China Subjects Muslims to Mass DNA Collection, 'Moving Orwellian System to Genetic Level'

Shopkeepers line up with wooden clubs to perform their daily anti-terror drill outside the bazaar in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region, China, March 24. Thomas Peter/Reuters

China is collecting DNA samples from citizens without oversight and has set the stage to dramatically increase collection in the Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.

Related: China Bans 'Abnormal' Beards and Burqas in Muslim-Majority Region

In a report, the group said that police officers across the country were requiring individuals not even suspected of a crime to provide DNA samples. China's DNA database runs to some 40 million samples, which the government has claimed is the largest in the world.

And the collection is set to be ramped up yet further in Xinjiang, a semi-autonomous region in which ethnic Uighurs make up almost 45 percent of the population and which has been subject to increased political controls to curb what it deems religious extremism. Last September, Xinjiang police issued a tender to purchase almost $12 million worth of equipment for DNA testing, according to Human Rights Watch.

Working at full capacity, the equipment could profile up to 10,000 DNA samples a day and several million a year, Yves Moreau, a computational biologist specializing in genome analysis and DNA privacy at the University of Leuven in Belgium, told the Associated Press.

Human Rights Watch said that the purchases indicated an attempt to further step up repression.

"Mass DNA collection by the powerful Chinese police absent effective privacy protections or an independent judicial system is a perfect storm for abuses," Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said. "China is moving its Orwellian system to the genetic level."

Already in Xinjiang, it had been reported last year that police were asking some residents to provide DNA samples in order to apply for a passport. That was just one instance of increased government control it claims was initiated to crack down on violence in the region, which it blames on Islamic militants.

In March, the northwestern province passed legislation prohibiting numerous forms of religious expression, including growing "abnormal" beards and wearing veils in public places. Around the same time, it banned a list of Muslim names for children born in the region. In recent years, various individual cities and villages in the region have outlawed fasting for Ramadan and attending mosques as well as one village which required shopkeepers to sell alcohol and cigarettes in violation of their faith.

"Xinjiang is already an oppressive region with a high level of surveillance," Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang told the Associated Press. "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."

Particularly troubling, said the group, was the lack of regulations or privacy protections concerning its DNA collection across the country. Often, it says, that has led to profiling, particularly of migrant groups.

"DNA collection can have legitimate policing uses in investigating specific criminal cases, but only in a context in which people have meaningful privacy protections," Richardson said. "Until that's the case in China, the mass collection of DNA and the expansion of databases needs to stop."