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Blinken remarks on mass DNA collection in Tibet, Xinjiang spark backlash from China

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, June 9, 2022, in Los Angeles. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
May 13, 2023

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

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has expressed concern over the collection of DNA from Tibetans and Uyghurs by Chinese authorities, sparking a vehement reply from Beijing.

Speaking at a Freedom House awards event in Washington on Tuesday, Blinken said access to human genomic data opens up more human rights concerns because advances in biotechnology have enabled genomic surveillance based on DNA, potentially facilitating rights abuses. He is the senior-most U.S. official to raise the issue.

“We’ve seen some of those, for example, committed by the People’s Republic of China against Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” he said. “We’re also concerned by reports of the spread of mass DNA collection to Tibet as an additional form of control and surveillance over the Tibetan population.”

In recent years, the Chinese government has stepped up its repressive rule in Tibet. This includes the forced collection of biometric data and DNA in the form of involuntary blood samples taken from school children at boarding schools without parental permission.

When asked by a reporter from Chinese media about Blinken’s comments, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Wednesday said the “claims do not hold water and mean nothing except manufacturing sensational news items.” 

As a country governed by law, China provides legal protection of the privacy of all its citizens, regardless of ethnic background, Wen said.

Wen pointed out that the United States widely collects and uses genomic information, citing a Wall Street Journal report on plans by the U.S. Defense Department to develop genetically engineered weapons and the military’s collection of the genomic data. 

He also cited a report by Russian news service RT that the U.S. Air Education and Training Command once issued a tender seeking to acquire samples of ribonucleic acid and synovial fluid from Russians. 

“It’s pretty clear who exactly is using genomic information for secret purposes,” Wen said. 

Setting rules

During his speech, Blinken also mentioned U.S. President Joe Biden’s executive order on biotechnology and biomanufacturing innovation, issued last September, which seeks to ensure that the U.S. and its partners set norms and rules on advanced biotechnology that reflects their values.

The guidelines are “a way to start to create guardrails and to shape the space, particularly as countries on the cutting edge of tech-enabled repression seek to export their models and technologies, with all the biases and risks that they contain, and to do so at scale,” he said. 

Emile Dirks, a post-doctoral fellow at The Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto, said Wen’s comments were the first time that an official from China’s Foreign Ministry discussed mass DNA collection in Tibet.

“For me the important development is that now China may be compelled to acknowledge the existence of this program or at least forced to publicly engage in a discussion with people who are pointing out the existence of this DNA collection,” he said. 

The Citizen Lab focuses on research and development and strategic policy at the intersection of information and communication technologies, human rights and global security.

Last September, Dirks produced a report on the mass DNA collection in Tibet between 2016 and 2022, finding that police may have collected genomic data from 25% to 33% of the region’s population of 3.7 million.

Based on publicly available sources, the report found that police targeted Tibetan men, women and children—and in some cases Buddhist monks—for DNA collection outside of any ongoing criminal investigation in a campaign similar to mass data collection from Uyghurs living in Xinjiang.

Form of social control

Though authorities justified the DNA collection as a way to fight crime, find missing people and ensure social stability, the report noted that without checks on police powers, authorities could amass DNA collections for any purpose. 

The program amounted to a form of social control of Tibetans long subjected to state surveillance and repression, it said.

Maya Wang, associate director in the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, said the U.S. government should devote more resources to go after companies in China involved in the DNA collection efforts and seek to put an end to it. 

“China has used Tibet as a laboratory for relentless methods of social control,” including the mass DNA collection campaign, said International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group, in a statement issued Wednesday. 

“The best way to protect Tibetans from China’s authoritarian rule is to push for a peaceful resolution to China’s illegal occupation of Tibet,” the statement said, and suggested that the U.S. can do this by passing the bipartisan Promoting a Resolution to the Tibet-China Conflict Act currently in both houses of Congress.

The act’s purpose is to empower the U.S. government to achieve its long-standing goal of getting Tibetans and Chinese government authorities to resolve their differences peacefully through dialogue.