ASPI: Inside China’s Nationwide DNA Collection Program

In 2017, experts began to warn that controversial DNA collection campaigns resembling ones targeting ethnic minorities in sensitive regions like Xinjiang and Tibet could be expected nationwide as Beijing expanded its use of advanced surveillance technologies to the nation. That year, the began the nationwide DNA collection of random boys and men, part of longer running efforts to map the genetics of its entire male population for and policing purposes. A recent policy report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute documents authorities’ nationwide efforts to build this forensic database—a massive expansion of Beijing’s high surveillance capabilities—and urges Beijing to end the program’s indiscriminate application and destroy all samples obtained without proof of criminal wrongdoing. In the report’s executive summary, the authors outline the history of the program:

Like other such databases, it contains samples taken from criminal offenders and suspects. However, since 2013, In 2003, China’s Ministry of Public Security began building its own forensic DNA database. Chinese authorities have collected DNA samples from entire ethnic minority communities and ordinary citizens outside any criminal investigations and without proper informed consent. The Chinese Government’s genomic dataset likely contains more than 100 million profiles and possibly as many as 140 million, making it the world’s largest DNA database, and it continues to grow (see Appendix 3).

[…] The indiscriminate collection of biometric data in China was first reported by Human Rights Watch. Beginning in 2013, state authorities obtained biometric samples from nearly the entire population of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (3 million residents) under the guise of free annual physical exams region’s 23 million residents was collected. In 2016, a similar program was launched in , where data from nearly all of the region’s 23 million residents was collected.

[…] Such programs, however, were only the beginning. Starting in late 2017, Chinese police expanded mass DNA data collection to the rest of the country. Yet in contrast to the wholesale approach adopted in Tibet and Xinjiang, authorities are using a more cost-efficient but equally powerful method: the collection of DNA samples from selected male citizens. 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.

In this report, we 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. Evidence suggests that, in some locations, blood collection has occurred in preschools (Figure 2) and even continued during the Covid-19 pandemic. […] [Source]

A post on ASPI’s The Strategist blog by report authors Emile Dirks and James Leibold offers local examples of  compulsory DNA collection in schools, shops, and on street sides, outlines how international corporations are profiting from the program, and makes the case that it violates both domestic and international law:

The corporate world is profiting handsomely from this new surveillance program. Leading Chinese and multinational companies have provided the Chinese police with equipment and intellectual property to collect, store and analyse DNA samples. They include Chinese companies like Forensic Genomics International, Beijing Hisign Technology, AGCU Scientific and Microread Genetics, which have sold Y-STR testing kits or Y-STR databases to local public security bureaus across China.

Among the multinational companies participating is the US-based biotech giant Thermo Fisher Scientific, which has boasted, ‘In China, our company is providing immense technical support for the construction of the national DNA database, and has already helped to build the world’s largest DNA database.’

[…] The genomic surveillance program violates Chinese domestic law and international human rights norms, including the UN Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, the UN International Declaration on Human Genetic Data, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. […] [Source]

Reporting on the ASPI brief at The New York Times, Sui-Lee Wee notes both an “unusual amount” of domestic opposition to the controversial program, and examples of official local pride in its application:

[…] At a session of China’s Parliament in March, two delegates to China’s political advisory body proposed that the government regulate DNA collection. One of them, Wang Ying, an official from Beijing, said that when the technology reached a certain scale, the government needed to protect the rights of users “in a timely manner.”

In 2015, Liu Bing, the deputy chief forensic physician at the Ministry of Public Security’s Institute of Forensic Science, warned in the ministry’s forensic journal that the collection of blood samples “with improper measures” could cause social instability, especially “in today’s society where the citizens’ awareness of their legal rights is increasing.”

[…] The authorities have moved quietly. Mr. Dirks, co-author of the Australian paper, said nearly all of the collection was taking place in the countryside, where there was little understanding of the implications of the program.

In rural areas, many officials show pride in their work. Officials in the city of Dongguan posted a photo showing boys in an elementary school lining up to have a teacher collect their blood. Officials in Shaanxi Province also posted online a photo of six boys gathered around a table at an elementary school watching a police officer take blood from one of their friends. [Source]

Wee’s report also goes further into the involvement of U.S.-based Thermo Fisher’s active pursuance of business on the project. The firm in 2017 designed special testing kits tailored for the Ministry of Public Security to identify specific genetic markers, and distinguish between Chinese ethnic groups. On Twitter, as in her report, Sui-Lee Wee highlighted the increased ethical danger that firms like Thermo Fisher take on when partnering with an authoritarian government:

For more on the Sharp Eyes surveillance program, see CDT’s three-part special project “Sharper Eyes: Surveilling the Surveillers.”

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