Conflicts - TensionsNortheast Asia

CCP spreads false narratives about bioweapons to distract from party’s biometrics data collection


The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) false claims that the United States is developing biological weapons are a core element of the CCP’s malign disinformation campaigns against the U.S. and its Allies and Partners. In fabricating such claims, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) purposely ignores its ethnic-based research involving the Roma peoples and Slavic minorities.

In fact, the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) only DNA laboratory focuses exclusively on identifying the remains of service members killed or missing in action.

The PRC, meanwhile, openly publishes material about its voluminous ethnic DNA collection and research, which disproportionately focuses on Uyghurs and other minorities of Turkic ethnicity. Between 2011 and 2018, more than 20% of forensic population genetics research in the PRC centered on Uyghurs, despite this predominantly Muslim ethnicity representing only about 1% of the population, according to a Belgian researcher’s analysis, The Guardian newspaper reported in December 2023.

The PRC has committed human rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic groups, including arbitrary internment, forced labor, religious persecution, political indoctrination, torture and forced birth control. CCP authorities have collected genetic material from millions of Uyghurs and routinely use biometric technology to track individuals. With this data, the party uses facial recognition technology to sort people by ethnicity and uses DNA to verify whether an individual is Uyghur or another minority.

In 2017, the PRC launched a program targeting Uyghurs called “Physicals for All,” purportedly a medical care program for residents of Xinjiang, where Uyghurs are most represented. Residents ages 12 to 65 were required to provide DNA samples and underwent examinations to record blood types, fingerprints, voiceprints and iris patterns, according to Human Rights Watch, an international nonprofit organization. Research based on data gathered through this and other collection programs has focused on genetic variations such as facial morphology, height and other traits among and within ethnic groups. The PRC uses the information to enhance its surveillance technologies, including genetic profiling and facial recognition. Several published articles were later retracted because of concerns the research was complicit in human rights violations and that the researchers did not legally obtain participants’ consent, according to Radio Free Asia.

“Given how coercive the overall environment has been for the Uyghurs, it is not really possible for them to say no,” Maya Wang, the associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told The Guardian in late 2023.

The authors of several of the research papers that were retracted or challenged include individuals affiliated with CCP entities, including police agencies, academies and forensic science departments at Chinese universities.

The PRC is developing and enhancing technologies to target individuals for assimilation or removal from the general population, which is dominated by Han Chinese. Human rights group have characterized such policies as ethnic cleansing or genocide.

The PRC’s DNA collection is not confined to attempts to control the nation’s population, however. BGI Group, which the DOD lists as a Chinese military company, operates portable genetics labs in more than 20 countries across four continents, The Washington Post newspaper reported in September 2023.

Genetic data collected from the Fire-Eye labs, including in the U.S., is sent to China’s National GeneBank as part of the Beijing-directed global effort to obtain human DNA. Given such DNA data transfers, and BGI’s ties to the People’s Liberation Army, the U.S. Congress is pushing to ban the company from the U.S. over concerns the data could be used to develop bioweapons targeting select ethnic groups or to accelerate research to improve troops’ physical abilities, NBC News reported.

BGI is also accused of using its prenatal test to collect genetic data from populations worldwide, according to Reuters. DNA collected outside China is stored in the PRC’s centralized gene database.

While capable of enabling life-saving medical advances, such research, if paired with certain biotechnologies and not conducted under ethical guidelines, could have devastating applications. As the PRC continues its disinformation campaigns, it’s important to consider why it’s seeking to divert the world’s attention.

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