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Uighurs And Genetic Surveillance In China


DNA data has been used to track and identify alleged criminals for decades, but what happens when China begins to use that technology to identify and detain people based on their ethnicity, especially ethnic minorities like Uighur Muslims, in the name of national security?

Yves Moreau is an engineer and professor at the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium. He studies human genetics and the ethics involved in that. Mr. Moreau, thanks so much for being with us.

YVES MOREAU: Thank you very much for the invitation.

SIMON: How exactly is China collecting DNA and then using that information to identify people?

MOREAU: So overall, in the whole of China, the technique that is used to, indeed, investigate criminals and crime scenes has been rolled out on a very large scale. And what we have seen is that this technology is being rolled out in particular in the west of China. And in 2016, 2017, blood samples from essentially the entire population, people 12 to 65 in Xinjiang, was collected and potentially put in that database. And it can be part of a broader system of what we call total surveillance.

SIMON: So can this technology be used, for example, to survey a crowd and pick out Uighurs or, let's say, Tibetans, Miao people, Yao people, other minorities or their relatives?

MOREAU: So defining ethnicity is extremely, extremely messy. So actually, ethnicities is first a social and cultural concept. And now suddenly, we're talking about genes. However, it makes it possible to tomorrow decide that someone does belong or does not belong to a certain population.

I'm extremely concerned about this because in history, actually, if you look back in the first half of the 20th century, German and then Belgian colonists in Rwanda and Burundi actually went there, and they were using pseudoscientific ideas about race and assigned people to a particular ethnicity. That actually was a significant factor in genocides. And the risk for this in the midterm is actually really worrying.

SIMON: Are American companies, European companies contributing to this?

MOREAU: So the technology that is needed to do these DNA studies requires, on the one hand, a device, a DNA sequencer. And it requires very specialized chemical reagents. And there is very significant involvement of American and European companies in this market.

SIMON: You've also called on scientific journals and publications to be careful about what they publish.

MOREAU: Yes, exactly. There is a huge level of activity - I mean up to some kind of obsession - I mean, it's very surprising - of studying the genetics of different populations across China. Tibetans are studied 40 times more intensely than the Hans, and the Uighurs are studied 30 times more intensely than the Hans.

In the last eight years, out of over 500 population that did this genetic characterization of ethnic populations across China, half of all publications had a co-author from the Chinese police, the military, the judiciary or some such government institution. And I think that means that this kind of research isn't acceptable and that publishers - mostly Western publishers - should not have published all that literature.

SIMON: Is this a losing struggle, Professor Moreau? I mean, DNA databases grow every week.

MOREAU: If you look, for example, in Europe and the United States, there have been already strong battles that have been fought to actually put safeguards on this technology. And those are not perfect, but they've made a huge difference. I think that it's close to midnight. It's been two minutes before midnight, but I'm not desperate. And I think that it's really possible to still do something. But the battle is going to be very arduous.

SIMON: Yves Moreau is an engineer and professor at the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium. He spoke with us via Skype. Thanks so much for being with us.

MOREAU: Thank you very much for your time.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "FALSE DAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.