TIBET HAS LONG BEEN UNDER STATE REPRESSION. PHOTO: HECTOR RETAMAL / AFP
Tibet, a contentious region in the west of China, has been under state repression for decades. Chinese authorities have torn down Buddhist relics and shut Tibetan-language schools. Intellectuals and cultural leaders are routinely jailed under vague charges, while millions of rural workers have been forced into mass labor programs in recent years.
Now, according to two new reports, authorities are out to collect DNA information from residents across the autonomous region, building a biometric database that could offer the government a powerful tool for surveillance on ethnic minorities.A study published by the Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto on Tuesday estimated that police may have collected between roughly 919,282 and 1,206,962 DNA samples—representing between a quarter and one-third of Tibet’s 3.66 million population—since 2016.Analyzing 100 publicly available sources, including social media posts by government accounts, it found that officers visited fields, monasteries, residential neighborhoods, schools, and businesses to collect pin-prick blood samples. “It’s tied into larger attempts by the police to hoover up as much data from the public as they can,” Emile Dirks, author of the Citizen Lab’s report and a researcher who studies Chinese state surveillance, told VICE World News. “What’s concerning is that there really aren’t any limits on police powers in China,” said Dirks, noting the lack of independent oversight from court, media, or civil society to scrutinize how the information might be used. “It’s possible for police to use this completed population database for whatever purpose they see fit.”
Another report, published by Human Rights Watch last week, found mass DNA collection drives across seven prefectures and municipalities in the plateau since 2019. There was no indication that people could decline such requests, and children as young as five had their samples taken at kindergartens without their parents’ consent.
“The Chinese government is already subjecting Tibetans to pervasive repression,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Now the authorities are literally taking blood without consent to strengthen their surveillance capabilities.”Under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rule, China has launched an unprecedented drive to collect DNA samples from residents across the country. To help solve crimes, the Ministry of Public Security has been creating what they called “a male ancestry investigation system” since 2017, by combining extensive family records and genetic data from between 5 to 10 percent of its 700-million male citizens.“China now has the world’s largest forensic DNA database, and appears to be the only country in the world where police are harvesting en masse DNA samples outside the scope of criminal investigations,” James Leibold, a professor at La Trobe University in Melbourne, told VICE World News.
The national campaign has drawn privacy concerns. DNA is more sensitive than other biometric markers, such as irises and facial scans, as they have the power not only to identify an individual, but also their genetic relatives. This means the Chinese government, which has been amassing basic information of the population, could merge these databases and potentially connect any unknown DNA sample to a known person or their genetic kin. But the latest drive in Tibet is particularly alarming, given the long history of state repression in the region, which Beijing sees as a threat. China seized the region in 1950 and crushed an uprising against Chinese occupation in 1959, forcing Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to flee into exile. Beijing has since maintained a policy of ethnic assimilation in the region, including restrictions on Tibetan education, religion and language.Chinese authorities have justified the data collection as a means for fighting crimes, such as human trafficking, but both reports did not find evidence that the Tibetans, whose DNA samples were being taken, were suspected of criminal offense or part of any investigation. “This suggests that police are treating ordinary Chinese citizens as potential future criminal offenders, even if they have not yet committed any criminal offense,” Dirks added.Instead, there are fears that the database could lead to a wide array of abuses and deepen state control against its indigenous population. For instance, China has also collected biometric data from Uyghur communities in neighboring Xinjiang, where its brutal crackdown has been described by the United Nations as potential crimes against humanity. And Chinese scientists have been using the DNA to map faces, a technology that experts warned could be used to intensify racial profiling. “In addition to the gradual erasure of the Tibetan language, culture and identity, the Chinese Communist Party is now turning to new high-tech forms of social control and repression, such as the building of forensic DNA databases, that violate international norms and laws concerning privacy and the use of biometric data,” Leibold said.Follow Rachel Cheung on Twitter and Instagram.