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China’s virus testing pledge sparks DNA fears in Hong Kong

Residents wear surgical masks while crossing the road in order to prevent the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020 in Hong Kong. (Geovien So/SOPA Images/Zuma Press/TNS)
August 09, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Concerns are growing in Hong Kong that a mass coronavirus testing program could result in the DNA of Hongkongers being sent to mainland China, potentially for law enforcement and surveillance purposes.

A team of experts sent by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing to kickstart a mass coronavirus testing program in Hong Kong were met with protests as they visited a potential laboratory in an industrial area of Tai Po district, although protesters expressed concerns over infection control rather than the use of DNA.

But there has also been widespread concern over the program based on a report last year in The New York Times that authorities in the northwestern region of Xinjiang had collected DNA samples from ethnic minorities groups in the troubled region, then used it to recreate facial images for use in tracking systems.

Public trust in the local government and in Beijing is at a low ebb following months of crackdown on pro-democracy protesters and a draconian new security regime that includes the stationing of Chinese state security police in the city, marking the end of the city’s promised autonomy and traditional freedoms.

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The New York Times reported that the DNA data could be used to build a mass surveillance and facial recognition system to track people of specific ethnicities or political dissidents.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has been rolling out a national medical check-up program in Xinjiang, collecting blood samples, fingerprints, and facial scans from residents, which many fear is a pretext for collecting DNA for tracking purposes.

Further concerns were sparked after Hong Kong police started taking DNA samples from suspects arrested under the national security law imposed on the city by decree from Beijing last month.

Lawyers said at the time that the Hong Kong police didn’t usually take DNA from suspects unless they were involved in fights or rape allegations.

Among the arrestees who confirmed having had a saliva sample taken was Tony Chung, former leader of the now-disbanded activist group Studentlocalism.

The Hong Kong government on Sunday issued a statement denying that DNA samples would be collected by mainland Chinese medical teams, who arrived in the city on Sunday to help with a mass coronavirus testing program.

“Certain individuals are spreading rumors intentionally on the internet, claiming the government will transport the DNA data of the public to the mainland during virus testing,” the statement said. “This is absolutely unfounded.”

“Virus testing will only be conducted in Hong Kong, samples of which will not be transported to the mainland for testing,” it said, warning that the authorities were collecting evidence of rumor-mongering and could bring criminal charges.

Questions remaining

Michael Felix Lau of the Hong Kong Allied Health Professionals and Nurses Association said the government had yet to give a clear account of the testing process, however, and that questions remain in the minds of medical staff.

“This is really a question of whether we trust [the government’s denial],” Lau said, adding that it was unclear whether the mainland Chinese staff would be asked to remain in quarantine for 14 days on arrival.

“The government isn’t telling the people of Hong Kong such things, so people don’t trust them.”

Authorities in mainland China have dispatched a 60-member advance team to Hong Kong, who will set up a “temporary laboratory,” according to the Hong Kong government statement on Aug. 2. But no details of the lab’s location were released.

The Hong Kong government plans to test up to 200,000 people for coronavirus under the scheme, according to Yu Dewen, an official at the Guangdong provincial health commission.

“The main goal [for the advance team] is to understand their sites, equipment, and workflow, so that our staff can get into the role as soon as possible and carry out nucleic acid testing,” Yu told RFA.

But it is unclear whether the testing program will stop at 200,000 people.

The Beijing-backed Wen Wei Po newspaper recently cited sources as saying that the plan is for Beijing to provide free coronavirus testing for Hong Kong’s seven million residents.

Chief executive Carrie Lam said the government was still looking at whether that would happen, however.

Testing not always effective

Ho Pak-leung, who directs the Centre for Infectious Diseases at the University of Hong Kong, has told local media that universal testing isn’t always effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus, which has seen a resurgence in Hong Kong in recent weeks.

“The median incubation period of the virus is five days, which means that you have to be one day ahead of the virus and complete the testing of 7.5 million people within four days,” Ho told a local radio station.

“Can we mobilize to collect more than two million samples a day?” he said.

And Leung Chi-chiu, chairman of the Infectious Diseases Advisory Committee of the Hong Kong Medical Association, said universal testing is only effective when an entire area or community is closed off from the outside world.

He said new coronavirus infections are already appearing throughout the city, so such an approach may be too late to contain the spread of the virus.

Hong Kong has reported more than 100 new, confirmed cases of coronavirus in the past 10 days, although the number of cases dipped slightly on Monday.

The Hospital Authority (HA) said 56 patients are being treated at the newly converted community treatment facility in the AsiaWorld-Expo building.