George Orwell’s 1984? Or, Twenty-First Century China?

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In Xinjiang China, going in for a simple doctor’s appointment could lead to the Chinese government collecting your DNA and using it to track your every move.

Beginning in 2014, the Chinese government launched a “Strike Hard against Violent Terrorism” campaign which turned into a massive purge against the country’s Uighur community– a predominately Muslim minority group living in the northwest Xinjiang region of China. At the beginning of this campaign, the government detained Uighurs in what it described as “re-education camps” in hopes that it could make the group more deferential to the authority of the Communist Party. Witnesses who have been in these camps say that the government is trying to get rid of any cultural attachment to the Uighur way– whether that be their language, religion, or societal norms. However, more recently, the government has been requiring that the Uighurs come in for mandatory doctor’s appointments in a program which it refers to as “Physicals for All.” However, these physicals are not like going in for a regular appointment with one’s physician.

According to the New York Times, a thirty-eight year old Uighur man, Tahir Imin, went in for his mandatory physical, and instead of going through the normal procedure, the doctor drew his blood, scanned his face, took his fingerprints, recorded his voice, and then sent him home without allowing him to review any of the results. Unfortunately, Tahir Imin is not the only Uighur to have every personally identifiable facet of his being captured by China’s government. From 2016 to 2017, the New York Times estimated that over 36 million people living in the Xinjiang region were given these mandatory physicals– (although it is unclear whether some participated more than once since Xinjiang’s population only consists of about 24.5 million people). Of the groups brought in, most were subjected to blood tests, DNA tests, and retinal scans. If they refused to participate? The doctors would tell them to go sort it out with the police. In other words, these tests were not voluntary. So what is the Chinese government doing with all this information? It is watching almost every movement of every individual in the region.

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The Chinese government claims that it is not doing anything illegal, and that it is simply using the information to keep an eye on the behavior of criminals. Still, its surveillance is extensive. While countries such as the United States authorize police departments to use the DNA of family members to track down criminals on the run, the way in which the Chinese government is watching its citizens goes far beyond what could be considered necessary for a criminal manhunt. According to an interview conducted by Human Rights Watch, a Xinjiang citizen claimed that, “since 2016, there are cameras in front of every home … which is connected to the police station; they collected the voice samples from everyone, they even capture their gait – I have seen them collect people’s gait in the police station, they asked people to walk back and forth several times.” It appears as though this person’s claims are correct. It has recently been discovered that the government hired a private Chinese Surveillance company to install over 6.7 million location points or “trackers” in the area—strategically placed on hotels, mosques, gas stations and cafés. These trackers use CCTV cameras as well as regular hand-held devices to watch every resident’s movement. The technology is so advanced that it can detect when someone’s gait or voice is off kilter. With the amount of information the government is collecting, it is conceivable that the Chinese government could implement a system that records every person’s movements and conversations at all times.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of this whole initiative is who is involved in aiding the Chinese government in collecting this data. Although a seemingly unlikely partner, the United States based company, Thermo Fisher, was the company that sold China the equipment it needed to increase its DNA sequencing capabilities. However, once the company discovered what the Chinese government was doing with the data it was collecting, the company said that it would stop selling China its technology. When asked about their decision, a spokesperson from the company said that, “As the world leader in serving science, we recognize the importance of considering how our products and services are used – or may be used – by our customers.” The spokesperson also said that, cutting ties with the Chinese was, “consistent with Thermo Fisher’s values, ethics code and policies.” Although Thermo Fisher is no longer involved, the Chinese government seems unlikely to abandon this program which is why multiple human rights groups warn that this type of technology needs to be carefully monitored so it doesn’t continue to make its way into Xinjiang.

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While many nations around the world use invasive surveillance strategies to monitor their citizens, China’s targeted DNA tracking of the Uighur people goes a step beyond what is necessary for national security– it is a flagrant violation of the Uighur’s human rights. Still, it seems that outside nations are powerless to stop it.