Police collecting DNA samples from residents in Dritoe county, Yushu municipality, Qinghai province. (“Zhahe police station caries out DNA blood sample collection,” Zhidoi County Public Security, WeChat, September 10, 2021)
(New York) – Chinese authorities are significantly increasing policing, including arbitrary collection of DNA from residents in many towns and villages throughout the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Human Rights Watch said today.
The available information indicates that people cannot decline providing their DNA and that police do not need credible evidence of any criminal conduct. A report from Lhasa municipality in April 2022 stated that blood samples for DNA collection were being systematically collected from children at kindergartens and from other local residents. A report from a Tibetan township in Qinghai province in December 2020 stated that DNA was being collected from all boys aged 5 and above.
“The Chinese government is already subjecting Tibetans to pervasive repression,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Now the authorities are literally taking blood without consent to strengthen their surveillance capabilities.”
These mass DNA collection drives appear to be taking place in all seven prefectures or municipalities in the TAR, which covers the western part of the Tibetan plateau. The collection drives are part of ongoing efforts by Chinese authorities to establish police presence at the grassroots level throughout the region. There is no publicly available evidence suggesting people can decline to participate or that police have credible evidence of criminal conduct that might warrant such collection. The reports Human Rights Watch studied indicate that DNA was to be collected from all residents of these areas, including temporary residents. None of the reports indicate any conditions under which a resident could refuse to provide a sample.
Human Rights Watch has identified reports of drives in 14 distinct localities (1 prefecture, 2 counties, 2 towns, 2 townships, and 7 villages) across the seven prefecture-level areas of the region, indicating that drives are taking place, or are due to take place, throughout the region. Government procurement documents show that in July 2019 the TAR police called for bids from contractors to construct a regional-level DNA database, a further indication that officials were preparing for a region-wide collection drive. In November 2019, police in Nyingtri, a prefecture-level unit of the TAR, also announced the construction of a DNA database for the area.
The purpose of the DNA collection in the Chamdo municipality, one of the seven regions, was described as “improving verification efficiency and helping catch fleeing persons.” In other areas of the region, residents were told similarly that the collection of DNA was needed for general crime detection. As one official report put it, mass collection is necessary “for the public security organs to detect various illegal cases, and to effectively crack down on illegal and criminal elements.”
Researchers outside China said in 2020 that mass DNA collection began in the TAR in 2013. These claims were based on official news reporting about a mass health-check scheme called the Physicals for All program, which started in TAR in 2013. The program’s stated goal is to improve healthcare delivery, but in Xinjiang, the authorities used it to surreptitiously collect en masse the DNA of residents aged 12 to 65, according to an official document Human Rights Watch obtained in 2017. Human Rights Watch has not found any information indicating that authorities in the TAR have used such programs for DNA collection.
Police in other areas of China have also been carrying out large-scale DNA collection since the early 2010s. But available evidence suggests those efforts have been limited either to subsets of the population the police consider problematic, such as migrants, former prisoners, criminal suspects, and other social groups categorized as “focus personnel” by security agencies, or since 2017, to a police program throughout China collecting the DNA of an estimated 8.1 to 26.4 percent of all males in the country.
Coercing people to give blood samples, or taking blood samples without informed, meaningful, and freely given consent or justification, can violate an individual’s privacy, dignity, and right to bodily integrity. It can also in some circumstances constitute degrading treatment. Compelled DNA sampling of an entire region or population for security maintenance is a serious human rights violation, in that it cannot be justified as necessary or proportionate.
The right to respect for confidentiality of medical information is also a core principle of the right to health. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) has advised states that “[a]ll health facilities, goods and services must be … designed to respect confidentiality.” While the right to privacy does not establish an absolute rule of confidentiality of medical information, interference or breach of confidentiality must be strictly justified, which is not the case when such collection is intended to routinely be shared with the police and any other agency with access to the database.
DNA information is highly sensitive and can facilitate a wide array of abuses if collected or shared non-consensually. Any compelled collection or use by the government is a serious intrusion on the right to privacy. While the government’s collection of DNA is sometimes justified as a permissible investigative tool, this type of interference with the right to privacy must be comprehensively regulated, narrow in scope, and proportionate to meeting a legitimate security goal.
Yet the Chinese government data collection drives collect DNA information from everyone, regardless of whether they are in any way linked to a criminal investigation, and do not appear to require informed consent or explanation of why DNA samples are sought.
