Sep 13, 2022 - World

Chinese police target Tibetans for DNA collection, reports allege

Illustration of a DNA strand in a manilla folder
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Chinese authorities are collecting genetic information from residents across Tibet, according to two recent reports by research organizations in the U.S. and Canada.

Why it matters: The collection of genetic data, though important for scientific research and for criminal investigations, can present serious ethical concerns regarding consent, exploitation and genetic surveillance.

Details: Chinese police have taken DNA samples from as much as one-third of Tibet's population since June 2016, according to a report published on Tuesday by Citizen Lab, a research institute at the University of Toronto.

  • In a report released earlier this month, the New York-based nonprofit Human Rights Watch also said it found evidence of arbitrary DNA collection in Tibet, including from children at kindergartens, and that residents had no ability to refuse giving samples.
  • Sample collection often seemed to target communities rather than individuals connected with a particular case.
  • Both reports are based on an analysis of Chinese government announcements, documents and reports posted online.

What they're saying: "Without external checks on the Ministry of Public Security’s power, police in Tibet will be free to use a mass DNA database for whatever purpose they see fit," the Citizen Lab report states.

  • The Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment.

Background: In draft guidelines released earlier this year, the Chinese government classified genetic information as a national strategic resource and has worked to strengthen government control over genetic information databases, including those in academic and research facilities.

  • In Xinjiang, Chinese police have collected DNA samples from a wide swath of the Uyghur population, which the Chinese government is targeting in an ongoing genocide. Police-affiliated researchers in Xinjiang are reportedly developing facial-mapping technology from Uyghur DNA samples.

The big picture: The Chinese government has long controlled Tibet with an iron fist, placing tight restrictions on local religious and cultural practices and keeping it largely off limits to foreign journalists, making it difficult for outsiders to know what is happening there.

  • Now, some of the open-source techniques that researchers outside China have recently honed to uncover Beijing's intensifying campaigns of repression in Xinjiang — such as scouring local government websites for data, compiling it and looking for trends — are being applied to policies in Tibet.
  • Researchers and journalists based outside of China have also said some policies pioneered in Xinjiang, such as militarized vocational training camps and the widespread placement of children into Chinese-language residential schools, are now also being implemented in Tibet.
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