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New Evidence of Mass DNA Testing in Tibet

Tibet DNA testing

The 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China ( C C ) was understandably given wide
media coverage. However, in the aftermath, what is obvious is that President Xi Jinping will
continue his policies, both internal and external, as intensively as before. A survey of two
reports, the first from Citizen Lab (13 September 2022), an interdisciplinary laboratory at the
University of Toronto and second, a Human Rights Watch Report (5 September 2022), precisely
demonstrate the attitude of the CPC towards ethnic minorities, especially Tibetans and Uyghur.
These investigations reveal that China has significantly increased policing, including the arbitrary
collection of DNA from residents in many towns and villages throughout the
Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR).

The latest evidence of the mass testing of DNA by Chinese authorities in Tibet
has two implications. First, it constitutes a serious human rights violation.
Second, is the expansion of invasive State surveillance over the public in China. These
developments have wider implications both for the Tibetan diaspora living in India and the rest
of the world. To this aspect we shall return shortly. The key findings of the twin investigations
mentioned above are worth laying out in detail because they reveal the scale and intensity of
DNA testing in Tibet. The Citizen Lab investigation, conducted by Emile Durks, a postdoctoral
fellow at the University of Toronto, Canada, concludes that since June 2016, China’s police have
conducted a mass DNA collection programme in the TAR. It is estimated that between June 2016
and July 2022, the police in TAT may have collected between 919,282 and 1,206,962 DNA
samples. This represents one quarter (25.1 per cent) and one-third (32.9 per cent) of Tibet’s total
population (3.6 million). (Emile Dirks, Citizen Lab investigation, 13 September 2022)
The police have targeted men, women and children for DNA collection outside of any ongoing
criminal investigation. China has justified the mass collection as a tool to fight organised crime
and ensure social stability. However, there is very little evidence that this programme is aimed at
countering criminal activity. Instead, it shows that the police in Tibet is acting without any checks
and can choose to use the DNA database for whatever purpose they see fit. Another point of
note is that the Tibet DNA collection programme is not unique. There is already the mass data collection conducted by the government of Xi Jinping (2012-present) in the whole of China, DNA collection campaign in Xinjiang and the police-led national programme of male DNA collection.

In Xinjiang, authorities collected DNA samples from entire local population of Uyghur and other
ethnic peoples aged 12 to 65. As early as 2016, authorities required all local residents to supply
DNA samples when applying for travel documents. A Public Health Programme titled “Physicals
for Al” was started in 2016, which reportedly also included collection of DNA samples, along with
fingerprints and iris and face scans from people aged 12 to 65. Further, in 2017 the Ministry of
Public Security launched a nationwide campaign to create a “male ancestry investigation system”
containing DNA samples and genealogical records for 35-70 million Chinese men! (Emile Dirks,
Citizen Lab Investigation, 5 September 2022).

Tibet young monks
This photograph taken during a government organised media tour in Lhasa, China’s central Tibet Autonomous Region, on May 31, 2021 shows young monks having a walk after the class at the Tibet Autonomous Region Buddhist College. (Photo by Hector RETAMAL / AFP)

The mass DNA collection drive in TAR appears to be taking place in all seven prefectures or
municipalities. Yengchen Dolma, The Tibet Post, 5 September 2022). Human Rights Watch
identified reports of drives in 14 distinct localities, including 1 prefecture, 2 counties, 2 towns, 2
townships and 7 villages across the seven prefecture level areas of TAR. Available information
indicates that people cannot decline to provide their DNA and of greater concern, as can be seen
from a report from Lhasa in April 2022, that blood samples for blood collection are being
systematically collected from children at kindergartens and from other local residents (Human
Rights Watch Press Release, 5 September 2022).

The bottom line is that these collection drives could be seen as part of ongoing
efforts by China to establish police presence at the grassroots level throughout
the region. Human Rights Watch states that the collection of DNA samples in villages has been
reported (January 2022) to be part of the drive known as “The Three Greats”. Media reports
(state-owned) from the seven prefectures describe the drive as one of the several ongoing
efforts to “strengthen the grass-roots social governance system”, primarily by increasing police presence at the local level, which previously extended only as far as administrative centres referred to as townships. (The Tibet Post, 5 September 2022) Government procurement documents show that in July 2019, the TAR police called for bids from contractors to construct a regional-level DNA database.

In November 2019, police in Nyingtri, a prefecture level unit, also announced construction of a
DNA database. Ironically, reports indicate that the equipment used by Chinese authorities for the
DNA testing is of American origin. In September 2022, China signed a deal to purchase over US$
160,000 worth of profiling kits and other supplies made by Thermo Fisher, a Massachusetts
company (Mara Hvistendahl, The Intercept, 13 September 2022). The company had earlier been
under the scanner for selling similar supplies to the police in Xinjiang. The sale of Thermo Fisher
testing kits in Tibet was made by a Chinese broker, a third-party company that bundles
technology and security equipment for police and other buyers.

One expert noted that DNA collection in Tibet can veer into “biocolonialism”. As DNA is shared
across families and populations, collection of DNA from members of a population effectively
gives you information about the entire population (The Intercept, 13 September 2022).
Pertinently, China has used this form of testing to find out the whereabouts of relatives of
Uyghur living overseas. Of course, the entire exercise uses a web of high technology and
surveillance, but the DNA sampling provides crucial leads on immediate family and relatives. This
brings us to the implications of DNA testing in Tibet for India. The number of Tibetans living
outside TAR is estimated to be around 150,000. Of these, the maximum of around 85,000live in India. If the Chinese map the DNA of entire Tibet, the next step would be to identify their relatives in India. This would give them details which could be used to threaten or coerce local Tibetans. The dangers from such a
scenario are quite real. Citizen Lab aptly concludes that mass DNA collection in Tibet is part of
the Ministry of Public Security’s broader efforts to collect population data for the purposes of
social control. In Tibet, the mass collection drive will only deepen state
control over the ethnic minority in TAR.