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Americans Should Be Concerned About China's Latest Privacy Violation

China is reportedly importing technology from a company headquartered in the U.S. to surveil supposed subversives in Xinjiang.
An ethnic Uyghur woman walks by a closed Islamic school on July 1st, 2017, in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.

An ethnic Uyghur woman walks by a closed Islamic school on July 1st, 2017, in the old town of Kashgar, in the far western Xinjiang province, China.

Local governments in the far-Western Chinese region of Xinjiang began collecting biometric data from residents in February, Human Rights Watch reported last week. The HRW report cites directives found primarily on local government websites, some of which have since been taken down. The biometric data included DNA samples, fingerprints, and iris scans, often collected during physical examinations, billed to the public as a social benefit designed to uplift the region's economically distressed residents.

In other words, a routine check-up is believed to have funded the government's bid to build a biological profile of all residents in a place where movement is already closely tracked and reports of extrajudicial killing are frequent.

The data-collection scheme appears to be part of what HRW reported earlier this year is a broader ongoing national project targeting 40 million dissidents, migrant families (who typically travel from poverty-stricken areas to larger cities), and ethnic minorities for a searchable DNA database.

HRW reported that an American biotechnology company, Thermo Fisher Scientific, which is headquartered in Massachusetts, supplied Xinjiang authorities with some of the DNA sequencers used in the data-collection effort.

Thermo Fisher Scientific did not respond to a request for comment from Pacific Standard, but told HRW it was not at liberty to discuss its clients' purchases with third parties.

The biometric data collection marks the latest in a series of measures designed to quell unrest in the occasionally restive region, where ethnic Uyghurs complain of rampant raids on private homes and a deluge of draconian policies designed to acculturate them and secure their submission to Beijing's authority. A majority of the ethnic Uyghurs are Muslim. China has defended its measures as part of its own global war on terror.

Xinjiang is of great strategic importance to Beijing. In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Revolutions, Beijing moved to lessen its dependence on Arab-World fuels and signed a slew of trade deals with neighboring Central Asian oil- and gas-exporters, like Kazakhstan. Imports of fuels crucial to China's continued economic success were meant to pass through Xinjiang. Around the time those deals were signed in 2013, rights organizations like HRW began to report an unprecedented number of civil liberties violations in the region.

HRW's China director, Sophie Richardson, says Americans would be wise to pay attention to the situation developing in Xinjiang, as an apparent exchange of technology between the United States and China could threaten the privacy of dissidents around the world.

"At least one American company is selling relevant technology to the abusers," Richardson says. "China is increasingly exporting abusive surveillance technology to all sorts of countries, including the United States; third, privacy rights all over the world are under attack, typically in the guise of the war on terror, and everyone should be aware of what the larger and longer-term global consequences are."

Proponents for the rights of Uyghurs, the most populous of several predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities indigenous to Xinjiang region, agreed that, in an environment of globalized technological exchange, government encroachments on privacy and civil liberty affect the entire world.

"We must all be wary of technological developments that have the capacity to undermine basic rights, not only in a country like China where rule of law does not take into consideration privacy rights and freedom of movement, but for the rest of the world that will have to grapple with its implications," says Peter Irwin, project manager with the World Uyghur Congress, a group that aims to represent the interests of Uyghurs internationally.

The Thermo Fisher Scientific headquarters in Massachusetts.

The Thermo Fisher Scientific headquarters in Massachusetts.

In a political atmosphere where President Donald Trump frequently takes to Twitter to lambast his adversaries, it is arguably even more unsettling that China imports the biotechnology it uses to track subversives from the U.S.

In a statement issued to Pacific Standard, the U.S. Department of State underlined its commitment to human rights in China. "We remain concerned by ongoing reports of discrimination against and restrictions on Uyghurs in China," department spokesman Noel Clay tells Pacific Standard. "We urge the Chinese government to cease policies that restrict the exercise of freedom of religion or that otherwise deprive individuals of the enjoyment of their human rights. Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson has stated that promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms is a key component of American foreign policy."

But whether anyone in Beijing is poised to listen to U.S. diplomats on human rights or any other issue during a Trump presidency remains uncertain. On Monday, Trump outlined a national security strategy in which Washington would push back against Beijing's angling for dominance in the South China Sea and beyond, and, as promised since his election campaign, would get tougher on trade. Chinese diplomats, in a strongly worded statement emailed to Pacific Standard, rebuffed Trump's characteristic China-antagonism. "We call on the United States to abandon its outdated zero-sum thinking," the statement reads.

Beijing, for its part, has not denied the allegations of privacy violations. Instead, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang accused HRW of lying, and added that Xinjiang authorities are successfully working to maintain public security there. The state-backed Chinese newspaper Global Times responded to the report with an English-language article reporting that China "slams" the allegations not as false, but as unfairly critical of Beijing for doing its job. "China's government has the right to take measures it deems as proper to protect national security, and the collection of such information is not harmful to the residents, nor does it affect people's rights," Turgunjan Tursun said to a Global Times reporter. Turgunjan, an oft-quoted professor in state media, is described only as working at Zhejiang Normal University—an institution more than 2,000 miles from Xinjiang.

In these times, it would appear a massive effort to obtain the DNA of virtually all residents of a region beset by deadly police raids of suspected subversives demands no real explanations or excuses.

"Collection of DNA must also be seen within the context of broader policies aimed at controlling the movement of the Uyghur population in East Turkestan," WUC's Irwin says. East Turkestan is the name for Xinjiang used by advocates of a self-determining territory, separate from China. "We've witnessed in 2017 major efforts by the Chinese government to force thousands of Uyghurs, many of them students, back home where many have already been arrested."