Files posted on a Chinese government website reveal that police in Tibet last month purchased more than $160,000 worth of DNA kits and other supplies from Massachusetts-based lab equipment retailer Thermo Fisher, The Intercept reports. The equipment may have been employed in the intense scrutiny to which the Chinese government has subjected Tibetan people and some other ethnic minorities: The Thermo Fisher sale news comes on the heels of a report from privacy group Citizen Lab stating that authorities have collected DNA from as many as 1.2 million Tibetans since 2016, as well as a separate report released by Human Rights Watch alleging that authorities have collected DNA from Tibetan children.
Chinese authorities have justified DNA collection as a means to solve crimes, but the Citizen Lab report asserts that because there are no checks in place, police in Tibet could be using this genetic information for any purpose, including social control. “What’s happening in Tibet is part of the authorities deepening intrusive surveillance and policing, extending all the way to local village levels in rural areas,” Maya Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, tells the Intercept.
This is not the first time Thermo Fisher’s products have been used for widespread DNA collection and analysis in China. The company previously sold supplies to authorities in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, where police have collected genetic information from the local population, including, reportedly, from Uyghur people detained in the region’s internment camps. Facing criticism for the sales, Thermo Fisher announced it would stop supplying DNA kits to Xinjiang in 2019, but made no such statement about sales in other regions of China. A 2021 New York Times investigation found that Xinjiang police were still purchasing equipment made by Thermo Fisher and another US company, Promega, through Chinese resellers.
The new documents highlight that “the abuses that led to the export controls against Xinjiang public security are not at all confined to Xinjiang,” Yves Moreau, a University of Leuven bioinformatician who discovered the Tibetan sale files, tells the Intercept. Additional files found on a third party website indicate that police in Tibet also purchased Thermo Fisher supplies in August of last year.
As with the post-2019 sales to Xinjiang, Thermo Fisher products made their way to Tibetan authorities through a Chinese broker, the Intercept reports. Thermo Fisher spokesperson Ron O’Brien tells the publication that the company will investigate the transactions.