China moves to expand DNA testing in Muslim region

Uighurs rest near a food stall in Kashgar, Xinjiang province in this Aug. 6, 2008 file photo. (AP)
BEIJING: China appears to be laying the groundwork for the mass collection of DNA samples from residents of a restive, largely Muslim region that’s been under a security crackdown, rights observers and independent experts said Tuesday.
Police in western China’s Xinjiang region confirmed to The Associated Press that they are in the process of purchasing at least $8.7 million in equipment to analyze DNA samples.
Observers from Human Rights Watch said they’ve seen evidence of almost $3 million in additional purchases related to DNA testing. They warned such a collection program could be used as a way for authorities to beef up their political control.
The move comes after Chinese authorities last year reportedly required Xinjiang residents to submit DNA samples, fingerprints and voice records to obtain passports or travel abroad.
If used at full capacity, the new equipment could be used to profile up to 10,000 DNA samples a day and several million a year, said Yves Moreau, a computational biologist specializing in genome analysis and DNA privacy at the University of Leuven in Belgium.
Since it started collecting DNA profiles in 1989, China has amassed the unique genetic information on more than 40 million people, constituting the world’s largest DNA database, according to a study last year by forensic researchers at the China Ministry of Public Security.
Unlike many other countries, China lacks legal protections to guard people’s privacy and prevent their genetic information from being misused, said Helen Wallace, founder of the British group GeneWatch.
Xinjiang borders several unstable Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan. It’s experienced numerous bombings and vehicle and knife attacks blamed on ethnic separatists from the native Uighur minority.
Chinese authorities seeking to counter religious extremism among the Uighurs have taken increasingly aggressive steps to quell the unrest. Those have included mandatory satellite tracking systems for vehicles in some areas, rewards for terror-related tips and prohibitions against women wearing veils and men growing beards.
The purchases of DNA testing equipment in Xinjiang were confirmed by an official at the regional Public Security Bureau. The official, who gave only her surname, Huang, said a supplier already had been found. In Xinjiang’s Sheche County, suppliers were being sought for voiceprint collection systems and 3-D portrait systems, according to a security official surnamed Yin, who declined to give further details.
The scale of the purchases raises “a legitimate concern that Chinese authorities could be planning to DNA profile a large fraction, or even all” of the Uighur people in Xinjiang, Moreau said.
“Xinjiang is already an oppressive region with a high level of surveillance,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang. “To collect even more information on a mass scale unrelated to criminal investigation opens the door for an even greater level of surveillance and control.”
MORE:   http://www.arabnews.com/node/1100556/world

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