According to research conducted by Follow the Money and RTL Nieuws, three leading Dutch laboratories, including the Erasmus Medical Centre, have collaborated with Chinese scientists in recent years to develop sensitive DNA techniques. Experts believe that this knowledge can be used to control minorities and political opponents. Today, Dutch parliamentarians reacted with shock: ‘If the universities themselves do not see the problem, the Minister should perhaps take action.’
- The Erasmus Medical Centre was recently discredited because two published studies by its associate professor Liu Fan were retracted. This decision was based on ethical grounds: the researchers could not prove that Uyghurs had donated their DNA voluntarily.
- An investigation by Follow the Money and RTL Nieuws now shows that scientists from Erasmus MC used Uyghur DNA in four further studies.
- Erasmus MC is convinced that the Uyghurs donated their DNA voluntarily this time. However, experts doubt whether the Uyghurs did indeed willingly cooperate.
- Erasmus MC says it does not cooperate with scientists from the Chinese police or from Chinese forensic institutions, but our research shows that at least two Chinese scientists have links to the police.
- Half of the twenty studies that we investigated involved funding from the Chinese police.
- The Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) in The Hague and the Leiden University Medical Centre also featured in some studies. Forensic Institute provided training to employees of a forensic institute of the Chinese Ministry of Justice until autumn 2018.
In June 2016, Maysem, a young Uyghur woman studying social sciences in Ankara, Turkey, returned to Kashgar, her hometown in China’s Xinjiang region. Shortly after, she received a call from the police; she had to report to them.
When she arrived at the station, she was led into a room where her height and weight were measured. An officer asked if he could take her blood. She knew that the police wanted her DNA and that this way, information about her genetic material would end up in a database.
In the presence of a few police officers, a health worker pricked her finger, and collected the blood in a tube. In another room, she underwent a series of tests. First, her face was photographed from all sides while producing expressions on command: smiling, angry face, frowning... Finally, she had to read a text about national security out loud – for speech recognition.
Then she was allowed to go home.
Maysem did not know that, based on all this information, the computer had labelled her as an ‘untrustworthy person’. She had to report to the police again and disappeared to what she described as a ‘concentration camp’.
She was lucky, however. Because Maysem is from a good family, and her father has been a party member for a long time, her mother was allowed to come and collect her some ten days later. However, she had to attend a re-education camp for a few days to become a good patriot. After the necessary ‘self-criticism’ and a vow of loyalty to the party, she was allowed to leave. Via India, she manages to escape to Turkey.
Detention centres and re-education camps
Maysem is one of the many millions of Chinese who ended up in the immense Chinese system of control and repression without having committed any crime. Currently, in the Xinjiang region alone, at least one million Uyghurs and other members of Turkish-Islamic minorities are detained in detention centres and ‘re-education camps’.
In May 2017, human rights organisation Human Rights Watch revealed that the sampling of DNA plays an important role in this repression by the Chinese government. Genetic material can be significant, for example, in tracing family members or unregistered Uyghur children.
To acquire the necessary knowledge, Chinese scientists cooperate with academic institutions in the West. Moreover, administrators of the Chinese DNA database cooperate closely with their Western colleagues to learn more about setting up and managing such a database.
Research by Follow the Money, and RTL Nieuws shows that the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam collaborated with the Chinese on research into DNA techniques. We found a total of twenty studies in scientific databases in which the Erasmus MC was involved. The Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) in The Hague and the Leiden University Medical Centre also featured in some studies.
These studies concern DNA phenotyping, used to identify a person’s observable physical characteristics (ethnic origin, gender, facial features, height, eye colour, hair colour and hair type). One study involved research into spots on the male Y chromosome that may be useful in kinship testing.
To acquire the necessary knowledge, Chinese scientists cooperate with academic institutions in the West
Ten of the twenty studies were (partly) funded by the Chinese police. Eight studies were (partly) funded by other Chinese agencies and funds. Erasmus MC says that the contributions from China were intended for the Chinese scientists – not for the Erasmus MC.
The Netherlands Forensic Institute appears to have provided training to Chinese employees of the Forensic Institute in Shanghai until September 2018.
Misuse of DNA databases
In December 2019, The New York Times revealed that Liu Fan, a part-time lecturer at the Erasmus MC, was involved in two DNA phenotyping studies. Liu had not only worked closely with investigators from the Chinese police but also used Uyghur DNA.
The Uyghurs are said to have consented to partake. However, can there be genuine consent in studies where the Chinese police are involved?
