China’s DNA-collection program could help fulfill Beijing’s fantasy of achieving total control
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a report this week, revealing how China tries to build the world’s largest forensic DNA database by launching a nationwide program that collects DNA samples from millions of male citizens in the country. The report’s author, Dr. James Leibold, said he thinks the database could help China to establish an “Orwellian surveillance state” in China.
Question: The ASPI report revealed China’s extensive practice of collecting DNA samples from millions of male citizens to build the world’s largest forensic DNA database, which some worry could be used to increase Beijing’s crackdown on dissidents. What do you think are the implications of this new finding?
James Leibold: It is a quiet attempt to move the goalpost on international norms as it relates to biometric privacy issues. There have been attempts by other countries to create a national DNA database, especially Kuwait, but this is condemned at the UN and later abandoned.
What China is trying to do is to push the goalpost on the widely accepted belief that police should not collect biometric DNA data from innocent civilians outside of major criminal cases. That’s what China has been trying to do.
DW: How much do you think the nationwide program is inspired by similar programs launched by Beijing in Tibet and Xinjiang?
James Leibold: I think those experiences did play a role although it should be noted that China’s forensic DNA database goes back to the year 2000, so this is a space that they have been in for a while. I think Xinjiang and Tibet have been regions where national security and sovereignty concerns trumped everything else, and they have become places where Chinese companies and police can experiment on different forms of surveillance.
The case in Tibet wasn’t well-reported, but Xinjiang’s mass collection of biometric data includes DNA, finger prints, and voice prints. The laboratory there encourages police to push the envelope on what could be collected from people and how it could be linked back to individual citizens, which increases their ability to surveil people in remote areas like Xinjiang and Tibet.
I think the perceived success of those programs as well as the perceived success of the previous program in Henan certainly encouraged the Ministry of Public Security to launch this national campaign in late 2017.
I think you can think of it as the Party pruning its bio-surveillance capabilities in Tibet and Xinjiang and exporting that across the entire China.
DW: How much do you think a bio-surveillance program like this is going to play a role in consolidating the Chinese government’s overall agenda for maintaining stability while increasing their control over civil society?
James Leibold: I think the bio-surveillance program will create a chilling effect in society.Numerous people have told me that the Chinese government already knows everything about them, so they don’t have anything to hide. Since they think they are just innocent civilians, what the mindset does is it subconsciously forces people not to speak out or step out of the line as they know the government is watching. The government could potentially affect their families in a negative way.
That does reduce the scope of free speech and free assembly. We have clearly seen this in China. China’s internet and civil society are so tamed now, comparing to the years before the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The Chinese government might argue that it’s because Chinese people are happier, but I would say that the Chinese government has created this kind of Orwellian surveillance state that has a chilling effect on people, but also allows the government to have the fantasy of complete control.
DW: Some Chinese and foreign companies provided their products to China’s nationwide DNA collection program. How do you think the international community can hold foreign companies involved in the program accountable?
James Leibold: With regard to this case, Thermo Fisher has not admitted that they have been involved in the national Y-STR campaign. They issued a statement reiterating what they said in February 2019 that they would cease to sell their products and services in Xinjiang, without addressing their roles in this national program that we exposed.
They also made a claim about the fact that they are proud to provide DNA forensic science to help in solving crimes through DNA finger printing, but they failed to acknowledge the way in which their services and products are being used to deepen the surveillance capabilities and the repressive policies of the CCP.
They are well aware of the context, and they have acknowledged the kind of human rights abuses occurring in Xinjiang. But what they failed to acknowledge is the wider context of the ramping up of the repressive domestic policies under Xi Jinping. They really need to ask themselves whether they can still uphold their ethical standards and continue to operate in the China market place, which brings 10% of their global profits and it’s a very lucrative market for them.
Thermo Fisher puts their ethical blinders on when it comes to looking at the changes that are occurring in the China market place.
DW: We have already seen China exporting its surveillance model to other countries. How likely do you think China will also export the bio-surveillance model and capabilities to other countries?
James Leibold: There are two parts to this. One is the export of technology and intellectual property around how to surveil, which is already happening. We have numerous examples of that and we know that China-based biotech companies are increasingly active overseas.
One company we named, Microread, has set up a joint-lab in Kazakhstan, and we did know that the Beijing Genomic Institute is now a global leader and running lots of the test kits for COVID19. China is certainly active in providing bio-surveillance technology across the world but I think the more important issue is what China does shifts the norms around what is acceptable in terms of the uses of technology as it relates to privacy and the need for public informed consent as well as transparency.
Despite all the evidence that we have gathered, there has not been a public statement regarding this nationwide campaign. I hope that might change. By doing it in the dark, what China does is slowly eroding the norms and if it creates a database, it could pave the way for other countries to say “Hey, China has got this, and what’s wrong with us doing it?”
The UN special rapporteur for privacy has stated in his last report in the UN Human Rights Council in early 2019 that this is one of the issues that he is looking at, what is the acceptable standard for police forensic databases. To what extent does it need to be limited to only people who have been suspected or charged with criminal violations.
There are real important international issues around the norms governing DNA databases that need to be aired and discussed in public, but I think there needs to be some pushback against what China is doing, because it’s quietly trying to move the global goalpost. If we don’t wake up to that, it’s quite possible that we will wake up to a different world one day where these things are deemed acceptable.
This interview was published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.