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China puts millions of men in DNA surveillance net

Even children are pressed into giving blood samples to build a sweeping genetic database that will add to Beijing's growing surveillance capabilities, raising questions about abuse and privacy

By Sui-Lee Wee
Published: Jun 18, 2020

China puts millions of men in DNA surveillance netIn a photo provided by The Shifang Municipal People’s Government, police officers from the Jiufeng police station in Shaanxi Province collect DNA samples from a boy. Children are pressed into giving blood samples to build a sweeping genetic database that will add to Beijing’s growing surveillance capabilities, raising questions about abuse and privacy..(The Shifang Municipal People’s Government via The New York Times)

The police in China are collecting blood samples from men and boys from across the country to build a genetic map of its roughly 700 million males, giving authorities a powerful new tool for their emerging high-tech surveillance state.

They have swept across the country since late 2017 to collect enough samples to build a vast DNA database, according to a new study published on Wednesday by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a research organization, based on documents also reviewed by The New York Times. With this database, authorities would be able to track down a man’s male relatives using only that man’s blood, saliva or other genetic material.

A U.S. company, Thermo Fisher, is helping: The Massachusetts company has sold testing kits to Chinese police tailored to their specifications. American lawmakers have criticized Thermo Fisher for selling equipment to Chinese authorities, but the company has defended its business.

The project is a major escalation of China’s efforts to use genetics to control its people, which had been focused on tracking ethnic minorities and other, more targeted groups. It would add to a growing, sophisticated surveillance net that the police are deploying across the country, one that increasingly includes advanced cameras, facial recognition systems and artificial intelligence.

The police say they need the database to catch criminals and that donors consent to handing over their DNA. Some officials within China, as well as human rights groups outside its borders, warn that a national DNA database could invade privacy and tempt officials to punish the relatives of dissidents and activists. Rights activists argue that the collection is being done without consent because citizens living in an authoritarian state have virtually no right to refuse.

Already, the program is running into an unusual amount of opposition in China.

“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,” said Maya Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch.

The campaign even involves schools. In one southern coastal town in China, young boys offered up their tiny fingers to a police officer with a needle. About 230 miles to the north, officers went from table to table taking blood from schoolboys while the girls watched quizzically.

Jiang Haolin, 31, gave a blood sample, too. He had no choice.

Authorities told Jiang, a computer engineer from a rural county in northern China, that “if blood wasn’t collected, we would be listed as a ‘black household,’” he said last year, and it would deprive him and his family of benefits like the right to travel and go to a hospital.

Tracking China’s Males

Chinese authorities are collecting DNA samples from men and boys for one simple reason: They commit more crimes, statistics show.

The impetus for the campaign can be traced back to a crime spree in the northern Chinese region of Inner Mongolia. For nearly three decades, the police there investigated the rapes and murders of 11 women and girls, one as young as 8. They collected 230,000 fingerprints and sifted through more than 100,000 DNA samples. They offered a $28,000 reward.

Then, in 2016, they arrested a man on unrelated bribery charges, according to the state news media. Analyzing his genes, they found he was related to a person who had left his DNA at the site of the 2005 killing of one of the women. That person, Gao Chengyong, confessed to the crimes and was executed.

Gao’s capture spurred the state media to call for the creation of a national database of male DNA. The police in Henan province showed it was possible, after amassing samples from 5.3 million men, or roughly 10% of the province’s male population, between 2014 and 2016. In November 2017, the Ministry of Public Security, which controls the police, unveiled plans for a national database.

China already holds the world’s largest trove of genetic material, totaling 80 million profiles, according to state media. But earlier DNA gathering efforts were often more focused. Officials targeted criminal suspects or groups they considered potentially destabilizing, like migrant workers in certain neighborhoods. The police have also gathered DNA from ethnic minority groups like the Uighurs as a way to tighten the Communist Party’s control over them.

The effort to compile a national male database broadens those efforts, said Emile Dirks, an author of the report from the Australian institute and a Ph.D. candidate in the department of political science at the University of Toronto. “We are seeing the expansion of those models to the rest of China in an aggressive way that I don’t think we’ve seen before,” Dirks said.

In the report released by the Australian institute, it estimated that authorities aimed to collect DNA samples from 35 million to 70 million men and boys, or roughly 5% to 10% of China’s male population. They do not need to sample every male, because one person’s DNA sample can unlock the genetic identity of male relatives.

When The Times tried to fax questions about the database to the Ministry of Public Security, an employee said it could not accept them “without permission from a senior official.”

Local officials often publicly announce the results of their sampling. In Donglan County in the Guangxi region, the police said they had collected more than 10,800 samples, covering nearly 10% of the male population. In Yijun County in Shaanxi province, the police said they had collected more than 11,700 samples, or one quarter.

To estimate the project’s ambitions, the Australian institute looked at sampling rates in 10 counties and districts, then studied purchase orders for DNA test kits from 16 more jurisdictions. The Times reviewed the same public documents, along with 15 similar orders from the past six months that were not included in the report.

Purchase orders were often filled by Chinese companies, but some contracts went to Thermo Fisher, the Massachusetts maker of genetics testing equipment.

Thermo Fisher has sold DNA testing kits to police agencies in at least nine counties and cities for establishing a “male ancestry inspection system,” or a male DNA database, according to corporate bidding documents found by Dirks and verified by The Times.

The company actively sought the business. In 2017, one week before the start of the DNA collection program, a company researcher, Dr. Zhong Chang, said at a conference in Beijing that the company could help, according to a video of the event. The company designed one testing kit to look for the specific genetic markers sought by the Ministry of Public Security, Zhong said, a common industry practice. Another was tailored to distinguish between China’s ethnic groups, including Uighurs and Tibetans, he said.

Zhong did not respond to requests for comment.

Privacy and Consent

Although the Chinese authorities are still building their database, its contents are already being used to ramp up surveillance.

In March, officials in the Guanwen township in southwestern Sichuan province said the male blood samples they had collected would be used to bolster the local Sharp Eyes Project, according to a government notice found by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The project is a major government surveillance program that encourages people in the countryside to report on their neighbors.

Anke Bioengineering, a biotech company based in eastern Anhui province, is using the male DNA database to build a “DNA Skynet,” according to Hu Bangjun, a spokesman for the company. Skynet is China’s policing system that combines video surveillance and big data.

But the national male DNA collection program is running into an unusual amount of opposition in China. Generally, China’s citizens have accepted intrusions by the central government into their internet use and other facets of life. But DNA collection is not regulated under Chinese law, and officials worry that the public would react negatively to a broad database containing their genetic secrets and family ties.

At a session of China’s parliament in March, two delegates to China’s political advisory body proposed that the government regulate DNA collection. One of them, Wang Ying, an official from Beijing, said that when the technology reached a certain scale, the government needed to protect the rights of users “in a timely manner.”

Jiang, the computer engineer, lives and works in Beijing but is originally from a village in Shaanxi. In February 2019, police told him that he had to return to his village to give his DNA samples.

In an interview, Jiang said he had paid a hospital in Beijing to collect his samples and mailed them. He was not told why his blood was needed, nor did he ask. He shrugged off privacy concerns. Since China’s people are required to carry identity cards and use their real identities online, he said, “all our information is with them already.”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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