More Than a Threat: China Collects Americans’ DNA

April 13, 2021 Updated: April 26, 2021

Commentary

In the past few years, the United States has come to the realization and consensus that the Chinese regime, with its ambition to achieve global domination and its complete disregard for ethics and humanity, has become the No. 1 threat to the United States and the rest of the free world.

Espionage by the communist regime has long been a known threat, and each day the world learns a little bit more about the extensive reach of China’s information theft in many territories. The most recent discovery is that the regime has been openly and discreetly collecting Americans’ health care data, notably DNA.

The first official alarm was rung in May 2020 by the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), which issued a public warning: “Foreign powers can collect, store, and exploit biometric information from COVID tests.” Amidst the pandemic and social unrest, it received no media attention, until a recent “60 Minutes” program brought the issue to a public focal point.

In its Jan. 31 episode, “60 Minutes” reported that Chinese biotech colossus BGI had approached at least six states, including Washington, New York, and California, to offer generous packages of COVID-19 test assistance, including building and running state-of-the-art testing labs, providing technical expertise and equipment, and even donations—all free of charge.

Former NCSC head Bill Evanina told “60 Minutes” that he was so concerned by BGI’s proposals that he authorized a public warning stating that “foreign powers can collect, store and exploit biometric information from covid tests.” Evanina has many good reasons to feel anxious, one being BGI’s close ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese military.

BGI

BGI was founded in 1999 in Beijing by Wang Jian, a Chinese geneticist who worked as a research fellow at several U.S. universities between 1988 and 1994.

The company’s name was Huada at that time, and it’s still using Huada as its Chinese name. In its early years, Huada relied solely on government funding and struggled to get sufficient funds to survive.

Its opportunity came when SARS hit in 2003. Huada was the first to decode the SARS virus genome and to create a SARS detection kit. This gained attention and favor from the CCP senior leadership. Later that year, the company was “adopted” by the CCP academia establishment and became the Beijing Institute of Genomics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. That’s how it got the name that it’s known for outside of China.

Since its birth, BGI has nurtured a very nationalistic company culture and loyalty to the CCP. Wang once told the Founder Magazine that his company’s walls were covered with slogans like “Loyally Serve the Country,” in appreciation for the local government’s funds.

Epoch Times Photo
Technicians work at a genetic testing laboratory of BGI in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China, on Dec. 26, 2018. (Stringer/Reuters)

In a draft application for an 800 million yuan ($122.2 million) government fund, Wang not only filled the pages with CCP-style rhetoric like “I beg to fight for the great millennium plans of the Chinese people,” but also stated that his project’s purpose is “to prevent foreign enemies from inventing genetic weapons against the Chinese race.” He explained to his interviewer that he couldn’t change or delete the “genetic weapons” statement because it appeals to Chinese military leaders.

BGI started gaining international visibility in 2010, but not for scientific achievements. Thanks to a $90 million loan from the state-owned China Development Bank, BGI purchased 128 sequencing systems from San Diego-based Illumina, America’s top sequencing equipment maker. The purchase remains the company’s largest single order of sequencing products.

The development from this point on roughly resembles China’s typical growth model in manufacturing and IT. With the help of American machines and tech services, coupled with cheap Chinese labor and government support, BGI quickly became the world’s DNA sequencing factory and accounted for over half of the world’s sequencing capacity.

In 2012, BGI acquired Complete Genomics, a DNA sequencing company and equipment maker. The funds for the $117.6 million purchase were raised from Chinese venture capitals. The venture capitals in China are owned and controlled by the “Red Princelings,” who are second- or third-generation descendants of top CCP leaders.

Illumina CEO Jay Flatley told The New York Times in 2012 that the sale “would allow funding from the Chinese government to move the technology forward at a pace that no U.S. company could match because we do not have access to such funding sources.” Illumina tried to stop the deal by offering a higher price but was turned down due to antitrust concerns. It also tried to lobby Congress to raise concerns but didn’t get much response.

In the health care industry, the United States had been losing market share and jobs to China long before the pandemic. Health care expert and author Rosemary Gibson warned about China’s monopoly in the U.S. generic drugs market in her 2018 book “China RX: Exposing the Risks of America’s Dependence on China for Medicine.”

Gibson wrote: “In the 1990s, the United States, Europe, and Japan manufactured 90 percent of the global supply of the key ingredients for the world’s medicines and vitamins. … Industry data reveal that Chinese companies formed a cartel, colluded to sell product on the global market at below market price, and drove all U.S., European, and Indian producers out of business.”

As a result, Chinese pharmaceutical companies have now captured 97 percent of the U.S. market for antibiotics and more than 90 percent of the market for vitamin C. America closed its last penicillin plant in 2004.

The pain was felt clearly early on in the pandemic when the world desperately needed protective masks. Americans realized that 95 percent of its mask supplies were manufactured in foreign countries, and mostly in China. And China was keeping the masks for itself. The shortage can be and has been used against the United States: the Chinese regime mouthpiece Xinhua threatened in March 2020 to ban medical supply exportation to the United States as retaliation for the Trump administration’s travel ban and helping American citizens in China to return to the United States. If it came to that, the article said, the United States would be “drowned in the ocean of coronavirus.”

Epoch Times Photo
Workers produce masks for export at a factory in Lianyungang in China’s eastern Jiangsu Province on March 26, 2020. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

A similar situation may happen in the DNA area. BGI has the technology, capacity, funds, and experience—it’s rapidly expanding its footprint globally. According to its website, BGI conducts business in more than 100 countries and areas and has 11 offices and labs in the United States. BGI “has formed numerous partnerships with U.S. healthcare providers and research organizations to provide large-scale genetic sequencing to support medical research efforts,” according to a 2019 report from the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC).

