China demands DNA from millions of men and boys, raising questions about privacy and consent

boy blood sample
Police officers from the Jiufeng police station in Shaanxi Province collecting DNA samples from a boy. Credit: Xi’an police

[China’s police force has] swept across the country since late 2017 to collect enough samples to build a vast DNA database, according to a new study published on [June 17] by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a research organization, based on documents also reviewed by The New York Times. With this database, the authorities would be able to track down a man’s male relatives using only that man’s blood, saliva or other genetic material.

The project is a major escalation of China’s efforts to use genetics to control its people, which had been focused on tracking ethnic minorities and other, more targeted groups. It would add to a growing, sophisticated surveillance net that the police are deploying across the country, one that increasingly includes advanced cameras, facial recognition systems and artificial intelligence.

Related article:  Coronavirus survivors' plasma offers 'modest' recovery boost for infected patients, small study suggests

The authorities told Jiang [Haolin], a computer engineer from a rural county in northern China, that “if blood wasn’t collected, we would be listed as a ‘black household,’” he said last year, and it would deprive him and his family of benefits like the right to travel and go to a hospital.

The authorities have moved quietly. [Emile] Dirks, co-author of the Australian paper, said nearly all of the collection was taking place in the countryside, where there was little understanding of the implications of the program.

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