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Friday, April 12, 2024

Beware of Thermo Fisher’s Net 


Palden Sonam* argues that the American company Thermo Fisher Scientific’s recent statement that it had stopped the sale of its DNA-based human identification technology in Tibet Autonomous Region, though a symbolic victory to the campaigners, will have little effect since China can still bring it in by other means.

The American company Thermo Fisher Scientific recently issued a statement that it had halted sale of its DNA-based human identification technology in the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). This was the result of an active campaign by rights organisations like Students for a Free Tibet as the Chinese authorities have been misusing the technology for mass DNA collection from Tibetans for surveillance and control. It is a symbolic victory. 

However, given the superficiality of Thermo Fisher’s statement, there is little cause for reassurance – indeed much less to celebrate. This is, of course, not to minimize the efforts of those who campaigned for it to hold Thermo Fisher accountable for its complicity in the pervasive repression of Tibetan people. In fact, it is their peaceful pressure that led Thermo Fisher to make such a statement even though it does not appear to change the availability of its DNA toolkits for Chinese security agents in occupied Tibet owing to several factors.

First, in its statement, Thermo Fisher mentioned that it stopped the sale of its products in the TAR, which includes only the western part of Tibet. It excluded Kham and Amdo regions of Tibet where, similar numbers, if not more, Tibetans live. This means that Chinese authorities can continue to collect DNA from Tibetans living in the Tibetan territories divided and ruled within different Chinese provinces like Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan using Thermo Fisher’s technology. Beijing’s drive to build a mass DNA database of Tibetans is not confined to those living in the TAR but also includes Tibetan in other Tibetan regions beyond TAR. 

Second, even if Thermo Fisher paused selling its DNA testing kits in TAR, this does not preclude it from transferring the same technology to it through other Chinese regions. Past record of the company fails to allow much room for hope that this will not happen. All these years, the company turned a blind eye while China used its technology in Xinjiang and Tibet to build mass DNA databases for aggressive surveillance of Uighurs and Tibetans. It was only under public pressure from human rights groups and investors that it began to show some signs of uneasiness about its deals with China.

Third, Beijing and Thermo Fisher speak different languages but the meaning is the same – the former said that rumours of its DNA collection drive in Tibet is a “groundless accusation” while the latter stated that its toolkits are not misused. At least the impression they tried to create is that no mass DNA collection has been done by Chinese authorities in TAR, and, therefore, no misuse of Thermo Fisher technology took place, contrary to credible evidence found by internationally respected organisations like Human Rights Watch , Citizen Lab, and others.

Fourth, in this context, Thermo Fisher’s brief statement is more an attempt to save its brand image rather than an acknowledgement of its failure to prevent the misuse of its technology for human rights abuses. In order to defend itself, it also has to defend China. This is evident from its statement that “our sales of this technology in Tibet Autonomous Region are consistent with routine forensic investigation in an area of this size.” This claim, however, does not corroborate with research findings on the issue. The scale of the mass DNA collection drive in Tibetan regions go beyond the scope of normal criminal investigation – from targeting children as young as five to women and Buddhist monks.

Fifth, Thermo Fisher also added that its biotechnology is used for purposes ranging “from tracking down criminals, to stopping human trafficking and freeing the unjustly accused”. However, a company as resourceful as Thermo Fisher knows that the greatest threat to the life and liberty of Tibetan people today does not come from some underground criminal gangster groups but the totalitarian Chinese state and its repressive colonial rule.

The question is, what meaningful differences does the Chinese security establishment having possesssion of the Thermo Fisher technology make to those unjustly imprisoned, detained or disappeared Tibetan political prisoners or their families? Will the people of Tibet ever find out about the status and whereabouts of the Panchen Lama, who has remained kidnapped by Beijing since 1995 when he was only six years old? For that matter, will the niece of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche – who lives now in the US, ever know under what circumstances her uncle – a Buddhist leader, died in Chinese jail in 2015? As recently as on January 15, Tsedon, a Tibetan college student, died in Chinese police custody in Nyemo county (TAR) after being detained by Chinese security agents in December for unknown reasons and her family was denied her body. Will her family ever know how she died in the hands of Chinese security agents?

The answer, Thermo Fisher knows best, is a big NO.

The colonial power in Tibet seeks hi-tech tools like DNA testing kits more to control an occupied nation rather than to curb crime. DNA databases are a part of a digital totalitarian system in Tibet and, the supply of Thermo Fisher’s technology contributes to the efficiency of the same repressive system that violates the rights and dignity of the Tibetan people.

It is clear that Thermo Fisher’s statement seemed to be more a strategy to dodge public criticism of its dealings with the Chinese security bureau in Tibet than an expression of its sincerity to rectify its past failures or wrongs. It is a public relations net thrown by Thermo Fisher in which those concerned are expected to jump and sing: “Oh! Thermo Fisher has done a great job.”

We need, therefore, to be aware of this shrewd net, lest we too end up as another thread in its cast net that shrouds the reality. The reality of a nexus between a totalitarian colonial regime pushing for the maximum intrusive surveillance against an occupied people and a multinational corporation whose motive is to milk the maximum profits, even if it means at the cost of other people’s freedom and human rights, needs to be exposed. 

* Palden Sonam is an India-based independent political analyst researching on issues related to Tibet and Sino-India relations, with focus on security and strategy.



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