Chinese government ratcheted-up abuses against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang. In addition to Orwellian surveillance, the authorities carried out mass arbitrary detention in political education camps and prisons, forced labor, forced separations of families, sexual and reproductive abuses, and cultural persecution. These widespread and systematic abuses amounted to crimes against humanity. After two years of growing attention to these abuses, along with tireless campaigning by Uyghur activists and U.S. congressional pressure, Thermo Fisher stopped sales to Xinjiang police in 2019.
However, as Human Rights Watch pointed out to the company, mass DNA collection is not limited to Xinjiang. In 2022, Human Rights Watch and Citizen Lab independently documented such abusive DNA collection in Tibet. Thermo Fisher’s recent announcement that it would halt sales to Tibet was “based on a number of factors” that it did not specify.
By now, companies operating in China know or should know that the Chinese police’s deployment of technology for mass surveillance is a national project, and so stopping sales only to certain parts of China is far from adequate. In 2020, a report by the think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute showed that Chinese police were building a male DNA database that would allow it to identify all men in the country, and that Thermo Fisher had played a key role in supplying technology to this chilling surveillance program.
One way to make sure Thermo Fisher’s equipment is used only for legitimate purposes would be for the company to put in place a rigorous human rights due diligence process. This would include independent auditing, to monitor all its clients in China, and making the audit findings public.
Until then, the company should halt all sales of human DNA identification products to China’s police, judiciary, and all forensic genetics labs. The company has not responded to Human Rights Watch regarding why it has not yet done so.
The U.S. Department of Commerce, which has since 2022 been empowered to impose export controls on U.S. technology for use by foreign “military, security, or intelligence services,” should also expand these controls to include key emerging technologies, including human DNA identification technology, as several members of Congress have repeatedly demanded.
Given the Chinese government’s dubious global leadership in innovating surveillance methods and systems, the next steps by companies like Thermo Fisher in China will invariably affect human rights around the world.