Authorities Collect DNA Samples in Tibet for Policing Campaign

This week, Human Rights Watch reported that Chinese government authorities have conducted a mass collection of DNA samples from local populations across numerous towns in Tibet. The measure ostensibly aims to improve crime detection, but has been deemed arbitrary and coercive, raising fears of human rights violations. Covering the report for The Guardian, Helen Davidson described the coercive nature of the mass collection drive:

“There is no publicly available evidence suggesting people can decline to participate or that police have credible evidence of criminal conduct that might warrant such collection,” it said, adding that mass collection for such a purpose was a serious human rights violation in that it “cannot be justified as necessary or proportionate”.

[…] The report described the campaign as “intrusive policing”, taking samples from all residents of some villages, including those as young as five, or of all male residents. In a January report, police described efforts in Chonggye county to conduct information registration and DNA collection.

“No village must be omitted from a township, no household must be omitted from a village, and no person must be omitted from a household,” it said. [Source]

The mass collection is part of the government’s “Three Greats” drive (“Great One-by-one Inspection, Great Investigation, and Great Mediation”), which aims to strengthen grassroots social governance by increasing police presence at the village level and conducting police visits to individual households. The drive reportedly involves DNA collection. In 2019, local police departments issued tenders to construct regional-level DNA databases, and Human Rights Watch has identified instances of systematic DNA collection across 14 distinct localities. At Nikkei Asia, Pak Yiu described the scope of the campaign, which has targeted millions of people, including children in kindergarten:

In mid-2019, the Tibetan public security department called for tender bids to build a regional-level DNA database.

Human Rights Watch identified seven municipalities in the mountainous region, including in the western part of Tibet, where the drive has been taking place.

According to a state media article in May 2019, the public security bureau in the Tibetan city of Chamdo kicked off a yearlong campaign to collect fingerprints and blood samples from residents to be stored in a police database to help authorities catch fugitives. The Human Rights Watch report said that at least half a million people in the municipality had had their blood collected.

The group’s report identified several online articles that said children as young as 5 were included in the DNA collection drive. In one article published in April, police reportedly collected blood samples from children at a Nimu County kindergarten. [Source]

The Human Rights Watch report explained how authorities’ mass collection of DNA, particularly from children, constitutes a violation of the right to privacy:

DNA information is highly sensitive and can facilitate a wide array of abuses if collected or shared non-consensually. Any compelled collection or use by the government is a serious intrusion on the right to privacy. While the government’s collection of DNA is sometimes justified as a permissible investigative tool, this type of interference with the right to privacy must be comprehensively regulated, narrow in scope, and proportionate to meeting a legitimate security goal.

Yet the Chinese government data collection drives collect DNA information from everyone, regardless of whether they are in any way linked to a criminal investigation, and do not appear to require informed consent or explanation of why DNA samples are sought.

[…] The authorities’ collection of DNA from children without their informed, meaningful, and freely given consent, or that of their caregivers, and extracted in educational settings where they could not meaningfully opt out or refuse to provide their personal health data, is a violation of children’s privacy. Furthermore, the authorities’ stated use for this data – crime detection – does not appear to constitute a legitimate, proportionate purpose that serves the child’s best interest. [Source]

The Chinese government’s use of DNA collection to assist police work dates back to at least 2004, when plans were announced to create a database for this purpose. Since then, it has expanded to target ethnic minorities as part of broad government anti-terrorism campaigns. In 2017, Human Rights Watch documented mass biometric data collection drives in Xinjiang that targeted millions of individuals between 12 and 65 years old who were neither convicted nor suspected of a crime. These measures were controversial for their unethical nature and instrumentalization in advanced government surveillance tactics. 

The government’s DNA collection efforts are intimately tied to its persecution of the Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang, who the UN declared may be subject to crimes against humanity. Reports of such biometric data collection emerged at the same time as the Chinese government’s antiterrorism campaign in Xinjiang, and they have described how a DNA database may be used to surveil and chase down individuals who resist the campaign. One New York Times report from 2019 described an attempt by Chinese scientists to use Uyghur DNA samples to create an image of a person’s face, and noted that this research was being carried out in laboratories managed by the Ministry of Public Security and used to enhance facial recognition technology. In 2021, Reuters reported that a company affiliated with the Chinese military was collecting genomic data partly in an attempt to single out Tibetan and Uyghur minorities and find links between their genes and physical characteristics. The Xinjiang Police Files, released in May, listed the blood type of each of the thousands of detainees contained in the leak. 

A 2020 Australian Strategic Policy Institute report noted that as of 2019, the Chinese government’s DNA database had been rolled out nationwide, including as many as 140 million profiles, making it the world’s largest. The U.S. FBI-administered central DNA database CODIS, for comparison, added its 20 millionth profile in May 2021. On one hand, CODIS incorporates privacy protections such as the exclusion of directly personally identifying information; on the other, it has been criticized for enshrining and perpetuating racial imbalances elsewhere in U.S. law enforcement, for example with the indiscriminate collection of migrants’ DNA. In a call for global regulation of DNA profiling in Science Magazine in May 2021, HRW’s Maya Wang warned that “as the technology gets cheaper, and as the adoption of surveillance gets ever broader, there is an acute risk of pervasive genomic surveillance, not only by authoritarian regimes but also in democracies with weakening rights.”


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