Police in China’s Xinjiang region are still buying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of US DNA kits despite warnings from the US government that the sale of such technologies could be used to enable human rights abuses in the region.
The US government has tried to prevent the sale of DNA sequencers, test kits, and other products made by US companies to police in Xinjiang for years, amid concerns raised by scientists and human rights groups that authorities could use the tools to build systems to track people. In 2019, the Trump administration banned the sale of US products to most law enforcement agencies in Xinjiang unless the companies received a license. And in 2020, Washington warned that companies selling biometric technology and other products to Xinjiang should be aware of the “legal, financial and reputational risks”.
But Chinese government procurement documents and contracts reviewed by The New York Times show that goods made by two American companies, Thermo Fisher and Promega, have continued to flow into the region, where a million or more residents, in their Uighur Muslim majority, have been imprisoned in internment camps. The sales are made through Chinese companies that purchase the products and resell them to the police in Xinjiang.
It is not clear how the Chinese companies acquired the equipment, and the documents do not show that any of the US companies made direct sales to any of the Chinese companies. Still, experts say the fact that Xinjiang police continue to acquire and use US-made DNA equipment raises questions about companies’ due diligence regarding where their products end up.
In a statement, Thermo Fisher said it has a “multi-level purchasing process” designed to prevent sales and shipments of human-identifiable products to Xinjiang authorities. The statement said it uses a network of authorized dealers who have agreed to comply with that process. Thermo Fisher said the distributors and users of the documents reviewed by the Times are not listed in its system.
Promega did not respond to inquiries about what procedures they have in place to ensure their products do not end up with the Xinjiang police.
In 2019, Thermo Fisher announced that it would stop selling to Xinjiang after conducting “fact-specific assessments.” At the time, the company had come under scrutiny following reports that Chinese officials were collecting DNA samples and other biometric data from millions of Uighurs, many of whom said they had no choice but to comply.
The accords highlight how difficult it is for Washington to control the ways in which American technology is exploited by authoritarian governments that can use it for repression and surveillance. The issue, which affects a variety of high-tech industries, has grown increasingly tense as relations between Washington and Beijing have grown colder over human rights and other concerns.
It is unclear how the Xinjiang police are using the products. In the United States, law enforcement agencies have used similar technology to solve crimes, although some states have moved to restrict such practices.
DNA sequencers can be used to advance cancer and Covid-19 research and to exonerate prisoners. But the police can also abuse them to monitor them, say human rights activists. Gulbahar Hatiwaji, a Uyghur who was detained in Xinjiang from 2017 to 2019, said she had her blood collected five to six times while in detention.
Ms. Hatiwaji said that the police also scanned her face and iris and recorded her voice. In another case, he said, health workers worked from morning to night to prick the fingers of 250 detainees who were locked up in a field in Karamay, a city in northern Xinjiang. No one told them what it was for.
“We had no right to ask,” said Hatiwaji, 54, who now lives in exile in France. “Whatever they asked us to do, we had to obey.”
In February 2019, Waltham, Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher said it would stop selling its products to Xinjiang, a decision it said was consistent with the company’s “code of ethics.” But ten Chinese contracts and government procurement documents reviewed by The Times show that Thermo Fisher products continue to arrive in the region.
Companies operating in a country as large as China can sometimes have a difficult time untangling their supply chains, and trying to figure out whether their third-party suppliers are selling to other companies can be difficult. Legal experts say companies selling in China should closely evaluate potential third-party deals, especially given the risks in Xinjiang.
Senator Marco Rubio, who has frequently criticized US companies for doing business with the police in Xinjiang, said that “no US-based company should sell surveillance equipment or other technologies to security forces anywhere in the United States. China, especially Xinjiang. “
“The Biden administration must use all the tools at its disposal, including licensing requirements and export controls, to end the complicity of US-based companies with these crimes against humanity,” said Senator Rubio. in a statement to The Times.
Rubio signed a bill in May to toughen export control laws that prevent US companies from allowing human rights abuses. On Thursday, Senators Tim Kaine and Ed Markey chaired a listening before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Human Rights Abuses in Xinjiang.
Government procurement documents and contracts show that several Chinese companies sold Thermo Fisher equipment worth at least $ 521,165 to eight public security agencies in Xinjiang from May 2019 to June 2021. On Sunday, a Chinese company based in Urumqi , the capital of Xinjiang, sold Thermo Fisher Products valued at $ 40,563 to the police in Korla, Xinjiang’s second-largest city.
Xinjiang police also signed four deals with Chinese companies that sell DNA kits from Promega, a biotech company based in Madison, Wisconsin, with deals as of last month. Most offerings, which include products from other companies, do not clarify the value of Promega products.
Daniel Ghoca, Promega’s general counsel, said the company does not do business in Xinjiang and has no customers or distributors there. “The company takes its obligation to comply with all applicable export controls and sanctions requirements of the US government very seriously,” Ghoca wrote in an email. “The company has solid procedures and controls that guarantee compliance with these requirements.”
Yves Moreau, an outspoken critic of American DNA companies selling to Xinjiang and a professor of engineering at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, said he was “absolutely shocked” when he found several of the contracts last month on bidding websites. Chinese corporations. .
“I mean, some non-Chinese-speaking professor sits on Google at night and finds those things,” Professor Moreau said. “What is the process that you have put in place to prevent things like this from happening? They should have grasped this long before I did. “
The contracts show that all but one of the Chinese companies involved in the transactions are based in Xinjiang, where authorities continue to place orders to build new DNA databases.
Surya Deva, an associate professor of law at the City University of Hong Kong and a member of the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights, said that companies cannot shirk their responsibility even if their products are provided by third-party suppliers. One way to be more vigilant, he suggested, would be to insert a clause into contracts to make it clear that products cannot be sold to the police in Xinjiang.
Human rights activists say that US law on the issue is outdated and that the last time lawmakers tried to prevent US companies from selling similar products to China was in 1990. At the time, sanctions prohibited US companies from selling. fingerprinting devices, weapons and ammunition to Chinese police in the wake of Beijing’s deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters near Tiananmen Square.
Rights groups say those penalties should be updated to include cutting-edge technologies like surveillance products, facial recognition machines and DNA equipment.
“What that legislation still says is that US companies cannot sell handcuffs to the public security bureau,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “But what he didn’t imagine at the time was that 30 years in the future, the Chinese public security bureau does not want US-made handcuffs. He wants American-made DNA sequencers. “