Chinese authorities in the troubled northwestern region of Xinjiang are carrying out mass collection of DNA from individuals not suspected of any crime, rights groups and academics said.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Chinese police already have DNA from 44 million individuals on a nationwide database, collected without oversight, transparency, or privacy protections.
"Evidence suggests that the regional government in Xinjiang, an ethnic minority region with a history of government repression, intends to accelerate the collection and indexing of DNA," the group said in a report on its website.
Of the entries on the DNA database, only 1.5 million were linked to crime scenes, HRW said, which some 513,000 entries were held on a separate database to combat human trafficking.
"Authorities have stated that the DNA databases are used for solving crimes, including terrorism and child trafficking, as well as to identify bodies and vagrants," the group said.
Chinese police in Xinjiang have required all passport applicants to submit DNA samples since November 2016, while police agencies have issued multimillion dollar tenders for the supply of gene sequencing equipment, HRW said.
"The purchase indicates that the Xinjiang [police department] intends to build large-scale infrastructure to profile a large number of individuals," the group said, citing DNA experts.
Leaked tenders by regional governments have said biometric information is being gathered as part of China's nationwide "stability maintenance" regime targeting peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Shih Chien Yu, senior journalism lecturer at Hong Kong's Chu Hai College, said reports from ethnic minority Uyghurs in Xinjiang showed that the DNA collection scheme in the region began last September with the inception of a region-wide "health check-up."
"There was a health check in Xinjiang, during which various biometrics were taken from ... the whole population," Shih told RFA. "The reason given at the time was that it would make pathology testing much easier."
"This story has been circulating among Uyghurs outside China since," he said. "They are saying that there were other uses for these biometrics, including crime prevention and the fight against terrorism."
'Focus personnel' targetted
Dilxat Raxit, spokesman for the exile group World Uyghur Congress, said the policy is part of an overall policy of ethnic profiling of Uyghurs by the Chinese government.
"This is yet another example of the close restrictions and surveillance of Uyghurs by the Chinese government," he said.
"I hope that this will spark concern among the international community."
Beijing's DNA collection efforts appear to be targeting several defined groups of people across China who aren't criminal suspects, the HRW report said.
Such groups include “focus personnel,” a broad term that can include dissidents, activists, petitioners, and anyone with a prior criminal record, migrant workers and customers of hostels, entertainment venues, internet cafes, and rental homes, as well as specific professions including sex workers and locksmiths.
"This form of broad and discriminatory social profiling appears to be a form of preventive policing," HRW said, adding that some police announcements have said "stability maintenance" is the justification for collecting DNA from migrant workers.
U.S.-based Chinese democracy activist Wei Jingsheng said the Chinese government's characterization of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs as potential terrorists is in keeping with other highly repressive policies in the region.
"The government has already taken other measures, such as the banning of traditional Muslim clothing, limits on Islamic baby names, which shows its dictatorial nature," Wei said.
"Such measures can only push local people towards extremism."
HRW China director Sophie Richardson called on the Chinese government to end profiled DNA sampling.
"DNA collection can have legitimate policing uses in investigating specific criminal cases, but only in a context in which people have meaningful privacy protections," Richardson said.
"Mass DNA collection by the powerful Chinese police absent effective privacy protections or an independent judicial system is a perfect storm for abuses," she said. "China is moving its Orwellian system to the genetic level."
Reported by Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.