Police in Xinjiang have purchased $8.7m of equipment in order to ascertain genetic material from citizens. The country is all set for a mass collection of DNA samples from residents of a restive, largely Muslim dominated region which has been under a security crackdown.
Human Rights Watch have warned against this programme as it could allow authorities to beef up their political control. Xinjiang residents were asked to submit samples, fingerprints and voice records in order to get passports or travel abroad.
The area also borders unstable Central Asian countries including Afghanistan and has experienced many attacks, and the latest one killed eight people in southern Xinjiang’s Pishan County that borders Pakistan.
The authorities want to take control of religious extremism and have taken aggressive steps to do the same. Mandatory satellite tracking systems for vehicles, rewards for terror-related tips and prohibitions against women wearing veils and men growing beard, have all been a part of their process.
The DNA testing was confirmed by an official who said a supplier has already been found. The new equipment could collect up to 10000 samples a day, said Yves Moreau, a computational biologist specialising in genome analysis.
The scale of the purchases raises “a legitimate concern that Chinese authorities could be planning to DNA profile a large fraction, or even all” of the Uighur people in Xinjiang, Moreau said.
China has the world’s largest DNA database with over 40 million samples since it started collecting in 1989. Unlike many other countries, China lacks 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 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.”
The database covers around 3 percent of total population and it has also been used to reunite abducted children with their parents. It also identified a serial killer in a highly publicised case last year.
“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 clear legal footing. That includes the kinds of safeguards we see in other countries.”