Children’s privacy is vital to ensuring their safety, agency, and dignity, and any restriction upon a child’s privacy is only permissible if it meets the standards of legality, necessity, and proportionality.
The collection, processing, and use of genetic information poses heightened risks to children’s privacy. DNA holds highly sensitive information that would uniquely and permanently identify a child, their family members, and inherited medical conditions that could lead to disabilities and major health problems. The use and exposure of this data “may have adverse consequences on children, which can continue to affect them at later stages of their lives.”
The authorities’ collection of DNA from children without their informed, meaningful, and freely given consent, or that of their caregivers, and extracted in educational settings where they could not meaningfully opt out or refuse to provide their personal health data, is a violation of children’s privacy. Furthermore, the authorities’ stated use for this data – crime detection – does not appear to constitute a legitimate, proportionate purpose that serves the child’s best interest.
DNA collection in villages has been reported as part of the drive by Chinese authorities in the region in January 2022 called “The Three Greats.” Official media reports from seven areas across the region – Lhodrak (Lhokha), Gyatsa (Lhokha), Nedong (Lhokha), Chonggye (Lhokha), Chushul (Lhasa), Lhasa city (Lhasa), and Bayi (Nyingtri) – describe the drive as one of several ongoing efforts to “strengthen the grass-roots social governance system,” primarily by increasing police presence at village level, which previously extended only as far as administrative centers referred to as townships (Ch: xiang).
Known in full as “Great One-by-one Inspection, Great Investigation and Great Mediation” (da zou fang 大走访、da diao yan 大调研、da hua jie 大化解) this drive requires police in newly established village police stations or nearby township-level police stations (paichusuo) to visit each household and question residents about their views. Police carrying out The Three Greats drive in Lhodrak, a county in southern Tibet, were told “go to the village and enter [each] household to carry out a net-type investigation to find out the truth.”
“Three real ‘greats’ for Tibetans would involve an immediate end to these chilling violations, and investigations and prosecutions of those responsible,” Richardson said.
For additional details, please see below.
DNA Collection Drives in Tibet
According to official media reports, drives to collect DNA from the residents of a given area have taken place in region since 2019.
From May 2019, according to a report on the TAR’s website, police in Chamdo municipality, one of the seven prefecture-level administrations in the TAR, carried out a year-long collection of various types of basic data and information and established a database of fingerprints and DNA samples of the entire population of the municipality.
In May 2020, police in Ngari Prefecture, TAR, carried out village-level DNA collection drives.
In June and July 2021, police carried out DNA collection from the residents of Nyima town and Aza town, both in Nagchu municipality, TAR.
In November 2021, police began a DNA collection drive from the residents of Medog county in Nyingtri prefecture, TAR.
From December 2021 to late January 2022, police carried out DNA collection from the residents of Geda township in Damshung county, Lhasa municipality; from six villages in four different townships of Sakya county, Shigatse municipality; and from the township of Layu in Chonggye county, Lhokha municipality.
In April 2022, police in Nyemo county, in Lhasa municipality, began a drive to collect DNA from the residents of Nyemo town, including children attending at least three kindergartens within the town.
The report from Chamdo municipality in May 2019 specifies that DNA was to be collected from the entire population, and notes that police were told “not to miss a [single] village or monastery, and not to miss a [single] household or person.” By May 2019, 3,737 police in Chamdo had collected data from at least 524,500 people in the municipality, 69 percent of the population. As a result, they had assembled “1,500 clues” from the data; these had enabled them to arrest “26 fugitives of various types, especially in the special operation of ‘sweeping gangsters, eliminating evil and fighting against chaos.’”
A police report from Chonggye county in Lhokha municipality, where police were collecting “basic information” and DNA samples between early December 2021 and late January 2022, part of the drive called “the Three Greats” (Da zou fang, da diaoyan, da huajie), said that “no village must be omitted from a township, no household must be omitted from a village, and no person must be omitted from a household.” In April 2022, a report by the Nyima County Public Security Bureau in Nagchu noted that officials had collected DNA from almost all residents except those working outside the county.
Other official reports seen by Human Rights Watch document DNA collection drives in Tibetan areas outside the TAR. Only two of these reports – from the townships of Mentang in Golok prefecture and Dritoe in Yushu municipality, both in Qinghai in 2021 – indicate that DNA was being collected from all residents of those areas. Six other reports from Tibetan-inhabited towns or townships in Golok and Hainan prefectures in Qinghai, and from Bathang County in Sichuan province, describe DNA collection from males only, as in other parts of China.
