The New York Times is reporting that the Chinese government is quietly collecting DNA samples from its male citizens to build a giant genetic database. The government would be able to use the information to build a genetic map that covers more than 700 million male individuals across the country.
According to the report, the government started compiling the database in 2017, after DNA evidence led to a breakthrough in a criminal investigation in the northern part of the country. The program is tracking men primarily because men commit more crimes, though the finished map would allow the government to locate other relatives.
While the database will almost certainly be a helpful crime fighting tool, privacy advocates are concerned that it represents a significant and intrusive expansion of China’s vast surveillance apparatus. For example, the government could use the DNA database to plant evidence and frame political dissidents, or to track down the families of those dissidents to prevent them from speaking out.
“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 Human Rights Watch China Researcher Maya Wang.
Chinese officials claim that all DNA samples have been collected with the consent of the individual. However, critics argue that people living in an authoritarian state do not have the ability to refuse, and noted that China has been collecting blood samples from schoolchildren who may not understand how those samples will be used.
China would need to collect somewhere between 35 million and 70 million samples (five to 10 percent of the country’s male population) to generate enough data to build the rest of its map. So far, the government has focused primarily on rural areas, where tens of thousands of blood samples have already been collected. There is some internal concern about pushback from the Chinese public because DNA collection is not regulated under Chinese law, although it’s unclear how much impact that would have on the ultimate scope of the program.
Earlier Chinese DNA collection programs have primarily targeted criminals, migrant workers, and minority groups, including the country’s Uighur Muslim population, that the government believes could have a destabilizing influence within the country. The current program is far more sweeping, and covers Chinese citizens who are otherwise in good standing.
The Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher supplied the Chinese government with many of the DNA kits used to collect genetic samples.
Source: The New York Times
June 18, 2020 – by Eric Weiss