Apparently, BGI sees COVID-19 as a perfect opportunity to deepen its impact in the United States. In a letter to Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, Wang mentioned that BGI had already donated products to the University of Washington, and offered to donate more “as soon as our product receives regulatory approval.” This suggests BGI is hoping the favor it offers will help it get approvals faster or easier, or give it a competitive advantage in some other way.

BGI poses a bigger threat because it not only sells products, but also collects our most unique and personal information: DNA. Many people in the biotech community and government have expressed concerns about China’s access to American DNA data, mostly for three reasons. In the “60 Minutes” interview, Evanina discussed the very likely scenario in which Chinese companies would be able to micro-target American individuals and offer customized preventative health care solutions based on their DNA. Evanina asked: “Do we want to have another nation systematically eliminate our health care services? Are we okay with that as a nation?”

The second concern is that China may use the DNA to track and attack American individuals. As the USCC report states: “China could target vulnerabilities in specific individuals brought to light by genomic data or health records. … Individuals targeted in such attacks would likely be strategically identified persons, such as diplomats, politicians, high-ranking federal officials, or military leadership.” Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, believes this is a very likely scenario.

The third concern is that China may devise bioweapons to target non-Asians. Mosher describes what this could look like in his article “What Will China Do With Your DNA?”, published by The Epoch Times in March 2019. He wrote: “We know that the Asian genome is genetically distinct from the Caucasian and African in many ways. … Would it be possible to bioengineer a very virulent version of, say, smallpox, that was easily transmitted, fatal to other races, but to which the Chinese enjoyed a natural immunity? … Given our present ability to manipulate genomes, if such a bio-weapon can be imagined, it can probably—given enough time and resources—be realized.” While technically this will be very challenging, and so far there’s no proof that such a weapon can be created, the consequences are too dire to be ignored.

Organ Harvesting

But there’s one other reason that most Americans are not even aware of. In my opinion, this may be the strongest and most practical motivation for China to amass DNA in and outside of China. This reason is almost too evil to believe, yet it has been happening for more than two decades and is still going on: forced organ harvesting.

Epoch Times Photo
A re-enactment of organ harvesting in China on Falun Gong practitioners, during a rally in Ottawa, Canada, 2008. (The Epoch Times)

China started building its DNA database in 1999 through its public security system, when the National Statistics Committee approved the “Criminal DNA Database” project led by the Institute of Forensic Medicine & Science of the Ministry of Justice of China. The timing coincides with the onset of the large-scale persecution of Falun Gong practitioners and the start of nationwide forced organ harvesting from jailed practitioners and other prisoners of conscience.

Since then, China has expanded the size of its DNA database at an astounding speed. In 2003, the public security had less than 100,000 records. Around 2017, China launched a major campaign to enforce nationwide DNA collection. In 2018, the size of the database jumped to 70 million records. To put this in perspective, the FBI DNA database, CODIS, was established about a decade before China’s. As of September 2020, it has only about 19 million profiles.

Today, national DNA database is a not uncommon in the world, and is usually used for legal and ethical purposes. But like the internet, telecom, and other technologies, such a database can be used for bad purposes in the hands of the CCP.

In its “2019 Report on International Religious Freedom: China,” the U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom quoted the independent China Tribunal’s finding that “forced organ harvesting has been committed for years throughout China on a significant scale and that Falun Gong practitioners have been one—and probably the main—source of organ supply.”

According to multiple sources, organ transplants in China started to soar around 2000. Today, China conducts more than 10,000 organ transplants each year, the majority of which are vital organs such as livers and lungs. The average wait time for a vital organ is between two and four weeks, compared to around three years in the rest of the world (pdf).

The simultaneous growth of China’s DNA database and organ transplants isn’t a coincidence. Since the persecution of Falun Gong was initiated in 1999, millions of practitioners have been detained in jails, labor camps, and prisons. When in detainment, Falun Gong practitioners are consistently forced to do blood and organ testing, while other prisoners are not.

falun gong organ harvesting
Falun Gong parade in Manhattan on May 16, 2019. (Samira Bouaou/The Epoch Times)

Furthermore, the DNA collection is not limited to jails and labor camps. There have been many reports of police forcibly collecting DNA at Falun Gong practitioners’ homes. In one report from 2013, three public security personnel broke into the home of 64-year-old Yang Guizhu, a retired government worker, and demanded to collect Yang’s blood sample for DNA testing. Upon her refusal, the three men held Yang down by force and drew her blood.

Ethnic minorities such as Uyghurs have also been victims of forced organ harvesting. In recent years, the communist authorities have launched several campaigns to collect Uyghurs’ DNA along with other biometric data. Since 2016, every Xinjiang resident between the ages of 12 and 65 was forced to hand over DNA samples and undergo retinal scans and fingerprinting annually, in the name of “free physical exams,” according to Xinhua.

Since late 2019, China has collected DNA from average citizens. Police have shown up at schools, villages, and residences to collect DNA samples and other information, and people were not given the option to refuse.

Such practices are unthinkable in other countries, and some countries have banned the permanent logging of DNA records in order to protect citizens’ privacy and human rights.

Though the world does not yet know everything China has done or is planning to do with the massive DNA database it has built in the past two decades, it is certain that an authoritarian regime with a long track record of crimes against humanity should not be trusted with our information.

As of today, there are no formal restrictions on the sale of U.S. biotechnology companies, technology, or equipment to China, nor on the testing of U.S. DNA in China, nor on the transfer of U.S. genomic information to that country. It is time the U.S. government and lawmakers take a deeper look into this issue, before more damage is done.

Pingping Yu has been a writer, translator, and researcher for The Epoch Times since 2007. She covers a variety of topics related to China, with a strong focus on human rights, economy, and business.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.