Police gather blood and saliva samples from many who aren’t criminals, including those who forget ID cards, write critically of the state or are just in the wrong place

QIANWEI, China—Schoolchildren in a bucolic region in western China famed for steam trains and jasmine flowers thought little of it when police interrupted classes and asked all the boys to spit into small plastic boxes.

They weren’t told why, according to the accounts of several children involved. From kindergartens through high schools, hundreds of male students were ordered to give enough saliva so that a filter paper inside each box turned from pink to white. The change indicated that the sample was sufficient for forensic scientists to extract the boys’ DNA, or unique genetic fingerprint. It would also identify biological traits common to blood relatives of each child.

The police in Qianwei County say their plan worked. They hoped the operation would offer clues to the unsolved murder of two shopkeepers nine years before, and soon they celebrated the murderer’s capture in state media.

An added bonus: The police collected a lot more names they could add to the world’s biggest DNA database, an essential part of China’s high-tech security blanket being unfurled across the country as Beijing seeks to better monitor its 1.4 billion citizens.

Nationwide, police have a goal of almost doubling China’s current DNA trove to 100 million records by 2020, according to a Wall Street Journal examination of documents from police departments across China. To get there, they need to gather almost as many records each year as are in the entire national database the U.S. has built over two decades.

Genetic Tracking

China wants to increase its police database of DNA records to 100 million by 2020, far exceeding troves in the U.S. and U.K.

Note: Records include individual profiles plus crime-scene evidence samples.

Sources: Police journals and documents (China); FBI (U.S.) ; National DNA Database (U.K.)

Such mass screening, which authorities characterize as a crime-fighting tool, is drawing criticism that China’s police are violating people’s privacy and unfairly targeting innocent or vulnerable citizens, and is raising questions about what the data might ultimately be used for.

Many of the ways Chinese police are collecting samples are impermissible in the U.S. In China, DNA saliva swabs or blood samples are routinely gathered from people detained for violations such as forgetting to carry identity cards or writing blogs critical of the state, according to documents from a national police DNA conference in September and official forensic journals.

Others aren’t suspected of any crime. Police target certain groups considered a higher risk to social stability. These include migrant workers and, in one city, coal miners and home renters, the documents show.

In Baishan, a city bordering North Korea, residents of a home for the elderly were told they were getting free health checks, the police documents show. In mountainous Ningxia, in the northwest, residents were told a census was being conducted. In the southern manufacturing city of Shenzhen, an itinerant worker told the Journal he had his blood taken after he was unable to show a local residency card.

China’s Ministry of Public Security, the national police force, didn’t respond to requests for comment, and provincial police departments either didn’t respond or declined to comment. In a police journal last year, Liu Shuo, then China’s chief forensic officer, wrote that the DNA database had become a “precision-guided weapon for crime-solving.”

In the U.S., regulations limit law enforcement to collecting DNA samples only from people who are arrested—or in some states, convicted—of a serious crime, unless police obtain a court warrant or a person’s consent, or take samples from discarded items such as chewing gum. The DNA from those who gave samples after being arrested or convicted is stored in a national network administered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which currently holds 13 million profiles of those convicted and nearly three million arrestee profiles, according to October statistics from the FBI.

China has no laws governing DNA collection outside of criminal investigations, and privacy protections are limited. A half-million DNA profiles police collected as a human-trafficking measure are now being pooled into the criminal investigation database.

China’s database already has 54 million profiles, according to its forensic police.

In parts of the country, law enforcement has stored DNA profiles with a subject’s other biometric information, including fingerprints, portraits and voice prints, the heads of the DNA program wrote in the Chinese journal Forensic Science and Technology last year. One provincial police force has floated plans to link the data to a person’s information such as online shopping records and entertainment habits, according to a paper presented at the national police DNA conference. Such high-tech files would create more sophisticated versions of paper dossiers that police have long relied on to keep tabs on citizens.

Marrying DNA profiles with real-time surveillance tools, such as monitoring online activity and cameras hooked to facial-recognition software, would help China’s ruling Communist Party develop an all-encompassing “digital totalitarian state,” says Xiao Qiang, adjunct professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Information.

China is playing catch-up on the use of DNA for detective work. A national DNA database was added as a crime-fighting tool in 2003, and collection scaled up only in recent years. In most countries, however, DNA databases grow more slowly because collection is restricted to people convicted of serious crimes.

In Qianwei County, where police were investigating the double murder case gone cold, police chiefs initially pondered testing all 130,000 residents in one town, but they demurred because they were worried about public outrage and high costs, according to a state-media report written by police. Realizing DNA was hereditary, they decided all they needed were samples from each clan in the area, most of whom would have at least one child in school. The public was told the collection was part of an anti-child-trafficking campaign to trace lost children, according to state media, though several students interviewed by the Journal said they were given no explanation at all.

A teenage boy studying in one of the county’s high schools recalled that a policeman came into his class after lunch one day this spring and passed out the collection boxes. Male students were told to clean their mouths, spit into the boxes and place them into envelopes on which they had written their names.

“Of course we were curious what this was for,” the teenager said. “No one told us the reason, neither the teachers nor the police officers.”

