Chinese military police attend an anti-terrorist oath-taking rally in Xinjiang.

Story highlights

Authorities appear to building vast database of biometric and other information

Such collection may go against international human rights norms

Hong Kong CNN  — 

Authorities in China’s far-west are collecting DNA samples, fingerprints, eye scans and blood types of millions of people aged 12 to 65, according to a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.

Xinjiang, the only Chinese territory apart from Tibet where ethnic Han Chinese are not in the majority, has long been subject to tight controls and surveillance not experienced elsewhere in China.

In April, authorities banned the region’s 10 million Muslims from wearing long beards or veils in public, as well as banning home schooling and introducing new restrictions on downloading allegedly extremist materials.

Those new rules came on the heels of a series of steps to increase surveillance in the region that include the surrender of passports and mandatory GPS trackers in cars.

“The mandatory databanking of a whole population’s biodata, including DNA, is a gross violation of international human rights norms,” Sophie Richardson, China director for HRW, said in a statement.

The Ministry of Public Security and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Data collection

According to a document posted on a Xinjiang government website, the main goal of the new scheme “is to fully and accurately verify the real number of Xinjiang’s population, to collect the images, fingerprints, iris scans, blood types, and DNA biometrics of those between the age of 12 and 65.”

That information is to be linked to residents’ hukou, or household registration cards. The controversial registration system limits where people can access education, medical and housing benefits, essentially limiting many to the region where they were born.

“Regulating the management of identification cards is the foundation to creating a basic population database, based on one’s ID numbers, for the autonomous region,” the government document said.

Officials are instructed to “ensure that the hukou information for everyone in every household, in every village is completely verified in Xinjiang. No one is to be missed.”

Xinjiang is home to an estimated 21.8 million people according to 2010 census figures, though the true population could be much higher, owing to the number of migrant workers attracted to the region for work.

According to the HRW report, the regulations went into effect in February and have been being rolled out across Xinjiang throughout the year. While part of the scheme is designed to improve access to healthcare, DNA and blood type data is to be provided to the police “for profiling,” the guidelines said.

Photo taken on February 27, 2017 shows Chinese military police getting off a plane to attend an anti-terrorist oath-taking rally in Hetian, Xinjiang.

Discrimination and surveillance

Xinjiang, a sparse predominately rural territory that accounts for almost one-sixth of China’s land mass, is home to many minority ethnic groups, though HRW’s Richardson said the program will have a particular effect on Uyghurs, the mostly Muslim ethnic group who make up around 40% of the total population.

“China has few meaningful privacy protections and Uyghurs are already subjected to extensive degrees of control and surveillance, including heavy security presence, numerous checkpoints, and routine inspection of smartphones for ‘subversive’ content,” she said.

“In this context, compulsory biodata collection has particularly abusive potential, and hardly seems justifiable as a security measure.”

There have been a number of violent attacks in Xinjiang by groups China claims are separatists linked to overseas Islamic terrorist organizations. Michael Clarke, author of “Xinjiang and China’s Rise in Central Asia,” wrote for CNN last year that Beijing has long used fear of religious terrorism to “justify its hardline repression of dissent in Xinjiang.”

Beijing has consistently denied accusations of ethnic or religious discrimination in Xinjiang.

Privacy concerns

Authorities in China have engaged in a major push to collect DNA information for years, with the Ministry of Public Security saying in 2015 its database was already the world’s largest, with some 44 million entries, according to Chinese academics.

An HRW report earlier this year said DNA data is collected indiscriminately, in the name of “solving crimes,” with few safeguards to protect citizens’ privacy.

Judges in other jurisdictions have expressed concerns at this type of broad biometric data collection, with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling in 2008 the retention of fingerprints and DNA from people acquitted of crimes breached their right to privacy.

The UN has also warned DNA databases can “raise human rights concerns, including potential misuse of government surveillance (for example, identification of relatives and non-paternity) and the risk of miscarriages of justice.”

Nor will the collection of this data necessarily help the authorities’ stated goals of reducing crime and religious extremism, according to Richardson.

“Chinese authorities seem to think they can achieve ‘social stability’ by placing people under a microscope, but these abusive programs are more likely to deepen hostility towards the government,” she said.