The US biotech company is halting sales of DNA kits in Tibet as lawmakers consider more export controls on China

WASHINGTON — A US biotech company has halted sales of its DNA testing products in China's ethnic region of Tibet as lawmakers consider export controls to stop Beijing from using US products for mass surveillance of its own citizens.

Thermo Fisher, based in Waltham, Massachusetts, said in a statement that it made the decision in mid-2023 to stop selling human identification products in Tibet “based on a number of factors.” It did not specify the “factors”. The news site Axios first announced Thermo Fisher's decision this week.

The move by the biotech company, which took similar measures in the ethnic Xinjiang region in 2019, came at a time of concern at the Capitol over Beijing's human rights record. About a year ago, a bipartisan group of lawmakers demanded to know whether the company was confident its equipment was not being used to support or encourage rights abuses in China, following reports that the Chinese government had DNA data on hundreds of thousands of Tibetans collected. Beijing has been criticized for its rule in Tibet after the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of most Tibetans, was forced to flee in 1959 when an uprising failed.

China has denied the accusation. “It is a groundless accusation that the Chinese government is collecting DNA data from ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Xizang to strengthen surveillance,” said Liu Pengyu, spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington, referring to Tibet by the Chinese name Xizang. “China is a country where the rule of law prevails and the privacy of Chinese citizens is fully protected by law, regardless of their ethnicity.”

The company's action reflects the increasing scrutiny U.S. companies face when doing business with China. The Biden administration says it wants to protect national security and pressure China on human rights, while maintaining cooperation and preventing tensions from spiraling out of control. It says it wants to “responsibly manage” the US-China economic relationship.

The administration last August restricted U.S. investments in sensitive technologies that could boost China's military power after banning its most advanced computer chips. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said the US will use its tools to protect human rights, and the US already bans the import of goods made with forced labor in northwest China's ethnic Xinjiang region.

Beijing says Washington is using the human rights issue to stifle Chinese growth.

“China opposes the relevant parties who politicize normal economic cooperation and stop cooperation with China based on baseless lies,” Liu said.

In a January 2023 response to U.S. lawmakers, Thermo Fisher said it was confident its products were “being used in Tibet for their intended uses, which are law enforcement and forensics.” In its statement emailed to the AP on Thursday, Thermo Fisher said sales of its human identification products in Tibet were “consistent with routine forensic investigations in an area of ​​this size.” It declined further comment.

Lawmakers and human rights advocates applauded Thermo Fisher's decision to withdraw from Tibet but urged the company to do more.

“I remain concerned that the continued sale of these products in the rest of China will continue to enable the CCP's techno-totalitarian surveillance state,” said Representative Mike Gallagher, chairman of the Special Committee on the Chinese Communist Party. “Thermo Fisher must immediately cease sales of all DNA collection kits throughout China.”

Rep. Chris Smith, chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said Thermo-Fisher's decision was “a long overdue step to remove the company from further complicity in blatant human rights abuses.”

The U.S. Commerce Department should continue “more systematic efforts” to prevent American companies from collaborating with Chinese police and security forces in Tibet, Smith said.

“Much more work needs to be done to starve the world's dictators and authoritarians of the PRC's technological tools of repression – especially when they are backed by American companies,” the congressman said, referring to China by its official name , the People's Republic of China. or the People's Republic of China.

Maya Wang, interim China director at Human Rights Watch, praised Thermo Fisher for its action, but said “this is not enough,” and the company should do more to ensure its products sold elsewhere in China do not contribute to mass surveillance.