The Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher company on Wednesday announced it will no longer sell its equipment in the Xinjiang province of China because the Chinese government is using the gear to track Uighur Muslims through their DNA.
The New York Times on Thursday cited statements from the company that it was not fully aware of how the Chinese incorporated its technology, including laboratory equipment and DNA testing kits, to track the Uighurs like so many animals in the wild.
Chinese authorities previously assured the company they used its equipment for criminal investigations and counter-terrorism. Sales to China currently account for about 10 percent of the company’s $24 billion annual revenue.
Also claiming to be hoodwinked were a number of prominent DNA researchers, including forensic science pioneer Dr. Kenneth Kidd, who said he thought the Chinese were “sharing samples for collaborative research.”
“Honestly, there’s been a kind of naïveté on the part of American scientists presuming that other people will follow the same rules and standards wherever they come from,” medical ethicist Dr. Arthur Caplan of the New York University School of Medicine observed.
Dr. Caplan phrased his critique very mildly. There were plenty of ominous warning signs, such as China’s keen interest in analyzing the DNA of troublesome ethnic groups like the Uighurs and Tibetans, the huge amount of money Beijing plowed into cutting-edge DNA analysis, and the massive high-tech surveillance state China has been openly developing for years.
Scientists and corporate managers were astoundingly gullible in accepting China’s assurances that all of the genetic material provided for testing was contributed voluntarily, even as Uighurs who escaped from Xinjiang told of terrified re-education camp prisoners forced to give blood through an Orwellian “Physicals for All” campaign. Warnings from dogged China critics like Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) were ignored.
The company men wanted China’s money and the researchers wanted the huge trove of Chinese genetic data. Everyone somehow convinced themselves to forget China is a fascist tyranny whose involvement in forensic DNA research should have been viewed with the same skepticism as 1930s Germany strolling into a scientific conference with a thick folder full of Jewish genetic data.
“I would assume they had appropriate informed consent on the samples, though I must say what I’ve been hearing in the news recently about the treatment of the Uighurs raises concerns,” Dr. Kidd told the New York Times.
Reports of blood samples collected without informed consent in Xinjiang were filed in 2016. China has been abusing the Uighurs for years and herding them into re-education camps since at least 2017. Thermo Fisher was confronted by human rights groups for shipping DNA sequencers to Xinjiang in December 2017. It took a long time for a lot of very intelligent people to see the Chinese government for what it is.
Even now Thermo Fisher is making a largely symbolic gesture by canceling sales to Xinjiang, as it must know perfectly well other equipment it sells to the tyrants of Beijing can simply be re-routed to the province. The New York Times article made a point of noting the company is aware of how difficult it can be to trace any given piece of equipment after it is delivered to China.
There are questions about whether the Chinese have obtained proper informed consent for DNA collection from other areas beyond Xinjiang, such as saliva collected from schoolchildren in 2017 without telling them why. Thermo Fisher is reportedly considering a more widespread ban on selling equipment to China. It should think very carefully about how frequently the Chinese government has lied about its intentions.
To be sure, medical ethicists and privacy advocates are worried about any country developing a universal national DNA database, which seems to be the trajectory forensic science is taking around the world.
A database of every citizen’s DNA would certainly be helpful in catching first-time offenders, but it would also give governments disturbing power to monitor the movement of citizens and divide them into genetic groups, which could make racial politics even tenser than they already are. Pumping the brakes on cooperation with brutal totalitarian governments with a demonstrated tendency to oppress citizens based on their ethnic backgrounds, and a long track record of ignoring international standards for human rights, should not be a difficult decision to make even though it might be an expensive one.