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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Opinion | U.S. companies must stop enabling mass DNA collection in Tibet

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The Chinese government is so innovative in applying advanced technology for repression, sometimes it is hard to keep track. Beijing’s latest, horrible abuse of the Tibetan people is to forcibly collect their DNA, their last remaining vestige of privacy. What’s worse, U.S. companies are still working with the authorities perpetrating these atrocities. They should cut that out right now.

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There is overwhelming evidence that Chinese authorities are using mass forced DNA collection in many parts of China — but Tibet is an especially cruel case. Human rights groups report that police are taking blood samples from men, women and children , with no legitimate justification , in all seven prefectures in the Tibetan autonomous region, often showing up at kindergartens. There’s zero indication Tibetans can refuse.

Chinese police in Tibet aren’t exactly hiding the practice; they posted a public request for bids to build a huge DNA database online. In one municipality, an official report said police were instructed “not to miss a [single] village or monastery, and not to miss a [single] household or person,” according to Human Rights Watch. The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab estimated in September that one quarter to one third of Tibetans had been compelled to hand over DNA samples.

Chinese authorities’ sweeping collection of DNA is just one piece of one of the most comprehensive and intrusive surveillance and monitoring systems on Earth. The Chinese government is leveraging technology, including artificial intelligence and big data, to identify people by their faces, their voices, their individual styles of walking and, now, even their cellular makeup.

“The forced and arbitrary DNA collection of thousands of Tibetans not only violates the fundamental rights of the Tibetan individuals involved but also puts future generations of Tibetans at risk,” said Lobsang Sangay, the former president of the Tibetan government in exile. “This is a dark side of AI surveillance for the use of genealogical repression.”

When this massive biometric database is complete, the practical effect will be that when any Tibetan runs afoul of the Chinese Communist Party for any reason, immediate and extended family members with similar DNA could be treated as suspects and labeled as separatists. This could also silence activists outside China who don’t want to put their Tibetan relatives at risk.

Lawmakers and human rights groups in the United States are asking U.S. companies to avoid complicity in these human rights violations by cutting ties with the violators. Enter Thermo Fisher Scientific, a U.S. corporation that sells DNA tests kits by the millions. In 2019, the company stopped selling these kits to police in Xinjiang province, where Chinese authorities are repressing ethnic Uyghurs and other minorities, to be consistent with the company’s “values, ethics code and policies.”

But the company refuses to cut off the Tibetan police, who are committing the exact same abuses. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China wrote to Thermo Fisher executives in December following reports that the company was still selling profiling kits and other supplies to police in Tibet. A multinational alliance of lawmakers also publicly called on the company to stop selling supplies to Tibetan authorities.

Responding to the U.S. commission, the company wrote that the number of DNA kits it sold to the Tibetan police was not enough for mass collection, and therefore the company “is confident that the products that we or our distributors have provided are being used for their intended use in Tibet, namely police casework and forensics.”

Obviously, there is no way Thermo Fisher can know which kits were used for legitimate police purposes or mass repression. A company spokesperson told me, “It is worth noting that we abide by all U.S. and other applicable laws and regulations.” This is technically true. The U.S. government bans U.S. companies from dealing with most law enforcement agencies in Xinjiang, but not the Tibetan police. But that could change.

“The U.S. Department of Commerce prohibited sales to Xinjiang police in 2019 and should now prohibit sales to Tibetan police,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a longtime critic of U.S. companies that sell technologies that can be used for repression to China.

Absent U.S. government instruction, the only factor that might cause the company to do the right thing is shame. That’s why the human rights group Students for a Free Tibet staged protests last month at Thermo Fisher offices in several cities around the world.

“Thermo Fisher has the opportunity right now to change the future of biometric repression as a tool of authoritarian surveillance, and the company is failing miserably,” Pema Doma, the group’s executive director, told me.

China’s practice of mass DNA collection is unlikely to stay only in China. Absent pushback, every despot and dictator will soon be trying to buy this new, dangerous way to control what their people do, say or think. Now is the time for U.S. companies to ensure they are not complicit by getting out of business with these abusers — before Congress is forced to act.

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