UPDATED at 6:10 P.M. EST on 2016-06-09
Authorities in northwestern China's troubled Xinjiang region are now requiring residents of one northern prefecture to provide DNA samples and other biometric data before they can be issued with travel documents, sparking concerns over the possible ethnic profiling of the country's mostly Muslim Uyghur group.
The announcement was made by police in Xinjiang's Ili (in Chinese, Yili) prefecture, who ordered residents to hand in their passports last year, with officials saying no new ones would be issued.
"The requirements for travel document applications have changed, with effect from June 1," the Ili Daily, the regional mouthpiece of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, reported.
Applicants for passports, police-issued exit permits, and travel passes to Taiwan and Hong Kong will now have to supply a DNA sample, fingerprints, a voice-print sample, and a 3D body scan image to receive their documents, the paper said.
Nobody will be issued with a travel document in Ili without the new biometrics, it said.
Ili police officials contacted by RFA's Uyghur Service confirmed the new regulations require DNA samples and other biological data for any travel document. The passport office of the Public Security Department said it won't approve any application that does not include DNA samples, fingerprints and voice records, said an ethnic Kazakh police officer in Ili's Nilka County (Nilika Xian).
“We can take DNA samples here in the police station. We take blood samples, fingerprints, voice prints and photos. We take some blood samples from applicants for a DNA record. Then one can go to local passport office to apply,” said the police officer.
The officer added that the requirement is a mandatory policy that applies to all ethnic groups, including the dominant Han Chinese.
“This requirement apply to all ethnic groups. It doesn’t matter which group you belong to; if you don't follow this procedure, they won’t issue a passport for you. It doesn’t matter which country you plan to go to,” said the officer.
A Uyghur police officer from Yarkand County (Shache Xian) said, however, that fingerprints are the only requirement for travel documents in his area.
“We take only fingerprints. We don’t take blood simple. I don’t know if there is any DNA requirement," he said, adding that he wasn't entirely clear about the newest regulations.
While the new rules are ostensibly universal, restrictions on passports have targeted ethnic minority groups in the past, making it harder for Uyghurs to book overseas vacations or go on the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, travel agents in the region have told RFA.
Sense of threat
Ilshat Hassan, Washington-based president of the Uyghur American Association, said the new move appears to be aimed at making it harder for Uyghurs to obtain passports or other travel documents.
"One of the aims of these measures is to put obstacles in the way of Uyghurs applying for passports, and another is to give Uyghurs a sense that they are under threat," Ilshat Hassan said.
Citing the requirement for a voice-print, he said Uyghurs would be less likely to speak anonymously to overseas media once they had left China, because their unique voice pattern was on Beijing's files.
"They would still be able to identify you by your voice-print, and they would be able to deal with you in the same way," he said.
But the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, a Uyghur diaspora organization, said it feared the new rules will open the door for more violations of the privacy of citizens.
“Taking a fingerprint is understandable and it’s a mandatory immigration policy for all countries under current circumstances. But taking DNA samples are a violation of human rights and privacy," said WUC Vice-Chairman Umit Hemit.
"Controlling resident’s biological data through an inappropriate way is not matter of national security. We don’t see it as a normal procedure. We are against it and see it as a violation of human rights,” he told RFA.
An official who answered the phone at the Hanbing police station in Gulja, capital of the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture near the northern border with Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan, declined to comment, however.
"I have no way of giving out official information from here," the official said. "I can't comment on whether this regulation exists or not. It is outside office hours."
There was no reference to the new rules on the website of the Xinjiang police department on Tuesday.
Breach of privacy
New York-based rights activist Liu Qing said the rules are a breach of citizens' right to privacy, regardless of who they are aimed at.
"So an administrative department has decreed that they can collect DNA samples from their citizens. What happened to a citizen's right to privacy?" Liu said.
"If they want to collect citizens' DNA, then they should at least ask people for their opinions, and then pass legislation," he said.
"This isn't something that can just be ordered as part of administrative regulations."
He rejected the idea that the move is part of a bid by Beijing to stave off possible terrorist attacks.
"Collecting people's DNA has nothing to do with fighting terror," Liu said. "The government is doing this to step up the sense of fear among the general public."
Uyghurs make up 25.6 percent of Ili's three-million-strong population, while 36 percent of local residents are Han Chinese.
Reported by Gao Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ho Shan for the Cantonese Service and Jilil Kashgari for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.