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China still buys US DNA material for Xinjiang despite lockdowns

Police in China’s Xinjiang region are still purchasing hundreds of thousands of dollars in US DNA equipment despite warnings from the US government that the sale of such technology could be used to enable human rights violations 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 the Xinjiang police for years, as scientists and rights groups of humans feared that the authorities would use the tools to build systems to track people. In 2019, the Trump administration banned the sale of American products to most law enforcement in Xinjiang, unless the companies obtained a license. And in 2020, Washington warned that companies selling biometric technologies and other products in Xinjiang should be aware of “reputational, economic and legal risks.”

But Chinese government procurement documents and contracts reviewed by the New York Times show that goods made by two U.S. companies – Thermo Fisher and Promega – continued to flow into the region, where a million or more people, mainly Muslim Uyghurs, were held in internment camps. Sales are made through Chinese companies that buy the products and resell them to the Xinjiang police.

It is not known how the Chinese companies acquired the equipment, and the documents do not show that either 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 the diligence of companies as to where their products are going.

In a statement, Thermo Fisher said it has implemented a “tiered purchasing process” designed to prevent sales and shipments of human identification products to authorities in Xinjiang. The press release says it uses a network of authorized distributors who have agreed to comply with this process. Thermo Fisher said the distributors and users of the documents the Times examined are not listed in its system.

Promega did not respond to questions about the procedures in place to ensure its products do not end up with the Xinjiang police.

In 2019, Thermo Fisher announced that it would stop selling in Xinjiang after undertaking “fact-specific assessments.” At that time, the company had come under scrutiny after reports that Chinese officials were collecting DNA samples and other biometric data from millions of Uyghurs, many of whom said they were collecting DNA samples and other biometric data from millions of Uyghurs. had no choice but to comply.

The agreements underscore how difficult it is for Washington to control the way American technology is exploited by authoritarian governments who can use it for repression and surveillance. The issue, which affects various high-tech industries, has grown increasingly tense as relations between Washington and Beijing have become more icy over human rights and other concerns.

It is not known how the products are used by the Xinjiang police. Law enforcement in the United States has used similar technology to solve crimes, although some states have decided to restrict these practices.

DNA sequencers can be used to advance Covid-19 and cancer research and to exonerate prisoners. But they can also be abused by police for surveillance purposes, say human rights activists. Gulbahar Hatiwaji, a Uyghur detained in Xinjiang from 2017 to 2019, said her blood was drawn about five to six times during her detention.

Ms Hatiwaji said police also scanned her face and irises and recorded her voice. In another case, she said, health workers worked from morning to night to prick the fingers of 250 inmates who were locked in a camp in Karamay, a town in northern Xinjiang. No one told them what it was for.

“We were not allowed to ask,” said Ms. Hatiwaji, 54, who now lives in exile in France. “Whatever they ask us to do, we had to obey.

In February 2019, Thermo Fisher, based in Waltham, Mass., Announced it would stop selling its products in Xinjiang, a move it said was in line with the company’s “code of ethics.” But 10 Chinese contracts and government procurement documents reviewed by The Times show that Thermo Fisher products continue to end up in the region.

Companies operating in a country as large as China can sometimes have a hard time disentangling their supply chains, and trying to find out if their third-party suppliers are selling to other companies can be tricky. Legal experts say companies selling in China should carefully assess potential deals with third parties, especially given the risks in Xinjiang.

Senator Marco Rubio, who has often criticized US companies for their business dealings with the Xinjiang police force, said that “no US-based company should sell surveillance equipment or other technology to security forces. anywhere in China, especially Xinjiang “.

“The Biden administration must use all tools at its disposal, including licensing requirements and export controls, to end the complicity of US-based companies with these crimes against humanity,” Senator Rubio said in a statement to The Times.

Rubio co-signed a bill in May to strengthen export control laws that prevent US companies from allowing human rights violations. On Thursday, Senators Tim Kaine and Ed Markey presided over a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee into human rights violations in Xinjiang.

Procurement documents and government contracts show that several Chinese companies sold Thermo Fisher equipment for at least $ 521,165 to eight Xinjiang public security agencies from May 2019 to June 2021. As of Sunday, one company Chinese based in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, sold $ 40,563. value of Thermo Fisher products to police in Korla, the second largest city in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang Police also signed four deals with Chinese companies selling DNA equipment from Promega, a Madison, Wisconsin-based biotech company, with deals throughout the past month. Most of the offers, which include products from other companies, do not clearly state the value of Promega products.

Daniel Ghoca, legal adviser to Promega, said the company does not operate in Xinjiang and has no customers or distributors there. “The company takes seriously its obligation to comply with all applicable US government export control and sanction requirements,” Ghoca wrote in an email. “The company has robust procedures and controls in place to ensure compliance with these requirements. “

Yves Moreau, a vocal critic of American DNA companies selling to Xinjiang, and an engineering professor at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, said he was “absolutely stunned” when he found several of the contracts himself. last month on Chinese business bidding websites. .

“I mean, a professor who doesn’t speak Chinese sits on Google at night and finds this stuff,” Professor Moreau said. “What is the process they have in place to prevent such things from happening? They should have caught this much sooner than 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, 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 companies cannot escape responsibility even though their products were provided by third party vendors. One way to be more vigilant, he suggested, would be to insert a clause in contracts to make it clear that the products cannot be sold to the Xinjiang police.

Human rights activists say US law on the issue is outdated and that the last time lawmakers tried to stop US companies from selling similar products to China was in 1990. At At that time, sanctions prohibited U.S. companies from selling fingerprinting devices, weapons, and ammunition to Chinese police following Beijing’s deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters near Tiananmen Square.

Rights groups say these sanctions should be updated to include advanced technologies such as surveillance products, facial recognition machines and DNA equipment.

“What this legislation again says is that American companies cannot sell handcuffs to the public security bureau,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “But what he didn’t envision at the time was that in 30 years, the Chinese Public Security Bureau doesn’t want handcuffs made in the United States. He wants DNA sequencers made in the United States.

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