Beijing is building a biodata base on every Uyghur resident in the tumultuous Xinjiang region, Human Rights Watch said in a report on Wednesday.
Xinjiang is an autonomous area in northwestern China that is home to 10 million Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities.
The rights group said any Uyghur aged from 12 to 65 who lives in southern Xinjiang, notably in the regional trade hub of Kashgar that borders Tajikistan, as well as other counties under its jurisdiction, has been subjected to a sweeping, mandatory biometric identification program.
It said the government was seeking “accurate and comprehensive resident information registration” – that is, a person’s DNA, facial mugshot, fingerprint, blood type, iris scan and other details.
Biometrics must be taken regardless of age and background for all “focus personnel” – people the authorities consider a possible threat to regime stability – and their family members.
The gross ethnic data harvesting underway is carried out as part of a public healthcare census, in which Uyghurs can get a free check-up. Meanwhile, applicants seeking to renew ID cards which are due to expire also have to provide blood specimens.
An article in Xinhua on November 1 said that some 18.8 million people had already participated in the program in 2017.
No evidence has been reported about residents being coerced into providing their biometric details, but it’s apparent that many Uyghurs realize that they would be courting trouble if they refuse to cooperate.
The region’s capital city of Ürümqi in northern Xinjiang has been put under a wall-to-wall security blanket following terrorist attacks in May 2014. But Beijing is still fighting an onerous war against extremism and secessionism in the southern prefectures where local people are still predominantly Uyghurs.
Human Rights Watch’s China director Sophie Richardson said: “The mandatory data-banking of a whole population’s biodata, including DNA, is a gross violation of international human rights norms, and it’s even more disturbing if it is being done surreptitiously, under the guise of a free healthcare program,” said.
Previously, local authorities in Beijing and the eastern province of Shandong had been trialing DNA databank schemes, primarily for locating abducted children and hunting down criminals.
But this is the first time that biodata of a certain ethnicity has been implemented at such a scale, and it is likely to have been spearheaded by central and regional state security officials, under a decree from Beijing.
Human Rights Watch also identified a US-based company, Thermo Fisher Scientific, that has been supplying Xinjiang police with DNA sequencers.
Xinjiang province has seen a spike in human rights violations since August 2016, as well as ethnical assimilation policies under the newly-installed regional party chief Chen Quanguo.
For instance, Muslim signs and badges like the Rub el Hizb and halāl signs have been taken down in public venues and pupils are now taught only in Mandarin rather than under an old module, complemented by classes in the Uyghur and Kazakh languages.