A recent research has revealed that the police in China are collecting blood samples from men and boys from across the country to build a genetic map of its roughly 700 million males, giving the authorities a powerful new tool for a high-tech surveillance state.
They have swept across the country since late 2017 to collect enough samples to build a vast DNA database, said a study published on Wednesday by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a research organization.
With this database, the authorities would be able to track down a man’s male relatives using only that man’s blood, saliva or other genetic material.
The Chinese authorities say that they are collecting DNA samples from men and boys for one simple reason: They commit more crimes, statistics show.
An American company, Thermo Fisher, is helping China in their endeavor. The Massachusetts Company has sold testing kits to the Chinese police tailored to their specifications. American lawmakers have criticized Thermo Fisher for selling equipment to the Chinese authorities, but the company has defended its business.
The project is a major escalation 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 would add to a growing, sophisticated surveillance net that the police are deploying across the country, one that increasingly includes advanced cameras, facial recognition systems and artificial intelligence.
Some officials within China, as well as human rights groups outside its borders, warn that a national DNA database could invade privacy and tempt officials to punish the relatives of dissidents and activists. Rights activists argue that the collection is being done without consent because citizens living in an authoritarian state have virtually no right to refuse.
“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,” said Maya Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch.
The campaign even involves schools. In one southern coastal town in China, young boys offered up their fingers to a police officer with a needle. About 230 miles to the north, officers went from table to table taking blood from schoolboys while the girls watched.
Jiang Haolin, 31, was told by the authorities that if blood wasn’t collected, he would be listed as a “black household,” and it would deprive him and his family of benefits like the right to travel and go to a hospital.
The motivation for the campaign can be traced back to a crime spree in the northern Chinese region of Inner Mongolia. For nearly three decades, the police there investigated the rapes and murders of 11 women and girls, one as young as eight. They collected 230,000 fingerprints and sifted through more than 100,000 DNA samples. They offered a $28,000 reward.
Then, in 2016, they arrested a man on unrelated bribery charges, according to the state news media. Analyzing his genes, they found he was related to a person who had left his DNA at the site of the 2005 killing of one of the women. That person, Gao Chengyong, confessed to the crimes and was later executed.
Gao’s capture spurred the state media to call for the creation of a national database of male DNA. After amassing samples from 5.3 million men, the police in Henan Province showed it was possible. In November 2017, the Ministry of Public Security, which controls the police, unveiled plans for a national database.
According to state media, China already holds the world’s largest trove of genetic material, totaling 80 million profiles. However, earlier DNA gathering efforts were more focused. Officials targeted criminal suspects or groups they considered potentially destabilizing, like migrant workers in certain neighborhoods. The police have also gathered DNA from ethnic minority groups like the Uighurs as a way to tighten the Communist Party’s control over them.
The effort to compile a national male database broadens those efforts, said Emile Dirks, an author of the report from the Australian institute and a Ph.D. candidate in the department of political science at the University of Toronto.
“We are seeing the expansion of those models to the rest of China in an aggressive way that I don’t think we’ve seen before,” Dirks said.
In the report released by the Australian institute, it estimated that the authorities aimed to collect DNA samples from 35 million to 70 million men and boys, or roughly 5 percent to 10 percent of China’s male population. They do not need to sample every male, because one person’s DNA sample can unlock the genetic identity of male relatives.
To estimate the project’s ambitions, the Australian institute looked at sampling rates in 10 counties and districts, then studied purchase orders for DNA test kits from 16 more jurisdictions.
Purchase orders were often filled by Chinese companies, but some contracts went to Thermo Fisher, the Massachusetts maker of genetics testing equipment.
Thermo Fisher has sold DNA testing kits to police agencies in at least nine counties and cities for establishing a “male ancestry inspection system,” or a male DNA database, according to corporate bidding documents found by Dirks.
The company actively sought the business. In 2017, one week before the start of the DNA collection program, a company researcher, Dr. Zhong Chang, said at a conference in Beijing that the company could help. The company designed one testing kit to look for the specific genetic markers sought by the Ministry of Public Security, Dr. Zhong said, a common industry practice. Another was tailored to distinguish between China’s ethnic groups, including Uighurs and Tibetans, he said.
Thermo Fisher said its DNA kits “are the global standard for forensic DNA testing.” In a statement, the company said it recognized “the importance of considering how our products and services are used — or may be used — by our customers.”
China has other reasons to buy Thermo Fisher’s equipment aside from compiling genetic data to track people: The company’s gear can help Chinese physicians screen for deadly diseases. Thermo Fisher also sells DNA equipment to the police in many other countries.
But scientists, medical ethicists and human rights groups say its equipment can also become a critical tool for social control. Last year, in the wake of criticism, the company said it would stop selling its gear to the authorities in Xinjiang, in northwestern China, where the police are collecting DNA from the largely Muslim Uighur minority group for social control purposes.
Though the Chinese authorities are still building their database, its contents are already being used to ramp up surveillance.
Meanwhile, the national male DNA collection program is running into an unusual amount of opposition in China. Generally, China’s citizens have accepted intrusions by the central government into their internet use and other facets of life. But DNA collection is not regulated under Chinese law, and officials worry that the public would react negatively to a broad database containing their genetic secrets and family ties.