The Chinese government is building the world’s largest database of its citizens’ DNA with up to 140 million samples on file including young children and those who have no criminal background.
A new Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) report based on more than 700 documents and information gathered on social media demonstrates the scale of state surveillance which is occurring in at least 22 out of China’s 31 regions.
It claims those captured by “genomic surveillance” have no control over how or why their DNA is captured, where it is stored or how it is used in a program that violates the country’s own law and international human rights codes.
Foreign companies, including US-based Thermo Fisher, have been providing equipment to facilitate the process, prompting calls form ASPI for the database to be immediately abandoned and destroyed.
“This program of mass DNA data collection violates Chinese domestic law and global human rights norms. And, when combined with other surveillance tools, it will increase the power of the Chinese state and further enable domestic repression in the name of stability maintenance and social control,” the ASPI report notes.
“The Chinese government and police must end the compulsory collection of biological samples from individuals without records of serious criminal wrongdoing, destroy all samples already collected, and remove all DNA profiles not related to casework from police databases. China must enact stringent restrictions on the collection, storage, use and transfer of human genomic data.”
MALE-ONLY SAMPLES COLLECTED
Collections for the database reportedly began in 2003 in areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang, but in 2017 expanded across the country after the Chinese Ministry of Public Security stated its aim of improving public security, crime fighting and allowing the state to “manage and control society.”
While many nations have DNA databases for criminal investigations, China’s has expanded to include collections from ethnic minority communities and young children.
The ASPI report states it is likely to contain more than 100 million profiles and could be as many as 140 million, making it the world’s largest DNA database. Data from between 2017 and 2020 shows the program was operating in at least 22 out of 31 administrative regions in China.
In Tibet and Xinjiang such a system was also linked to voice recordings, iris scans and fingerprints. When combined with China’s online forms of surveillance and security cameras, it creates a powerful system for state monitoring and control.
Only male DNA is collected in the samples, which are based on “Y-STRs” passed from father to son, meaning a man can easily be traced to his male relatives. Once captured, the data can point authorities to a genetically related group of men which can be extrapolated by using a family tree.
In Henan, for instance, ASPI notes 98 per cent genetic coverage of the region was obtained by collecting DNA from 10 per cent of males and developing family trees.
“This is highly disturbing. In China’s authoritarian one-party system, there’s no division between policing crime and suppressing political dissent,” the ASPI report states.
“A Ministry of Public Security-run national database of Y-STR samples connected to detailed family records for each sample would have a chilling impact not only on dissidents, activists and members of ethnic and religious minorities, but on their extended family members as well.”
“A police-run Y-STR database containing biometric samples and detailed multigenerational genealogies from all of China’s patrilineal families is likely to increase state repression against the family members of dissidents and further undermine the civil and human rights of dissidents and minority communities.”
Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang told The New York Times: “The ability of the authorities to discover who is most intimately related to whom, given the context of the punishment of entire families as a result of one person’s activism, is going to have a chilling effect on society as a whole.”
Documents show China has justified the collection of DNA samples by claiming the work will help find missing persons, aid disaster recovery and preserve the country’s genealogical culture. However social media posts cited show a widespread lack of understanding of why the samples were collected and how they would be used.
One such message showed a father saying a police officer threatened to revoke his residency permit if he failed to provide a sample. When he expressed confusion, he was asked, “Don’t you trust the government?”
The report comes as China is increasingly flexing its muscles on the international stage amid the coronavirus pandemic. In recent weeks it has slapped trade tariffs on Australia and accused the country of failing to get a grip on racism. Chinese soldiers have also been involved in a violent skirmish with Indian troops for the first time in decades.
Meanwhile, Beijing is struggling to get a grip on a second virus outbreak that has rampaged through the city. An independent inquiry into the source and global response of the virus is pending.
ASPI has recommended China “immediately cease” the collection of DNA samples and remove and destroy those belonging to people not convicted of criminal offences.
It wants the UN special rapporteur on privacy to investigate and governments around the world to ensure more stringent controls on how their products are used in the Chinese market.