The US biotech company Thermo Fisher has halted sales of its DNA identification kits in Tibet, nearly five years after it made a similar commitment about the sale of its products in the neighbouring western Chinese region of Xinjiang.
It decided to stop sales in Tibet after months of complaints from rights groups and investors that the technology may be used in a way that abuses human rights. The company said that the decision was made in the middle of 2023, but it was only revealed to investors late last month.
Human rights experts and exiles have said there are pervasive levels of surveillance in Tibet, one of the most tightly controlled parts of China. Foreigners cannot freely visit and many exiled Tibetans have limited contact with their relatives there, making it hard for information to reach the outside world.
Conditions have been likened to those in Xinjiang, where rights groups said that the authorities are building a DNA database for Uyghur Muslims. The authorities have denied the accusations.
Beijing worries about separatism in both regions. The regions’ dominant ethnic groups practise cultures and faiths that are different from the Chinese Han majority, and which the Chinese Communist party views with suspicion.
In 2022, the Intercept reported that Tibetan police signed a deal to purchase more than $160,000 worth of DNA profiling kits from Thermo Fisher. Separately, Human Rights Watch reported that mass DNA collection was taking place across Tibet, including from boys as young as five. Citizen Lab, a research institute at the University of Toronto, estimated that between 2016 and 2022, up to one-third of Tibet’s population gave DNA samples to the police.
In 2019, Thermo Fisher said it would stop selling its DNA kits in Xinjiang, citing its ethics code. Last month the Guardian revealed that an academic paper published in 2019 which evaluated Thermo Fisher’s genetic sequencing technology on minorities in Xinjiang had been retracted because of concerns that the DNA samples had not been obtained with the proper consent. The study was conducted by university researchers, not Thermo Fisher’s own scientists.
Campaigners said DNA sampling in Tibet should also be closely scrutinised. Tibetans are monitored “constantly”, said Tenzin Rabga Tashi, an activist with Free Tibet, a London-based NGO. He said the kits would have enhanced the Chinese government’s ability to surveil the local population.
Responding to Thermo Fisher’s decision on Thursday, the Global Times, a Chinese state media tabloid, said “the narrative that the ‘Chinese government is collecting DNA data in Xizang [Tibet] for surveillance’ comes out of nowhere. Collecting DNA data in China has been an effective approach for public security organs in the country to trace missing children and combat human trafficking.”
Thermo Fisher said its sales in Tibet “are consistent with routine forensic investigation in an area of this size” and that its human identification technology “is used for important forensic applications, from tracking down criminals, to stopping human trafficking and freeing the unjustly accused”. It did not elaborate on the reasons for halting sales to Tibet.
Joshua Brockwell, investment communications director for Azzad Asset Management, said: “As investors of conscience, Azzad is pleased that our calls on Thermo Fisher to make the right choice and help end biometric repression as a tool of Chinese authoritarian surveillance have been heeded.”
Yves Moreau, a professor of engineering at the University of Leuven, in Belgium, who focuses on DNA analysis, said: “The persecution of Tibetans and control of the Tibetan plateau relies on a hi-tech system of digital authoritarianism … DNA databases are a piece of this architecture of total surveillance … By selling its products to Tibetan public security, Thermo Fisher was aiding and abetting those abuses.”
Thermo Fisher’s business in China has come under particular scrutiny because the company’s chief executive, Marc Casper, also chairs the US-China Business Council. In November, he hosted a $40,000 per table dinner to welcome China’s president, Xi Jinping, to San Francisco. At the dinner, Casper said that companies like Thermo Fisher “have been at the forefront of China’s modernisation” and cited the fact that the “vast majority” of the company’s employees were in the US and China.
Casper’s role on the council “destroys any ignorance [the company] can claim, particularly after the company withdrew from the Uyghur region in 2019”, said John Jones, the head of campaigns at Free Tibet.
In 2022, the company generated revenue of $3.8bn in China, up from $3.4bn the previous year. China is Thermo Fisher’s biggest market outside the US.