Several reports indicate that children as young as five have been included in some of the DNA collection drives. In the town of Xia Dawu in Golok prefecture, police announced in December 2020 that DNA had to be collected from all males between 5 and 60, although requirements earlier that year had set the minimum age at 16. Photographs in a report from Qingzheng township in Golok in April 2021 show DNA being taken by police from boys in the first year of primary school.
The reports do not provide evidence that children, or their caregivers, gave consent for their DNA blood samples to be taken. The Qingzheng report, for example, says that local auxiliary police “patiently explained” to the children the reasons for collecting their DNA and “promptly eliminated the confusion and doubts of the collected personnel.”
An April 2022 report on the DNA collection drive in kindergartens in Nyemo county, in Lhasa municipality in the TAR, states that police explained in detail “the necessity and importance of DNA samples collected by the public security organs,” and thus “promptly eliminated the doubts and concerns of the masses and obtained the support and understanding of the collected persons for this work.” In another kindergarten in Nyemo, the report says, police “got the support and understanding of the work from the teachers and students in the school.” There is no suggestion in these reports that parents were involved in the consent process.
In TAR, available evidence suggests that prior to 2019, police DNA collection also focused on certain subsets of the population. For example, in July 2015, police in Lhasa announced the purchase of DNA testing and detection database for forensic purposes at a cost of 10 million yuan (US$1.6 million), probably to assess DNA collected from suspects, and in March 2018, police in a village in Taktse county, Lhasa, collected DNA from all migrant workers in the area, but not apparently from all registered residents. The mass DNA collective drives in TAR since 2019 significantly expand the authorities’ collection of such biodata beyond previous government efforts in the region.
DNA collection from each resident in localities with Tibet is significant not just in terms of concerns about consent or privacy; it represents a further advance in close management of the population by the government. Because it requires contact with and registration of each individual, it allows Chinese authorities to identify, tabulate, and track all people in a given area.
The fact that such collection is selective in other parts of China but widespread in many, and likely, in most areas of the TAR and Xinjiang, shows that the authorities feel an especially urgent need to increase data acquisition and monitoring capacity at the grassroots level in those two regions. Mass DNA collection is a logical extension of prior extensive surveillance and deepening police presence there, in Tibet notably via “The Three Greats” drives and other village-level policing initiatives, key elements of which are detailed below.
The Three Greats’ Drives
DNA collection drives in Tibet coincided with the “Three Greats” drives in some areas. Both involve data collection about every individual within a village.
According to official media reports from Gyatsa county and Bayi town in the TAR, police carrying out the Three Greats drive have to apply a principle known as “one household, one file” or “one household member, one policeman,” meaning that a designated police officer is responsible for compiling information on each household and each person.
Public Security Bureau reports describe the collection of information about individual thinking and opinion as “establishing direct police-people relations” and as “spreading information tentacles.” The authorities say the information is intended to improve service provision, such as advising residents to avoid online fraud or listing elderly people who need assistance.
Almost all reports also state that a primary purpose is identifying disputes that the officials can then resolve (the third of the Three Greats: “Great Mediation”). Since at least 2018 Chinese authorities have banned anyone except government and Communist Party officials from carrying out even informal dispute mediation, an important civil function in Tibet that lamas, village elders, or other locally respected figures had generally conducted earlier.
Security agencies regard local disputes as a potential source of unrest, and in practice, the aim of resolving “disputes” and collecting “opinions and suggestions put forward by the masses” appears to be to identify and suppress popular dissent. A report from Lhodrak county in southern Tibet, for example, specifies that the police must solicit individuals’ opinions about “demolitions and relocation.” This move appears to be designed to identify local resistance to relocation.
Several thousand villagers in Lhodrak are being resettled in remote border locations, and some official reports describe intensive, years-long efforts to get residents to agree. Chinese officials take elaborate measures to prevent villagers from returning to their original homes, and officials are required by law to demolish the former houses of relocated villagers to prevent them from returning.
The intensification of police presence at the local level and the practice of household visits is part of an ongoing nationwide drive known as the “Fengqiao” or “Maple Bridge experience,” after a social control experiment from the Maoist era when local residents were encouraged to provide information and support to police. The Fengqiao drive, like the Three Greats, is presented as a form of public service and emphasizes that mediation of local disputes should be carried out only by police and local officials.
