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Top US diplomat raises concern over China’s mass collection of Tibetan genomic data

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(TibetanReview.net, May11’23) – Speaking at a major human rights award ceremony on May 9, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has expressed concern over reports from independent sources that China is engaged in mass, compulsory gathering of DNA samples from Tibetans. China has denied and, instead, accused the US of doing the same, citing Russia’s propaganda media Russia Today.

Addressing the Freedom House’s annual Freedom Awards as the featured speaker, Blinken has said: “We’re also concerned by reports of the spread of mass DNA collection to Tibet as an additional form of control and surveillance over the Tibetan population.”

Blinken’s expression of concern is based on reports, among others, by Citizen Lab which in Sep 2022 said China’s police may have gathered about 920,000 to 1.2 million DNA samples in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) over the preceding six years. Those figures represent one-quarter to one-third of the region’s total population.

Citizen Lab is an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, Canada. Founded in 2001, the laboratory studies information controls that impact the openness and security of the Internet and that pose threats to human rights.

Also in Sep 2022, New York-based Human Rights Watch said that China’s authorities were systematically collecting DNA from residents of the TAR, including by taking blood from children as young as 5 without their parents’ consent.

Citizen Lab said in its report, “[O]ur analysis indicates that for years police across Tibet have collected DNA samples from men, women, and children, none of whom appear to be criminal suspects.”

DNA collection in Lhoka Prefecture. Source: “Lhoka Police Bulletin,” Lhoka Public Security, August 31, 2021. (Photo courtesy: SFT)

It was not from specific groups like activists or government critics that Chinese police were collecting DNA samples. Instead, they are collecting DNA from entire communities, the report said, underlining the effort’s ethnic or racist objective.

Likewise, Human Rights Watch said in its report that “There is no publicly available evidence suggesting people can decline to participate” in the DNA collection, “or that police have credible evidence of criminal conduct that might warrant such collection.”

The group said blood samples were taken even from kindergarten students in Tibet’s capital of Lhasa. It also noted that DNA samples were collected from all boys ages 5 and older in a Tibetan township of Qinghai province.

* * *

Responding to Blinken’s expression of concern, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a press briefing on May 10 that “the accusation does not hold water and mean nothing except manufacturing sensational fake news items.”

“China is a country governed by law. The privacy of all Chinese citizens, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, are protected by law,” China’s official Xinhua news agency quoted Wang as saying. It’s a familiar rhetoric China employs to justify all kinds of human rights violations through the instrumentality of its Party-controlled procuracy, court, and police systems.

Wang has also said, “The United States widely collects and uses genomic information,” and that “the genomic data of Asian Chinese, European Aryans and Middle Eastern Arabs are all being collected by the US military.”

He has not explained how this, if true, is similar to China’s mass collection of DNA samples from the general Tibetan populace.

According to the website of Russia-based Russia Today, the US Air Education and Training Command (AETC) once issued a tender seeking to acquire samples of ribonucleic acid (RNA) and synovial fluid from Russians, Wang has added.

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