In the Chinese province of Xinjiang, science fiction has taken a sharp turn into horrifying reality. The government has detained up to a million people in “re-education” camps that they insist are vocational training centers. Many of these detainees are Uighurs, members of a predominantly Muslim ethnic group. Those who have been detained are supposedly guilty of committing religious and political transgressions on social media. However, according to the New York Times, the government’s real motive is to increase the Communist Party’s control over Muslim minorities within the country. This is far from hard to believe. In authoritarian regimes, the state becomes the center through which all citizens view life. Minority groups often have strong ties to their communities, religions, and ethnic identities. In the eyes of the state, if control is to be absolute, those ties should either be stamped out or the population should be removed. China’s moves to imprison Uighurs are unfortunately far from abnormal. They are yet another manifestation of a long worldwide history of oppression and subjugation.
What makes this case especially troubling however is the Chinese government’s aggressive use of DNA technology. In order to round-up its minority populations, especially those who will resist “re-education,” China has begun constructing a comprehensive DNA database. This data has often not been collected voluntarily. According to the New York Times, many Uighurs have received text messages from the police and local party cadres about required free medical checkups. Despite the Chinese government’s claims that the DNA machines are simply being used for “internal use,” there is no question that the database will eventually be used to better target and remove threats to the regime. This is a truly stunning and frightening development. Not just for China, but for the international world as we know it. As mentioned earlier, many governments have no problem detaining their own citizens for the supposed greater good of the state. Even, the United States who is as defined by freedom and liberty as it is by racism and inequality (see Internment of Japanese Americans, 1942-1945). However, in the past some members of a persecuted minority group were able to avoid detection by hiding their identity. The use of DNA technology largely eliminates this possibility. There is no way to hide who you are if your own genetic material betrays you.
Another revelation of this story is the fact that many of us are inadvertently complicit in the building of a genetic database for Uighurs. In order for the Chinese government to create a DNA profile, it had to compare the Uighur’s DNA with other populations. Dr. Kenneth Kidd, a Yale University geneticist, proved to be the solution to this issue and provided China with genetic material from people all around the world. That’s right, the data from the same tests that thousands of people use to find out more information about their ethnic and racial identity is now being used to infringe upon the rights of approximately a million people. In our quest for answers and our excitement over the advancement of technology, we often forget to consider what is being done with our data. In this case, the answer is far from comfortable.
Additionally, Dr. Kenneth Kidd’s justification for his arrangement with the Chinese government raises questions about the resurgence of scientific racism. He stated that he found his work with the ministry to be similar to work with the police elsewhere and more strikingly that, “governments should have access to data about minorities, not just the dominant ethnic group, in order to have an accurate picture of the whole population.” Setting aside the political motivations for a census in the first place, Dr. Kidd’s statement is chilling. Not only is he implying that the government needs to have an exact idea of its minority populations (which leaves the door open for a wide range of detrimental policies) but also that, somehow a person’s racial status is defined by their DNA. This idea is reminiscent of the tradition of racial classification, like the “one-drop rule’ in the United States in which a person with even one African ancestor was grouped as black. This is a dangerous road to to continue down. If we start to classify people’s race by genetics alone, the distance between science and scientific racism will begin to get smaller and smaller. And if ideas about race and science continue to be tied into technological advances, it is unlikely that China’s abuse of DNA testing will remain an authoritarian problem alone.