China's DNA bank for minorities 'should be viewed with alarm'

Questions asked why Yunnan facility is focussing on certain ethnic groups
China's DNA bank for minorities 'should be viewed with alarm'

The Wa ethnic minorities in China's southwest region, covered in a concoction of black ash, ox blood and mud, parade down a street in Kunming, Yunnan province, in the May 2, 2006 file photo, in the annual 'Moh Ni Hei' (touch you black) festival. (Photo by Su Ying/AFP)

ucanews.com reporter, Hong Kong
China
March 23, 2018
Three organizations in southwest China are cooperating to build a DNA database from the region's 25 ethnic minorities in an effort to research disease, the state-run Global Times has reported.

On March 19, a local hospital and academy — along with the Shuunxi Regenerative Medicine Company — began building the DNA bank from "genetic information garnered at hospitals," it reported.

Reports of the biobank in Yunnan come shortly after it was revealed that authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region were collecting DNA from Muslim minority Uyghurs under the guise of free physical exams for those aged 12-65.

The purpose of collecting the DNA — along with other biometrics, like fingerprints and blood — was likely so that Chinese authorities could increase surveillance of the Uyghur minority.

"China's development of DNA databases for entire ethnic minority populations should be viewed with alarm, as they carry considerable potential for abuse," Timothy Heath, a senior international defense research analyst at the RAND Corporation, told ucanews.com.

"The creation of genetic databases expands possibilities for discrimination against ethnic minorities, mass surveillance, and police repression of minority populations," Heath said.

According to state media reports, Xinjiang's government authorized a so-called Population Registration Program in February last year.

It said the program was meant for "scientific decision-making" that alleviates poverty and promotes "social stability."

A blog run by the Chinese Academy of Science states that the Yunnan-based biobank will also collect tissue and blood samples from ethnic minorities. 

"While it is legitimate to develop research on diseases and biological traits, it's questionable why certain ethnic groups are selected.... It's unclear whether the DNA samples would be used for other purposes in addition to what the government claims," Patrick Poon, a China researcher at Amnesty International, told ucanews.com.

A representative of Shuunxi Regenerative Medicine Company told Sixth Tone, a state-run English-language news site, that the biobank was designed to address a health disparity in Yunnan province by determining various health risks among its minorities.

The representative also told Sixth Tone that biological samples would not be collected from people without their consent.

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