In the long term, experts say, it may even be possible for the Communist government to feed images produced from a DNA sample into the mass surveillance and facial recognition systems that it is building, tightening its grip on society by improving its ability to track dissidents and protesters as well as criminals.
Some of this research is taking place in labs run by China’s Ministry of Public Security, and at least two Chinese scientists working with the ministry on the technology have received funding from respected institutions in Europe. International scientific journals have published their findings without examining the origin of the DNA used in the studies or vetting the ethical questions raised by collecting such samples in Xinjiang.
In papers, the Chinese scientists said they followed norms set by international associations of scientists, which would require that the men in Tumxuk (pronounced TUM-shook) gave their blood willingly. But in Xinjiang, many people have no choice. The government collects samples under the veneer of a mandatory health checkup program, according to Uighurs who have fled the country. Those placed in internment camps − two of which are in Tumxuk − also have little choice.
Police prevented reporters from interviewing Tumxuk residents, making verifying consent impossible. Many residents had vanished in any case. On the road to one of the internment camps, an entire neighbourhood had been bulldozed into rubble.
Growing numbers of scientists and human rights activists say the Chinese government is exploiting the openness of the international scientific community to harness research into the human genome for questionable purposes.
Already, China is exploring using facial recognition technology to sort people by ethnicity. It is also researching how to use DNA to tell if a person is a Uighur. Research on the genetics behind the faces of Tumxuk’s men could help bridge the two.
The Chinese government is building “essentially technologies used for hunting people”, said Mark Munsterhjelm, an assistant professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario who tracks Chinese interest in the technology.
In the world of science, Munsterhjelm said, “there’s a kind of culture of complacency that has now given way to complicity.”
Sketching someone’s face based solely on a DNA sample sounds like science fiction. It isn’t.
The process is called DNA phenotyping. Scientists use it to analyse genes for traits such as skin colour, eye colour and ancestry. A handful of companies and scientists are trying to perfect the science to create facial images sharp and accurate enough to identify criminals and victims.
To unlock the genetic mysteries behind the human face, police in China turned to Chinese scientists with connections to leading institutions in Europe.
One of them was Tang Kun, a specialist in human genetic diversity at the Shanghai-based Partner Institute for Computational Biology, which was founded in part by the Max Planck Society, a top research group in Germany.
Another expert involved in the research was Liu Fan, a professor at the Beijing Institute of Genomics who is also an adjunct assistant professor at Erasmus University Medical Centre in the Netherlands.
Both were named as authors of a 2018 study on Uighur faces in the journal Hereditas (Beijing), published by the government-backed Chinese Academy of Sciences. They were also listed as authors of a study examining DNA samples taken last year from 612 Uighurs in Tumxuk that appeared in April in Human Genetics, a journal published by Springer Nature, which also publishes the influential journal Nature.
Both papers named numerous other authors, including Li Caixia, chief forensic scientist at the Ministry of Public Security, China’s police.
Springer Nature said that it had now strengthened its guidelines on papers involving vulnerable groups of people, and that it would add notes of concern to previously published papers.
In the papers, the authors said their methods had been approved by the ethics committee of the Institute of Forensic Science of China. That organisation is part of the Ministry of Public Security.
With 161,000 residents, most of them Uighurs, the agricultural settlement of Tumxuk is governed by the powerful Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a quasi-military organisation formed by decommissioned soldiers sent to Xinjiang in the 1950s to develop the region.
The state news media described Tumxuk, which is dotted with police checkpoints, as one of the “gateways and major battlefields for Xinjiang’s security work”.
In January 2018, the town got a high-tech addition: a forensic DNA lab run by the Institute of Forensic Science of China, the same police research group responsible for the work on DNA phenotyping.
Procurement documents showed the lab relied on software systems made by Thermo Fisher Scientific, a US company, to work with genetic sequencers that analyse DNA fragments. Thermo Fisher announced in February that it would suspend sales to the region, saying in a statement that it had decided to do so after undertaking “fact-specific assessments”.
For the Human Genetics study, samples were processed by a higher-end sequencer made by another US firm, Illumina, according to the authors. It is not clear who owned the sequencers. Illumina did not respond to requests for comment.
New York Times