State media said the police told schools in Qingxi town the DNA collection was part of an anti-child-trafficking campaign to trace lost children.
State media said the police told schools in Qingxi town the DNA collection was part of an anti-child-trafficking campaign to trace lost children. Photo: Liza Lin/The Wall Street Journal

The boy said he joked with his classmates that the unusual request was in case they committed a crime some day.

Children at other county schools told similar stories. Qianwei police later wrote in the state media report that the DNA campaign allowed them to narrow the possible suspects and helped them trace the killer, who confessed. Qianwei police declined to comment further.

Some police departments are wary of public blowback. In 2013, police in eastern China’s industrial town of Binzhou drew public ire when they swabbed 3,500 students as part of a probe into petty theft of cellphones and computers on a college campus. State-backed media joined in the criticism: Just because police want to solve every case, one newspaper editorial said, doesn’t mean they can go after so many innocent people.

The Ministry of Public Security said in 2015 it was premature to record DNA for all citizens because it would create an issue of ethics and privacy. Other countries that have considered building a DNA database of all citizens, including Portugal and Kuwait, have backtracked in the face of public opposition, according to local news reports.

A government expansion of a national database for the U.K., led by the administration of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, was struck down by the European Court of Human Rights in 2008, which said keeping innocent people’s DNA records on a register breached the “right to respect for private life.”

Across China, anyone stopped in the street by police can wind up in the database.

Huang Quanlai, a 22-year-old who sorts packages for a living, said he was hauled from a public square in Shenzhen while chatting with his brother one evening last winter. Cops bundled them into a van after the brothers could only show national identification cards, not local residence permits, Mr. Huang said.

He was released from custody after officers pricked his finger for blood. Nobody told him why, and he didn’t ask.

“That had happened to my friends before,” said Mr. Huang, adding that he wasn’t too worried by the experience. “I didn’t do anything anyway.”

Last year, detectives in northern China nabbed a serial killer, dubbed “Jack the Ripper,” who had raped and mutilated 11 women and girls over 14 years. The culprit was arrested and confessed after being traced from a DNA sample taken from his uncle, who had been arrested for bribery, according to state media, which cited the case to laud the technology.

Last year, police in northern China nabbed a serial killer, dubbed “Jack the Ripper,” who authorities said confessed after being traced from a DNA sample taken from his uncle.
Last year, police in northern China nabbed a serial killer, dubbed “Jack the Ripper,” who authorities said confessed after being traced from a DNA sample taken from his uncle. Photo: Da qing/Imaginechina

Chinese police sometimes try to draw connections between ethnic background or place of origin and propensity for crime. Police officers in northwestern China’s Ningxia region studied data on local prisoners and noticed that a large number came from three towns. They decided to collect genetic material from boys and men from every clan to bolster the local DNA database, police said at the law-enforcement DNA conference in September.

The police went door to door, telling people they were conducting a census or registering families of missing persons. In one town, the police said they were studying disease patterns in the area, enlisting the help of teachers and medical workers to collect samples, according to a paper presented at the conference.

“We’re transforming DNA technology from simply a criminal investigation tool into an important initiative for social control and safety keeping,” the Ningxia police wrote in the paper.

Taking blood samples often leads to conflict with the public, police in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang told the DNA conference. Other police have questioned the rationale of a database that contains the records of so many innocent people, given that most crimes are committed by repeat offenders.

Police in Daqing, an oil town in Heilongjiang, noted that all new residents there are required to give biological samples because migrants, they said, are statistically more likely to commit crimes. The trove of 340,000 DNA profiles they collected had helped solve only 136 crimes, they said.

“A bigger database is better than a smaller database in helping solve crimes,” said Jiang Xianhua, a retired forensic police officer who advised on setting up the DNA database. “But the word biggest doesn’t mean it has the best coverage of criminals.”

Police chiefs from some cities, including Hefei in eastern China, said at the meeting that they limit DNA collection to criminals and other people suspected of breaking the law.

In Xinjiang, a Muslim-majority region torn by violence the government blames on separatist terrorists, authorities are collecting DNA samples of all residents between the ages of 12 and 65, according to official documents uncovered by Human Rights Watch and reviewed by the Journal. The Xinjiang police didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The technology used by police in Xinjiang and elsewhere is supplied in part by an American company, according to official purchase records reviewed by the Journal. Police labs have bought DNA sequencers produced by Waltham, Mass.-based Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc. Last year, the company hosted a world-wide conference on DNA in Vienna, with Chinese forensic scientists among the speakers. The “Jack the Ripper” case in northern China got second place in the “DNA Database Hit of the Year Award,” a prize sponsored by a lobbying firm employed by Thermo Fisher.

Thermo Fisher said in an email it is confident it “can adequately protect personal privacy while appropriately balancing the public safety and national security needs of government.”

One provincial police force representative at the DNA conference in China said there was a “dire need” for legislation to “ensure collection can go smoothly, and protect the rights of people.”

Concerns about collection have even surfaced among rank-and-file officers. In Chongqing, one of China’s biggest cities, officers who handle laboratory work were asked to supply DNA samples so police could quickly identify and discount them if accidental contamination of samples occurred.

Some refused, documents show, citing concerns they were being treated like criminals.

Appeared in the December 27, 2017, print edition as ‘China’s DNA Trove Nets Guilty, Innocent.’