Police in China’s Xinjiang region are still buying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of American DNA equipment despite warnings from the US government that the sale of such technology could be used to facilitate human rights abuses in the region.
The U.S. government has been trying for years to prevent American companies from selling DNA sequencers, test kits, and other products to the police in Xinjiang, amid concerns raised by scientists and human rights groups that the authorities might use the tools to build systems to haunt people. In 2019, the Trump administration banned the sale of American goods to most law enforcement agencies in Xinjiang unless the companies were licensed. And in 2020 Washington warned that companies selling biometric technology and other products in Xinjiang should be aware of “reputational, economic, and legal risks.”
But the Chinese government’s procurement documents and contracts, scrutinized by the New York Times, show that goods from two American companies – Thermo Fisher and Promega – continue to flow into the region, where a million or more residents, mostly Muslim Uyghurs, are detained in internment camps. It is sold through Chinese companies who buy 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 either of the two American companies made direct sales to either of the Chinese companies. However, experts say the fact that Xinjiang Police Department continues to purchase and use US-made DNA equipment raises questions about the care companies take about where their products end up.
In a statement, Thermo Fisher said it has a “multi-step purchasing process” designed to prevent the sale and shipping of personal identification products to the Xinjiang authorities. The statement states that it uses a network of authorized dealers who have agreed to follow this process. Thermo Fisher said the vendors and users of the documents reviewed by the Times are not listed on its system.
Promega did not respond to inquiries about what procedures they had in place to ensure their products did not end up with the Xinjiang Police Department.
In 2019, Thermo Fisher announced that it would stop selling to Xinjiang after conducting “factual assessments”. At the time, the company had come under scrutiny after Chinese officials reportedly collected DNA samples and other biometric data from millions of Uyghurs, many of whom said they had no choice but to do.
The agreements underscore how difficult it is for Washington to control the way American technology is exploited by authoritarian governments who may use it for repression and surveillance. Affecting a wide variety of high-tech industries, the issue has grown increasingly tense as Washington-Beijing relations have grown frostier over human rights and other concerns.
It is unclear how the products will be used by the Xinjiang Police Department. In the United States, law enforcement agencies have used similar technology to solve crimes, although some states restrict these practices.
DNA sequencers can be used to advance Covid-19 and cancer research and relieve prisoners. But they can also be used by the police for surveillance, say human rights activists. Gulbahar Hatiwaji, a Uyghur woman detained in Xinjiang from 2017 to 2019, said her blood was drawn five to six times during her detention.
Ms. Hatiwaji said the police also scanned her face and iris, and recorded her voice. In another case, health workers worked morning to night to prick the fingers of 250 inmates detained in a camp in Karamay, a city in northern Xinjiang. Nobody told them what it was for.
“We had no right to ask,” said Ms. Hatiwaji, 54, who is now in exile in France. “Whatever they asked of us, we had to obey.”
In February 2019, Waltham, Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher announced that it would cease sales of its products to Xinjiang, a decision that is consistent with the company’s “Code of Ethics”. But 10 Chinese contracts and government procurement documents reviewed by The Times show Thermo Fisher products continue to land in the region.
Companies operating in a country as large as China sometimes struggle to untangle their supply chains, and it can be difficult to figure out if their third-party suppliers are selling to other companies. Legal experts say companies selling in China need to scrutinize potential business with third parties, especially given the risks in Xinjiang.
Senator Marco Rubio, who has often criticized American companies for doing business with the police in Xinjiang, said that “no US company in China, particularly in Xinjiang, should sell surveillance equipment or other technology to security forces.”
“The Biden administration must use all tools at its disposal, including licensing requirements and export controls, to end the complicity of US corporations in these crimes against humanity,” Senator Rubio said in a statement to the Times.
Mr. Rubio signed a bill in May to tighten export control laws, preventing American companies from allowing human rights abuses. Senators Tim Kaine and Ed Markey chaired a hearing in the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on human rights violations in Xinjiang on Thursday.
Government procurement documents and contracts indicate that several Chinese companies sold Thermo Fisher devices worth at least $ 521,165 to eight public safety agencies in Xinjiang from May 2019 to June 2021. As recently as Sunday, a Chinese company based in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, sold $ 40,563 of Thermo Fisher’s products to the police in Korla, Xinjiang’s second largest city.
Xinjiang police also signed four agreements with Chinese companies selling DNA equipment from Promega, a biotechnology company based in Madison, Wisconsin. Most deals that include products from other companies don’t make the value of Promega products clear.
Promega general counsel Daniel Ghoca said the company does not do or have any business in Xinjiang Customers or dealers there. “The company takes its commitment to comply with all applicable export controls and US government sanctions seriously,” Ghoca wrote in an email. “The company has robust procedures and controls to ensure 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 stunned” when he himself bid on several of the contracts on Chinese companies last month -Websites found.
“I mean, a professor who doesn’t speak Chinese sits on Google in the evenings and finds that stuff,” said Professor Moreau. “What is the process that you put in place to avoid such things? You should have caught that much earlier than me. “
The contracts indicate that all but one of the Chinese companies involved in the transactions are based in Xinjiang, where the authorities continue to award contracts to set up new DNA databases.
Surya Deva, adjunct law professor at City University of Hong Kong and a member of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, said companies could not shirk responsibility even if their products were supplied by third parties. One way to be more vigilant would be to include a clause in contracts stating that the products cannot be sold to the police in Xinjiang.
Human rights activists say U.S. law on the matter is out of date and that the last time lawmakers tried to prevent American companies from selling similar products to China was in 1990. At the time, sanctions banned American companies from selling fingerprinting machines, weapons and ammunition to Chinese police after Beijing’s deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters near Tiananmen Square.
The rights groups say these sanctions should be updated to include cutting edge technologies such as surveillance products, facial recognition devices and DNA equipment.
“That law still says US companies can’t sell handcuffs to the public safety bureau,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch. “But what it didn’t provide back then was that the Chinese Public Security Bureau would not want handcuffs from the US for 30 years in the future. It wants US-made DNA sequencers. “