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Blinken’s comments on mass DNA collection in Tibet and Xinjiang spark backlash from China

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised concerns about Chinese authorities collecting DNA from Tibetans and Uyghurs, prompting a vehement response from Beijing.

Speaking at a Freedom House awards event in Washington on Tuesday, Blinken said access to human genomic data raises more human rights concerns because advances in biotechnology have enabled DNA-based genomic surveillance, which could make it easier to rights abuses. He is the highest-ranking US official to raise the issue.

“We have seen some of those, for example, committed by the PRC against the Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang,” he said. “We are also concerned by reports of the spread of mass DNA collection in Tibet as an additional form of control and surveillance over the Tibetan population.”

In recent years, the Chinese government has intensified its repressive regime in Tibet. This includes the forced collection of biometric data and DNA in the form of inadvertent blood samples taken from school-age children in boarding schools without parental permission.

Asked about Blinken’s comments by a Chinese media reporter, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Wednesday that “the claims are invalid and mean nothing more than fabricating sensational news.”

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

Wen noted that the United States widely collects and uses genomic information, citing a Wall Street Journal report on the US Defense Department’s plans to develop genetically modified weapons and the military’s collection of genomic data.

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

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

Establish rules

During his speech, Blinken also mentioned US President Joe Biden’s executive order on innovation in biotechnology and biomanufacturing, issued last September, which seeks to ensure that the US and its partners establish standards and rules on advanced biotechnology that reflect their values.

The guidelines are “a way to start guardrailing and shaping the space, particularly as countries that are at the forefront of technology-enabled repression seek to export their models and technologies, with all the biases and risks they contain, and do so at scale,” he said.

Tibetan exiles demonstrate against the US company Thermo Fisher Scientific, in Dharamshala, India, on February 3, 2023. The protesters alleged that Chinese police use equipment provided by the company to monitor and build a DNA database of Tibetans, Uighurs and others. minorities in China. Credit: Associated Press

Emile Dirks, a postdoctoral fellow in The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, said Wen’s comments were the first time a Chinese Foreign Ministry official had spoken about mass harvesting. of DNA in Tibet.

“For me, the important development is that now China may be forced to acknowledge the existence of this program or at least be forced to publicly engage in discussion with people who point to the existence of this collection of DNA,” 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 collection of DNA 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 the mass collection of data from the Uyghurs living in Xinjiang.

form of social control

Although authorities justified 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, he said.

Maya Wang, associate director in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said the US government should devote more resources to going after companies in China involved in DNA collection efforts and trying to stop them.

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

“The best way to protect Tibetans from China’s authoritarian rule is to push for a peaceful resolution of China’s illegal occupation of Tibet,” the statement said, suggesting that the US Conflict Act currently in both houses of Congress .

The purpose of the law is to empower the US government to achieve its long-standing goal of getting the Tibetan and Chinese government authorities to resolve their differences peacefully through dialogue.

Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

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