Human Rights Watch has reported on a program which has gathered biometric data—including fingerprints, iris scans, blood-type, and DNA—on millions of residents in six regions in Xinjiang in 2017 under the guise of a free public health program providing physical examinations. HRW earlier this year voiced concern over a lack of privacy protections related to the planned expansion of DNA collection and indexing targeting vulnerable populations in Xinjiang and other parts of China. Xinjiang is the frontline of a long-running and highly controversial crackdown on terrorism that has been criticized by human rights advocates for targeting members of the Uyghur ethnic minority, and exacerbating ethnic tensions.
For all “focus personnel” – those authorities consider threatening to regime stability – and their family members, their biometrics must be taken regardless of age. Authorities are gathering the biodata in different ways. DNA and blood types are being collected through a free annual physical exams program called Physicals for All. It is unclear if the participants of the physicals are informed of the authorities’ intention to collect, store, or use sensitive DNA data.
“Xinjiang authorities should rename their physical exams project ‘Privacy Violations for All,’ as informed consent and real choice does not seem to be part of these programs,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “The mandatory databanking of a whole population’s biodata, including DNA, is a gross violation of international human rights norms, and it’s even more disturbing if it is done surreptitiously, under the guise of a free health care program.”
The biometric collection scheme is detailed in an official document called “The [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous] Region Working Guidelines on the Accurate Registration and Verification of Population” (全区人口精准登记核实工作指南, “The Population Registration Program”), available in full on the government website of Aksu city in Xinjiang (an unofficial translation is available below). […] [Source]
Coverage of HRW’s report from Echo Huang at Quartz notes the lack of disclosure of the voluntary nature and particulars of the program reported by some Xinjiang residents who took part in it, and notes wider efforts by authorities to collect personal information nationwide:
The Physicals for All program stands out for the way it’s been characterized as a free benefit for a poor region, and important to stable development (link in Chinese). “What’s transmitted to the public via media and social media do not mention DNA collection in Physicals for All,” wrote HRW researcher Maya Wang in an email to Quartz.
[…] Although Physicals for All is touted as a voluntary program (link in Chinese), some residents told HRW that that wasn’t the case. One Uighur said his neighborhood committee demanded participation, warning that any absence would be considered “political disloyalty.” He added he had not received the results of his physical.
In recent years, China has been stepping up efforts nationwide to collect personal information—including intimate relationships, delivery records, and biometric data—from not only people it considers potential threats, but normal citizens as well. Government databases now include such data on tens of millions of citizens, among them Uyghurs, migrant workers, and college students. [Source]
Coverage from the Financial Times’ Emily Feng notes expert opinion that concern exists in Xinjiang that the data collected may be used to match organs of suspected criminals with potential recipients post-execution, and also that the Xinjiang program may be functioning as a pilot program for eventual nationwide rollout.
Following the criticism from HRW and subsequent English-language press coverage, state-affiliated tabloid Global Times covered official defenses of the program and castigations of the criticism:
In Yining, such information would be collected for a demographic database to help accurately identify people and for information-sharing among government departments.
China’s government has the right to take measures it deems as proper to protect national security, and the collection of such information is not harmful to the residents, nor does it affect people’s rights, Turgunjan Tursun, a professor at Zhejiang Normal University, told the Global Times on Wednesday.
Such measures, as well as the collecting of fingerprints in other cities in China, help secure public security, and claims of human rights violations are groundless, he added.
The organization has always made false statements on issues involving China and I suggested there’s no need to spend time on such remarks, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said at a daily briefing on Wednesday.
“Xinjiang has witnessed economic development and social stability, and the people there are living and working in a joyful mood, a scene that some people overseas might be unwilling to see,” Lu said. [Source]
Since 2014, Xinjiang has been the “frontline” of a nationwide crackdown on terrorism in response to rising incidents of violence in the region and elsewhere in China. The crackdown in Xinjiang has seen tightening security measures, the implementation of cutting-edge surveillance technology, and the mandatory installation of spyware on mobile phones; and has also included policies that appear to target Uyghurs such as selective religious fasting bans, local and region-wide rules against “extremist behavior” including face veils or long beards, and a ban on “extreme” Islamic baby names. CDT Chinese editors recently drew attention to state media’s promotion of a primary school in Aksu, Xinjiang where Uyghur students were dressed in traditional Han dress as they recite Chinese classics “in order to feel the powerful charm and profound nature of traditional Chinese culture.”
After hosting the South-South Human Rights Forum the month, Xinhua released the full text of the “Beijing Declaration.” The declaration, which was signed by all representatives in attendance, devotes an article to religious minorities:
States should, in accordance with their national laws and international obligations, focus on guaranteeing the human rights and fundamental freedoms of specific groups, including ethnic, national, racial, religious and linguistic groups and migrant workers, people with disabilities, indigenous people, refugees and displaced persons. States have an obligation to respect and protect religious minorities, and religious minorities have the same obligation to adapt to their local environment, and this includes the acceptance and observance of the Constitution and laws of their localities, as well as their integration into the local society. Everyone has the right to choose his or her own beliefs, including the choice of believing or not believing a religion, and the choice of believing one religion or another, without being discriminated. [Source]