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How Americans — Some Knowingly, Some Unwittingly — Helped China's Surveillance Grow


One of the most high-tech police states in the world is in a remote corner of China. The Chinese Communist Party has been ramping up its persecution of Uighurs. They're a Muslim minority. And some of the technology China is using to target and track Uighurs has been developed with the help of American companies and scientists, scientists like Kenneth Kidd. He's a geneticist at Yale who collaborated with the Chinese government on some research. And what Kidd says he didn't know - what he couldn't know was how he would end up helping advance one of the biggest, most invasive surveillance projects anywhere on Earth. And so I asked him...

I mean, did you have any concerns at the outset?

KENNETH KIDD: Not at the outset.

CHANG: We'll hear more from him a bit later. But first, it's hard to understand the scale of the police state in Xinjiang province until you're ensnared in it. So I talked to someone who was. He asked me to call him Alim. And his story begins when he was getting off a plane from the U.S. to China and a flight attendant approached him.

ALIM: She was like, oh, they're asking for you. There might be something wrong with your visa. And I was like, I don't need a visa. I'm a citizen of this country.

CHANG: Alim is Uighur. He grew up in Xinjiang. And I should say this is not his real voice. We're using a voice actor to protect his identity, a voice actor who is reciting word-for-word from Alim's interview.

Anyway, police officers escort him off the plane. They search him. They question him. And then they take him to a hospital for what they call a health check. An officer takes two tubes of Alim's blood and places them in a box.

ALIM: As he was placing my sample - my blood sample into that box, I could see easily hundreds of other samples.

CHANG: Then they take pictures of his face.

ALIM: They started to tell me, open my mouth - and then taking pictures of that; and then, close my mouth - and taking pictures of that. And like, reveal my teeth - like, kind of like smile - and then taking pictures of that. It's as if they're trying to, you know, like, take pictures of my facial expressions.

CHANG: At this point, Alim starts to realize, the government is building a profile on me. That's what they want all this data for. They take his handprints, his footprints. They sit him down to record his voice.

ALIM: They handed me this passage in Uighur and told me to read it in front of a very expensive-looking mic.

CHANG: Alim would spend a total of 28 days in detention. He watches propaganda videos, chants slogans about how great the Chinese Communist Party is. And then one day, just like that, they let him go. They take him to his family's home, tell him, go on about your life. But the very first time he steps out of the apartment, he begins to notice how radically different his hometown has become.

ALIM: As soon as I get out of the building, I actually notice cameras in the apartment complex, which is, you know, weird because there wasn't cameras last year.

CHANG: He also notices security checkpoints everywhere with facial scanners and these new police stations on every block. But what was most unnerving was that no one was talking about it. Like, once when he was over at his uncle's, one of his family members starts talking about Ramadan.

ALIM: And my uncle immediately stopped the conversation. He was like, no, don't talk about this - because those vehicles outside with the giant antennas, what do you think they're there for? They're listening to us.

SOPHIE RICHARDSON: All of these behaviors that are perfectly legal - perfectly legal - are now considered suspicious - and that that information can and will be used against you.

CHANG: Sophie Richardson is with Human Rights Watch.

RICHARDSON: Behavior ranging from suddenly socializing less with your neighbors, talking to family members overseas, going out the back door instead of the front door, putting gas in somebody else's car...

CHANG: All suspicious and all tracked with cutting-edge technology, some of that technology developed with the help of Americans. A Massachusetts company called Thermo Fisher Scientific sold DNA sequencers to Xinjiang. They've since stopped.

MIT is collaborating with a Chinese company called iFlytek, which supplied voice recognition technology to Xinjiang. By the way, this is why we're using a voice actor for Alim. China has his voice now. And engineers at NPR told us, even if we tried distorting Alim's voice to protect his identity, it could be reverse-engineered.

There is one particular American who worked with the Chinese police who stands out to Richardson. Remember that geneticist from Yale at the beginning of the story named Kenneth Kidd?

Do you feel that you have done absolutely nothing wrong?

KIDD: I have done nothing wrong.

CHANG: Here's Kidd's story in short.

His research looks at certain markers inside your DNA that can point to the region or ethnic group you're from. It's like 23andMe but fancier. There was a hole, though, in his research, and that hole was China. So when he gets an invitation from the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, which is the Chinese police, he accepts.

One of their top scientists tells Kidd she's really interested in his ancestry research. And thanks to her job, she has access to DNA samples from all sorts of minorities in China. Do you want to work together? - she asks. Can I come visit your lab? And Kidd says, sure. Come on over to Yale University.

So this top scientist for the Chinese police spends a year inside Kidd's lab. They share DNA samples they've each collected, and the two of them write a paper together. And one thing the paper looks at is, what differentiates the DNA of certain ethnic groups, including groups that the Chinese government is targeting in Xinjiang, like Uighurs, Tajiks Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. Kidd says the scientist for the Chinese police claimed that all of her DNA samples, including the Uighur ones, were collected with signed informed consent.

Knowing what you know now about how the Chinese government has treated Uighurs and now treats Uighurs, do you still believe that every genetic sample taken from a Uighur was definitely taken with informed consent? Do you really believe that?

KIDD: It's impossible to believe that unequivocally. But on the other hand, I have no way of knowing one way or the other.

CHANG: Critics say, by collaborating with the Chinese police, Kidd helped China advance a system to target, track and oppress the Uighurs. He says he followed accepted practice and that this collaboration happened years ago, before much of the world knew what was happening in Xinjiang. Besides, Kidd says, he's now stopped all collaborations with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security.

Have you asked scientists at the Chinese Ministry of Public Security to stop using the genetic samples you provided them?

KIDD: Yes.

CHANG: Did they say they would stop?

KIDD: I've gotten no reply.


CHANG: You can hear a longer version of this story on NPR's Planet Money podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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