As the slogan for this work indicates – “keep small things in the village, keep big things in the village, prevent conflicts from being handed upwards” – the authorities’ objective is to engage local residents in supporting police work by reporting information about others, and to prevent local people from taking their grievances to higher-level authorities and control the spread of dissent to other communities.
Other stated objectives of the current drives are the catch-all “elimination of hidden threats to social stability,” and “strengthening the mapping and management of key persons.” The term “key persons” or “focus personnel” (zhongdian renyuan) refers to individuals or types of individuals arbitrarily deemed a potential threat to stability, and subject to control by Public Security.
A similar drive in the Kandze (Ch.: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan province has introduced police posts staffed by fulltime auxiliary personnel. These uniformed auxiliaries are also expected to conduct home visits to collect data and mediate disputes and achieve “zero distance from the masses” through constant proximity, both face to face and in village WeChat groups. In Sershul (Ch.: Shiqu) county, part of Kandze prefecture, official media term the village policing drive as “micro police and village police.”
Official reports have emphasized that auxiliaries stationed in these villages as part of this initiative provide public education to counter online fraud. According to researchers with exile monitoring organizations, however, police in Sershul detained 117 Tibetans in 2021 for weeks of extrajudicial re-education after searches of their phones revealed what authorities claim was banned content. Human Rights Watch has confirmed recent exile media reports of the systematic searching of mobile phones for banned text and images by local police in rural areas in Nagchu (Ch.: Naqu) municipality, TAR.
Under the “social management” approach introduced by the former leader Hu Jintao and elaborated by Xi Jinping, authorities have intensified local-level policing, usually in the name of “grassroots governance” or better service provision. In the TAR, the current process began in 2011, when teams of cadres were sent to reside in every village of the region to carry out political education, social services, and other functions.
In May 2012, “grid management” and other technologically-assisted forms of urban neighborhood surveillance and preventive policing were introduced systematically throughout urban neighborhoods (known as “communities” in Chinese) to provide enhanced security management at the block level. In May 2013, all households in the TAR were organized into units known as Advanced Double Liaison Households (Ch.: shuanglianhu), each consisting of 5 to 10 households led by a huzhang or household-head responsible for liaising with the neighborhood or village authorities about political compliance and service needs within each unit.
At this stage, police stations in Tibetan rural areas were located in townships, not villages. This changed in Qinghai province in October 2015, when an announcement appeared in Qinghai province official media that over 5,000 police officers – approximately 10-20 percent of the Qinghai police force – were to be transferred to work in villages, where each would serve for two years. A month later, in November 2015, an additional 4,530 new recruits began training to become “village police” in Qinghai. State media reported that they would carry out work “such as preventive control of social stability, fighting crime, monitoring social media and internet messaging, gathering information and management of the actual population.”
That same month, Qinghai officials announced that pilot projects from Golok Darlak and Xunhua counties to “strengthen building of grassroots stability” would expand to the entire province. The goal was described as “establishment and building of security cells” as part of a “three-dimensional control system for social stability.” This system was part of a call by Zhang Gongrong, head of the Qinghai provincial Politics and Law Committee, to increase “the capacity of grassroots police and village police” to “vigorously eliminate the danger of instability.”
Village police stations started to appear in the TAR by July 2020, when the first Fengqiao police stations were established in 17 of the 20 administrative villages in Chushul, a county near Lhasa, as a pilot scheme. Since then, reports indicate village police stations have been established in other areas of the TAR, including Shigatse and Chamdo. A number of village-level police stations have also been established in the new villages being constructed along Tibet’s southern borders, such as Tsari in Lhuntse county, Nagchu in Drongba county, and Ruomoxin in Gamba county.
The intensification of police presence and activity at the grassroots level in rural areas appears designed to extend the surveillance capacity achieved in urban areas to the communities where the majority of Tibetans still live, which have been subject to wide-ranging state intervention under current development policies. It is part of a broader effort by the authorities to promote “grassroots governance” and “rule of law,” which in fact has involved attacks on civil society groups and village leaders, notably those associated with local opposition to official corruption and damage to the environment, or promotion of Tibetan language.
This approach was confirmed in the 2018-21 “Anti-Gang-Crime” campaign, which targeted social associations and activists as “underworld forces.” That campaign has since been made a regular part of Public Security work at all levels. A report on the work of a team from the Anti-Gang-Crime campaign headquarters for Bayi Qu, the main city in Nyingtri (Ch.: Linzhi) municipality, “going to the grassroots and households for Great Questioning” was the first of four tasks undertaken this year.