In a victory for Tibet activists – led by Students for a Free Tibet, Free Tibet and the International Tibet Network – US biotechnology firm Thermo Fisher Scientific says it has stopped selling kits reportedly used for mass DNA collection in a region of Chinese-occupied Tibet.
“Based on a number of factors we made the decision in mid-2023 to cease sales of [human identification] products in the region and no longer sell our human identification technology in the Tibet Autonomous Region,” a spokesperson for the Boston-based company told Axios.
According to reports, China’s police collected DNA from about 1 million residents of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region, which spans roughly half of Tibet.
ICT President Tencho Gyatso said: “This is a victory that shows collective activism for Tibet makes a real difference. Now we must go further, from pressuring businesses to end their complicity in China’s human rights abuses against Tibetans, to pushing the Chinese government to resolve its decades-long occupation of Tibet through peaceful dialogue with Tibetan leaders.”
Mass DNA collection in Tibet
In September 2022, Citizen Lab reported that China’s police may have gathered about 920,000 to 1.2 million DNA samples in the Tibet Autonomous Region over the prior six years. Those figures represent one-quarter to one-third of the region’s total population.
That same month, Human Rights Watch said that China’s authorities were systematically collecting DNA from residents of the TAR, including by taking blood from children as young as 5 without their parents’ consent.
According to Citizen Lab, China’s DNA collection program is unrelated to criminal justice. Police were also not targeting specific groups like activists or government critics, but were instead collecting DNA from entire communities. Moreover, Human Rights Watch says that no available public evidence suggest that people can decline to participate in the DNA collection.
In statements delivered at the UN Human Rights Council last year, the EU and Belgium had both expressed their concern about the DNA sampling in Tibet.
Thermo Fisher’s statement that it has stopped selling its DNA collection kits in the TAR follows a year of heavy campaigning by Tibet activists and notably Students for a Free Tibet, Free Tibet and the International Tibet Network.
Starting in late 2022, Tibet groups carried out global demonstrations at Thermo Fisher offices, including huge rallies in Boston during the company’s annual general meeting in May 2023. These groups also worked with Thermo Fisher shareholders, building a coalition that helped lead to Thermo Fisher halting the DNA collection kit sales.
The International Campaign for Tibet joined to support these groups to address the mass DNA collection with US officials and to encourage them to take action, including via a letter to House members in 2022 encouraging them to support Tibet-related portions of the America Competes Act, which called for export controls of items used in human rights abuses involving DNA sequencing.
Thermo Fisher has locations all over Europe, including 9 in the Netherlands.