China’s Genetic Research on Ethnic Minorities Sets Off Science Backlash

Scientists are raising questions about the ethics of studies backed by Chinese surveillance agencies. Prestigious journals are taking action.

The New York Times
Date: Dec. 4, 2019
By: Sui-Lee Wee and Paul Mozur

Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang, the region where China has locked up more than one million people from predominantly Muslim minority groups in the name of quelling terrorism.Credit…Gilles Sabrié for The New York Times

BEIJING — China’s efforts to study the DNA of the country’s ethnic minorities have incited a growing backlash from the global scientific community, as a number of scientists warn that Beijing could use its growing knowledge to spy on and oppress its people.

Two publishers of prestigious scientific journals, Springer Nature and Wiley, said this week that they would re-evaluate papers they previously published on Tibetans, Uighurs and other minority groups. The papers were written or co-written by scientists backed by the Chinese government, and the two publishers want to make sure the authors got consent from the people they studied.

Springer Nature, which publishes the influential journal Nature, also said that it was toughening its guidelines to make sure scientists get consent, particularly if those people are members of a vulnerable group.

The statements followed articles by The New York Times that describe how the Chinese authorities are trying to harness bleeding-edge technology and science to track minority groups. The issue is particularly stark in Xinjiang, a region on China’s western frontier, where the authorities have locked up more than one million Uighurs and other members of predominantly Muslim minority groups in internment camps in the name of quelling terrorism.

Chinese companies are selling facial recognition systems that they claim can tell when a person is a Uighur. Chinese officials have also collected blood samples from Uighurs and others to build new tools for tracking members of minority groups.

In some cases, Western scientists and companies have provided help for those efforts, often unwittingly. That has included publishing papers in high-profile journals, which grants prestige and respectability to the authors that can lead to access to funding, data or new techniques.

When Western journals publish such papers by Chinese scientists affiliated with the country’s surveillance agencies, it amounts to selling a knife to a friend “knowing that your friend would use the knife to kill his wife,” said Yves Moreau, a professor of engineering at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium.

On Tuesday, Nature published an essay by Dr. Moreau calling for all publications to retract papers written by scientists backed by Chinese security agencies that focus on the DNA of minority ethnic groups.    [FULL  STORY]