The Chinese government has effectively created a system of apartheid in its resource-rich and strategically important northwestern Xinjiang region. It is targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities based on their racial identity with its use of internment camps, mass surveillance, repression of political and cultural expression, and other forms of discrimination.
As part of these efforts, the Chinese government has genetically profiled much of the population of Xinjiang — everyone between 12 and 65 — as part of the most comprehensive and intrusive system of biometric surveillance ever implemented.
On the face of it, trying to use forensic genetic technologies to distinguish one group of people from another may not seem too problematic if it helps police or national security investigations. But when you consider the history of using science for the purpose of oppression, the ongoing genetic research is a serious potential threat to human and legal rights.
Following the horrors of Nazi medical experimentation and the attendant decline of eugenics, the use of racial categories in science lost much of its credibility and legitimacy. However, in the aftermath of 9/11, by using euphemisms like biogeographic ancestry and phenotypical appearance, the international forensic genetic community resurrected once discredited notions of race, arguing that these categories can potentially assist police investigations and national security. But scholars, like Troy Duster of University of California, Berkeley, and Duana Fullwiley of Stanford University, have argued that this normalization of racial categories in forensic genetic research could make these technologies of oppression against marginalized peoples. In Xinjiang, we see the realization of the draconian potential of this resurrection of race.
Many scientists in the field of forensic genetics have participated in this process, which raises the question of whether they have been complacent or even complicit in the crime of apartheid under international law. The U.N. Convention on Apartheid defines this crime as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them.”
International research cooperation with Chinese Ministry of Public Security researchers has contributed to building the capacity to engage in racial differentiating genetic testing. For example, in this 2015 article, 21 co-authors, including Kenneth Kidd and other Yale researchers, James Robertson of FBI Labs in Quantico, Va., and Li Cai-xia and Wei Yi-liang of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security in Beijing, tested a set of 55 ancestry inference genetic markers (developed by Kidd and his colleagues) on over 7,000 people from 125 populations, including Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities. This research cooperation on Kidd’s set of 55 ancestry marker continued in a 2017 paper co-authored by 16 researchers — including Kidd and Bruce Budowle, a former FBI Labs scientist who is a prominent figure in forensic genetics – which added a further 14 populations (including several Chinese minorities). This 2017 paper brought the total tested to over 8,000 individuals from 139 populations, including Uyghur and other Turkic peoples’ samples supplied by Li Caixia of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security. This set of 55 ancestry markers has now been incorporated into genetic sequencer systems produced by Thermo Fisher and Illumina, which are both being marketed to police agencies in China.
Major international journals routinely publish articles by Ministry of Public Security researchers. For example, a 2018 paper in Forensic Science International Genetics – published online in May 2018 by Elsevier BV, a major academic publishing company – included co-authors from the Ministry of Public Security, the People’s Liberation Army and Bingtuan Public Security Bureau scientists. In the paper, they tested a set of 27 ancestry inference genetic markers on 10,350 individuals including 957 Uyghurs. They also tested the set on 2,266 people’s DNA extract representing 46 populations, which was provided by Kidd. Though there have been extensive reports of mass internment and mass surveillance in Xinjiang, academic journals and their publishers continue to act with indifference.
In China, this isn’t just academic research. Chinese security agency scientists have been engaged in a long-term effort to develop technologies that will be able to racially distinguish Han Chinese from Uyghurs and other minorities, so that the government can more effectively target its oppressive measures. An important center of this research is the Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s Institute of Forensic Science (IFS) in Beijing, whose scientists have filed a number of Chinese patents and patent applications. For example, the China National Intellectual Property Administration granted the IFS a patent in 2014 for a genetic test to determine if an unidentified sample is Han Chinese, Tibetan, or Uyghur.
International research cooperation helps develop Chinese security agencies’ scientific capacities further, which in turn advances such racial patent applications. The 2014 patent is not an isolated example.
A 2017 Chinese patent application filed by the IFS researchers, aided by genetic sequencing equipment from U.S. company Thermo Fisher Scientific, used hundreds of samples of DNA extract provided by Kidd, a geneticist at Yale University. These included samples from other marginalized indigenous peoples and minorities obtained in a controversial manner. This and other similar patent applications use long established racial categories to differentiate Uyghurs from Han Chinese.
This increasingly well-documented system of racial oppression means that scientists, review boards, journals, databases and funding agencies are now obligated act decisively and no longer participate in any forensic genetic and evolutionary ancestry research—and possibly all biometric research– involving Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang, or risk complicity in the crime of apartheid.
All claims of informed consent made by Chinese researchers over Uyghur and other Turkic minority peoples are invalid. Informed consent requires participants to be free from any coercion, to be free to choose whether to participate and to withdraw at a later date. None of these conditions are plausible in Xinjiang’s police state where hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs have disappeared into “re-education” camps.
Furthermore, forensic genetic research that helps to racially differentiate Uyghurs and other minorities violates important ethical obligations that the research must cause no harm and must do good. These violations are particularly true of any research involving the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, because this state security agency has had a central role in enforcing apartheid in Xinjiang.
The international forensic genetic research community has failed to exercise due diligence in their cooperation with Chinese Ministry of Public Security researchers on forensic genetic studies of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples of Xinjiang. Scientists, journal editors, funding agencies and publishers have been complacent by uncritically accepting Chinese security researchers’ claims of informed consent from Uyghur and other minority subjects and compliance with codes of research ethics.
Any further cooperation with these efforts — including joint projects, data sharing and distribution, peer review and publication of articles, sharing of genetic materials, and sales and service of sequencing equipment and supplies – constitutes complicity in apartheid. Until this apartheid ends in Xinjiang, there should be international moratoriums on all forensic genetic research involving Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities and on all scientific cooperation with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security. Such a moratorium would not stop China’s security agencies and well resourced academic institutions from conducting racializing forensic genetic research and development. However, it would slow down and delegitimize these efforts.
Finally, as police and security agencies elsewhere begin to adopt these forensic genetic manhunting technologies that estimate ancestry and appearance, Xinjiang serves as a strong warning of the repressive potential inherent in these technologies’ use of racial categories.
Image: Some Uighur people walk near police as they form a line across a street on July 8, 2009 in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, China. Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images