Yves Moreau, professor of engineering at the Catholic University of Leuven, warned in the scientific journal Nature in December 2019 about the risks of DNA database misuse, especially in China.
Last month, Follow the Money, and RTL Nieuws revealed that two scientific journals had retracted studies ‘on ethical grounds’ to which Liu Fan had contributed; retractions hardly ever occur.
The Erasmus MC only learned of the existence of these studies afterwards, reports a spokesperson. He says Liu’s contributions to the papers were made in the context of his primary position at the Beijing Institute of Genomics (BIG).
That he is also mentioned in the publications as being affiliated with the Erasmus MC can be explained, according to the spokesperson: in the science world, it is not uncommon to mention ‘all affiliations’.
The research, which has now been retracted, took place within the framework of a collaboration with the Genetics Institute and the Institute of Forensic Science, both in Beijing. According to the Erasmus MC, this collaboration was terminated in May 2019. But is this true?
In March 2020, Liu sent a paper on the facial characteristics of Han Chinese to the Chinese journal Hereditas. That paper was the result of a collaboration with five researchers from the Chinese police.
Furthermore, Follow the Money and RTL discovered that Liu gave a lecture at an online conference on the Tencent Meeting platform in May 2020. The speakers hailed from several foreign universities as well as the Institute of Forensic Science of the Ministry of Public Security and the Guangdong Provincial Police Department.
Liu spoke at the conference as a ‘guest lecturer’ from the Erasmus MC and a researcher at the Beijing Institute of Genomincs. According to a report, he offered ‘an in-depth analysis of the inherent relevant features and patterns of diversity within the genome and the variations in human eye colour, hair, body height, face shape, skin colour etc.’.
Liu also spoke of his team’s future line of research: ‘the realisation of the processing of facial images, phenotype and DNA into databases’.
That does not sound like an Erasmus MC affiliateion who had said goodbye to forensic research a year ago.
A spokesperson states that the Erasmus MC was unaware of the online conference and Liu Fan’s lecture. But he also states that it is ‘common practice’ to mention all affiliates at a conference for scientists.
After the coverage in The New York Times, the Erasmus MC stated that Liu Fan’s appointment as an assistant professor was not at issue. However, upon further enquiry, it appears that his position has become less solid. The Erasmus MC now says it is deliberating on the continuation of the Chinese geneticist’s appointment.
Research by Follow the Money, and RTL Nieuws also shows that Liu Fan was not the only one cooperating with China. Other Erasmus MC scientists and Dutch institutions too carried out forensic DNA research together with Chinese colleagues.
The role of forensic scientists in the Netherlands
In the twenty studies we located – all published between 2014 and 2020 – scientists from the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam, the Leiden University Medical Centre and the Netherlands Forensic Institute played a role, for instance, by providing DNA.
The forensic studies investigated what role DNA can play in, for example, predicting the thickness of eyebrows and which DNA variants can help predict the height of Uyghurs. Further investigation proved that scientists from the Erasmus MC used a sample of Uyghur DNA for these studies. Note: that was a different sample from the one mentioned in Liu’s retracted publications.
The sample used by the Erasmus MC dated from 2013/14 and was used in four studies. It was collected by scientists from a biological institute of the Fudan University in Shanghai, with which the Erasmus MC has been collaborating for some time.
However, the hospital claims that this DNA was retrieved with the consent of the Uyghurs. After all the commotion in December 2019, following the article in The New York Times, the Erasmus MC had made sure that informed consent was obtained correctly this time. ‘At our request, Fudan sent forms containing that consent to Rotterdam. And not only the Chinese documents but also an English translation of them,’ the Erasmus MC says.
As far as Rotterdam was concerned, this concluded the matter. After all, in the world of science, the principle is that you should be able to trust each other.
The Erasmus MC says it has stopped using the Uyghur DNA sample from 2013/2014. ‘Not because we have any doubts about the circumstances under which the samples were obtained, but because of the public debate in which this is being questioned,’ a spokesperson said.
With this explanation, the Erasmus MC is letting itself off the hook too easily, says anthropologist Darren Byler. He teaches international studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, and he has been studying Uyghur culture for years.
Byler is also an adviser on the Xinjiang Documentation Project, which is trying to map out the detention of Islamic groups through witness statements, internal police documents and translations of Chinese documents.
He does not understand the Erasmus MC’s claim that Uyghurs have given consent for their DNA to be collected: ‘In most of these cases, Uyghurs do not read nor understand Chinese well enough to give informed consent. As long as that consent has not been recorded in documents in Uyghur, I would not assume that consent was obtained. Apart from that, other scientists have shown that even if consent was given in their native language, participants in medical examinations in China usually assume that participation is mandatory.’
