US biotech company, Thermo Fisher, recently halted sales of its DNA identification kits in Tibet, under scrutiny that its products were being unethically used to find and persecute ethnic minorities. The news comes nearly five years after it stopped the sale of its kits in the neighboring Western province of Xinjiang.

Officially, however, company spokespeople for Thermo have remained silent as to their reasons for halting sales in Tibet, stating only that they were stopping sales “based on a number of factors”. Additionally, they said that sales in Tibet were “consistent with routine forensic investigation(s) in an area of this size” and that its DNA forensic kits are only being to prevent child trafficking and track down criminals.

Yet, many remain skeptical of such wooden PR language, especially after scientists from Thermo themselves admitted that DNA samples obtained back in 2019 from residents in Xinjiang were taken without proper consent. After this damning evidence was exposed, many human rights activists began to question the company about its ethical codes until Thermo officially withdrew its products in the area. 

But could the same be happening in Tibet?

Is Thermo Fisher accountable for the actions of the Chinese government?

For years, Human Rights Watch has reported that mass DNA collection was taking place across China, in an attempt to control its population through Orwellian surveillance. Singularly, the Chinese government is said to be keeping a carefully close watch on various ethnic groups that practice cultures and faiths that differ from the Chinese Han majority – and which the Chinese communist party views with mistrust. Aside from DNA testing, Human Rights Watch has claimed that the Chinese police are employing facial and voice recognition technology and big data platforms to neutralize possible threats, particularly from those who are considered “different”.

The Chinese government, naturally, denies all these allegations.

We will not be talking about their response but of Thermo’s instead. It is only prudent for a government accused of committing dozens of human rights violations to deny any involvement, but where does accountability lie for private entities that work with such governments?

Interestingly, members of Human Rights Watch wrote to Thermo Fisher about their concerns regarding such full-scale genomic surveillance happening in China. The company replied that they do not monitor the use of all its products but “expects” its customers to “act in accordance with appropriate regulations” – which again is a perfectly generic response to an openly specific question.

To be fair, this response would be reasonable, if there was evidence to suggest that the company truly did not know what its products were being used for. However, its current statements and actions become suspicious when you consider that it was at least made aware of possible mischief back in 2019 – the year, if you recall, it halted sales to Xinjiang police.

Human rights violations for Chinese Muslims

The Chinese government has allegedly been actively detaining, oppressing, and repressing Uyghurs, a predominately Muslim ethnic group, since 2017. Reports have come out that Chinese police have not only forced the Uyghur Muslims into labor camps but have also practiced involuntary sterilizations and other human rights abuses.

The United Nations has condemned the actions as crimes against humanity, with many other foreign governments describing it as “genocide”. Accordingly, Chinese officials stated that they have closed the “reeducation camps” in 2019. (It must be noted that China still denies any human rights abuses in Xinjiang and that people from these camps have already “graduated”, thus having no need for such schools.).

Nevertheless, international journalists claim that the oppression of the Uyghur people has persisted – only, driven more underground and “secret”.

Part of this close observation (for lack of a better word) of the Uyghur community is forensic documentation. In a political society where everyone shares the wealth of the same land, your blood could determine how much of that “equality” you receive.

How does this relate to Tibet?

In 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute revealed that Chinese police were building a male DNA database to identify all men in the country – and worse, that Thermo Fisher played a key role in this surveillance program. The goal (allegedly) is to make it next to impossible for any Chinese citizen to be independent.

In this, Tibet presents a unique problem. In 1965, the Chinese Communist Party created The Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), which nominally granted Tibet its own sovereign territory. Nevertheless, TAR only remains autonomous in name, as Tibetan politics is still heavily controlled by Beijing. With the growing move to account for every Chinese person in the country, where does the Chinese government draw the line with Tibet?

The China-Tibet conflict is very well documented, with many scholars believing that the main cause of the tension is ethnic and religious differences. The native inhabitants of Tibet are Tibetans, while the majority ethnic group in China is Han Chinese. Secondly, virtually all Tibetans are Buddhists, while most Han Chinese are not.

This is a potential threat to the powers that Be in China. It is entirely possible that Tibetans, though generally nonviolent, could band together and transform into a political movement. Possible, but not likely as Tibetans are committed to “peaceful resistance”, which essentially looks like quiet and unarmed protests.

By now, companies operating in China should be aware of the moves made by its government towards mass surveillance. Even if all these rumors are alleged and denied by the Chinese government, there should still be some level of propriety in how businesses, like Thermo Fisher, sell their products. As it is, reports already show that stopping sales of DNA kits to certain parts of China is far from adequate.

One solution, of course, is for all companies to follow the due diligence process established by the United Nations for using digital technologies. This would include third-party auditing and releasing these audit findings to the public. Easier said than done, but at least a step in the right direction where there is no evident path available.

Until then, it may be judicious for all human DNA identification products to no longer be sold in China. Thermo’s clumsy responses to the uses of its kits in the country are troubling and suggest a lack of humanity in the face of financial gain. After all, what could be done to Chinese ethnic groups could easily be replicated to other minorities around the world.

Why this matters

China’s leadership model is a lesson in global politics. It has become even more important now, considering the state of affairs in many foreign governments and with the growing skepticism of what is considered “other”.

The truth is, we are all humans and should be accorded the same respect as everyone else. Though we may differ in heritage, our places of birth, and practicing cultures, excluding a community merely because of its genealogy is archaic at best.

It is natural for us to judge other people, but that judgment should be based on factors that the person can control, such as their character and actions. And even when we disagree with another person based on those factors, there will never be enough justification to commit human rights abuses because of them.

 

 

Raine GreyRaine Grey is an experienced content writer from the Philippines. A profound lover of books, she believes that life is meant to be enjoyed without encroaching on the rights and liberties of others. Raine is passionate about mental health initiatives, having been diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder herself. She is the mother of her adopted rescue cat, Cuapao.

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