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China collects DNA from millions of men and boys

22 June 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1052

Chinese authorities are collecting blood samples from across the country to build a genetic map of its roughly 700 million males.

A new Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) report describes how Chinese law enforcement has been collecting samples to build a DNA database to track a man's male relatives using only his blood, saliva or other genetic material.

The report states: 'A police-run Y-STR database containing biometric samples and detailed multigenerational genealogies from all of China's patrilineal families is likely to increase state repression against the family members of dissidents and further undermine the civil and human rights of dissidents and minority communities.'

The Chinese Ministry of Public Security allowed the expansion of genetic collection in 2017 from all males in the population, irrespective of criminal records, in at least 22 of the 31 administrative regions of China. 

The police argue that the database is key for controlling criminal activity, and that all genetic donors fully consent to the data collection. However, Chinese nationals have suggested that the collection is being done involuntarily as they do not have the right to refuse under an authoritarian state.

According to the New York Times, Jiang Haolin, a computer engineer from a rural county in northern China, donated a blood sample after being told by authorities that if he did not comply his household would be blacklisted and could lose the right to travel and access to hospital treatments.

The project is a continuation of China's efforts to use genetics to control its people, which had been focused on tracking ethnic minorities and other, more targeted groups. It adds to the surveillance methods police are deploying across the country including advanced cameras, facial recognition systems and artificial intelligence.

Human rights groups have actively condemned these developments. Concerned that individuals have no control over how their genetic information is used and where it is stored, they argue that the database violates China's own laws and human rights codes. 

'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,' Maya Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch told the New York Times.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts-based firm Thermo Fisher, has come under fire from US lawmakers for selling China the custom-tailored DNA kits for its data collection scheme, in a deal estimated to be worth over 23 billion dollars.

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