China has executed a mass DNA collection campaign against up to a third of the Tibetan population, a campaign that shadows China’s treatment of minority groups in the Xinjiang province, according to experts.
Chinese police have arbitrarily gathered genetic information from between 919,282 and 1,206,962 individuals in Tibet since 2016, according to a report the Toronto-based Citizen Lab released Tuesday. While authorities allege that the collection campaign supports efforts to contain crime and maintain social stability, experts say China’s documented human rights abuses against Tibetans and other minority groups suggest it may serve to increase Chinese control over the autonomous region, as it has over Xinjiang.
“The Chinese Communist Party often tests totalitarian tactics on its minority populations, whether in Tibet or Xinjiang,” Michael Sobolik, a researcher on China at the American Foreign Policy Council, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
While biometric data collection does have useful applications, such as locating missing persons, without proper controls it could be used to track political dissidents, Sobolik said.
The DNA collection program “is a form of social control directed against Tibet’s people,” according to Citizen Lab, and follows a history of repression against residents of the Tibet region, including surveillance, restrictions on religious worship and arbitrary arrest. Many Tibetans belong to ethnic minorities and maintain that Tibet is an independent country under Chinese occupation.
Citizen Lab’s report follows an earlier investigation from Human Rights Watch, published Sept. 5, that details increased policing and harvesting of genetic information in all seven municipalities of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. HRW found no evidence that Tibetans could decline to participate in the program.
“Without checks on police powers, police in Tibet will be free to use a completed mass DNA database for whatever purpose they see fit,” the Citizen Lab report stated.
Citizen Lab said the collection campaign began in 2016, but other research organizations found that China began collecting blood samples as early as 2013.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has ramped up surveillance and repression tactics using DNA collection, according to Citizen Lab. China’s Ministry of Public Security normally uses DNA datasets to aid criminal investigations, but under Xi the state has performed genetic surveys of entire populations, including the Uyghur Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang province.
“That the Chinese Communist Party would systematically and forcibly collect DNA from Tibetans, including kindergartners, is yet another reminder of the true nature of the regime in Beijing,” Andrew Bremberg, former Ambassador to the UN and president and CEO of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, told the DCNF.
The state collected genetic information, along with other biometric data, from as many as 36 million Uyghurs between 2016 and 2017 without clear consent, according to The New York Times. Authorities used identifying information, like DNA, to monitor and restrict movement of individuals in the Xinjiang and establish familial connections, according to Citizen Lab.
The Chinese government classified DNA as a national resource earlier in 2022, directing the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps responsible for the forced labor camps in Xinjiang to oversee collection in the province, Axios reported.
Revelations of wide-scale DNA collection paint a picture that looks increasingly similar to the landscape of Chinese repression in Xinjiang.
A United Nations report on slavery issued in August found that China had subjected ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang to forced labor under the guise of “vocational training” and “poverty alleviation.” A similar situation exists in Tibet, where a “labor transfer program” has forced rural workers into low-skill and low-paid employment.
The Chinese embassy in the U.S. and the State Council Information Office did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.
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