Wanted posters for suspects in terror attacks are seen in this image from 2014 of a street in Aksu, Xinjiang province. Photo: AP
Beijing laying groundwork for mass DNA testing in Xinjiang
  • Tue, 05/16/2017 - 17:39

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 May, 2017, 8:22pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 May, 2017, 8:22pm

China appears to be laying the groundwork for the mass collection of DNA samples from residents of Xinjiang, a largely Muslim region already under a security crackdown, rights observers and independent analysts said on Tuesday.

Police in Xinjiang confirmed they are in the process of purchasing at least US$8.7 million in equipment to analyse DNA samples.

Observers from Human Rights Watch said they had seen evidence of almost US$3 million worth of additional purchases related to DNA testing. They warned that such a collection programme could be used as a way to increase political control.

Ethnic Uygurs at a food stall in Kashgar in Xinjiang in 2008. Billboards for the Beijing Olympics can be seen in the background. Photo: AP

The move comes after Chinese authorities last year reportedly required Xinjiang residents to submit DNA samples, fingerprints and voice records to obtain passports or travel abroad.

If used at full capacity, the new equipment could be used to profile up to 10,000 DNA samples a day and several million a year, said Yves Moreau, a computational biologist specialising in genome analysis and DNA privacy at the University of Leuven in Belgium.

Since it started collecting DNA profiles in 1989, China has amassed the unique genetic information on more than 40 million people, constituting the world’s largest DNA database, according to a study last year by forensic researchers at the China Ministry of Public Security.

Unlike many other countries, China lacked legal protections to guard people’s privacy and prevent their genetic information from being misused, said Helen Wallace, founder of the British group GeneWatch.

Xinjiang borders several unstable Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan. It has experienced numerous bombings and vehicle and knife attacks blamed on ethnic separatists from the native Uygur Islamic minority.

In one of the most recent attacks, eight people, including three assailants, were killed in a February knife attack in southern Xinjiang’s Pishan county, which borders Pakistan.

Chinese authorities seeking to counter religious extremism among the Uygurs have taken increasingly aggressive steps to quell the unrest. Those have included mandatory satellite tracking systems for vehicles in some areas, rewards for terror-related tips and prohibitions against women wearing veils or men growing beards.

The purchases of DNA testing equipment in Xinjiang were confirmed by an official at the regional Public Security Bureau. The official, who gave only her surname, Huang, said a supplier already had been found. In Xinjiang’s Sheche county, suppliers were being sought for voiceprint collection systems and 3D portrait systems, according to a security official surnamed Yin, who declined to give further details.

The scale of the purchases raised “a legitimate concern that Chinese authorities could be planning to DNA profile a large fraction, or even all” of the Uygur people in Xinjiang, Moreau said.

“Xinjiang is already an oppressive region with a high level of surveillance,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang. “To collect even more information on a mass scale unrelated to criminal investigation opens the door for an even greater level of surveillance and control.”

Government-sponsored DNA databases compile the genetic markers present in each individual, typically from blood, saliva or hair samples. They are used by law enforcement agencies around the globe as evidence in criminal prosecutions and to monitor prior offenders.

In the United States, where laws generally limit DNA collection to people who have been arrested, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has 12.8 million offenders in its DNA database, according to the agency. That is almost 4 per cent of the total US population. Britain has 5.2 million people in its database, or about 8 per cent of its population, according to its government.

China’s database now covers about 3 per cent of its population. It has been used by authorities to reunite abducted children with their parents. It was also used in a highly publicised case last year to help track down a serial killer who authorities said admitted to the murders of 11 women and girls over a 14-year period.

“It’s clear there’s a fairly large infrastructure being built for DNA collection and they’re planning to expand that further,” Wallace said. “I would like to see China put their legal database on a clear legal footing. That includes the kinds of safeguards we see in other countries.”