Moreover, Chinese authorities can demand medical data from anyone at any time.
The Erasmus MC also argues that the Uyghur DNA sample originated in 2013 or 2014, ’a period before the political conflicts began’.
Darren Byler refutes this argument as well: ‘State oppression of, and violence against, Uyghurs began well before 2013 – although it escalated since 2014.’
The Erasmus MC does cite collaboration with renowned universities, such as the Medical University in Xinjiang. But it is precisely this university that operates within the state’s surveillance mechanisms, says Byler.
Experts point out that no university in China, not even private ones, is independent of the Communist Party. They are under strict surveillance, and even private colleges have a party committee present.
Leuven professor Yves Moreau does not rely on trust when cooperating with scientific institutions in China. He examined 1100 publications on genetic profiles of population groups in China. In half of these, one of the co-authors was employed by the police or a forensic institute.
Moreau: ‘Then you know that it is impossible to do independent research in China without government intervention. You cannot say: that is my lab’s DNA and the police have nothing to do with it. That is not realistic. So in my opinion, all this scientific research into DNA phenotyping is inherently ethically problematic.’
The Erasmus MC and the Chinese police
The Erasmus MC is involved in twelve of the twenty studies on DNA phenotyping that Follow the Money and RTL Nieuws tracked down. Manfred Kayser plays a leading role in eight of them. He is a professor of forensic molecular biology in Rotterdam and one of the world’s leading experts in DNA phenotyping.
According to the Erasmus MC, no forensic scientists from the police or other investigative services were involved in these investigations. However, a closer inspection reveals that at least two Chinese colleagues with whom Kayser worked are indeed linked to the Chinese police.
In 2014, Kayser – as the lead researcher – conducted research on the Y chromosome with scientists from other countries. One of those scientists was Baowen Cheng from the Institute of Forensic Sciences of the Yunnan Department of Public Security in Kunming city.
At least two Chinese colleagues with whom Kayser worked are indeed linked to the Chinese police
Four years later, scientists from the Erasmus MC published a ‘meta-analysis’ of new locations on the DNA that influence the shape of scalp hair. One of the scientists involved in this was Li Jin.
It is not possible to directly deduce a police background from Li Jin’s affiliations. However, other Chinese studies show that until at least 2016, he held various positions at the Ministry of Public Security. Currently, he is associated with a forensic institute in Shanghai that works for the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Li Jin is the co-author of three Rotterdam studies.
And in September 2018, Rotterdam scientists were involved in extensive Chinese research into the thickness of Uyghur eyebrows, among other things.
The Leiden University Medical Centre appears in four of the twenty studies under investigation. In 2014, it was one of the many parties involved in a global study into the Y chromosome. Three Chinese police researchers were also involved.
In that same year, both the LUMC and the NFI were involved in yet another major study into the Y chromosome – with Manfred Kayser, professor of forensic molecular biology at the Erasmus MC, as the lead researcher. Baowen Cheng, a researcher at the Institute of Forensic Science of the Police Department in the Yunnan region, Kunming municipality, was also involved in this study.
Predicting the shape of scalp hair
In 2018, the LUMC and the NFI participated in a study of methods to predict eye, hair and skin colour using DNA. Liu Fan is listed as being affiliated with the Erasmus MC and the Beijing Genetic Institute (BIG), which, in turn, collaborates with the Institute of Forensic Science in Beijing.
In 2019, scientists from LUMC were involved in another study led by the Erasmus MC. The objective was to investigate whether DNA can be used to predict the shape of scalp hair. A spokesperson says that in all four studies, the LUMC played only a facilitating role; the DNA samples were made available at the request of the research leaders.
In total, the Netherlands Forensic Institute participated in three of the twenty studies discovered. Two of these have already been discussed above. The third study, conducted in 2018, on how to improve the prediction of scalp hair, also used Uyghur DNA. The co-author was Manfred Kayser from the Erasmus MC.
The NFI says it did not know that Uyghur DNA was used in this study.
In a reaction, the Erasmus MC stated that none of the studies in which it is involved can be used to repress Uyghurs. According to the Erasmus MC, this also applies to the studies that university lecturer Liu Fan conducted behind its back, which have since been retracted on ethical grounds.
Nevertheless, Leuven professor Yves Moreau calls the cooperation with Chinese forensic scientists ‘fundamentally wrong’. The knowledge acquired through cooperation with Western scientists ends up in the hands of the Chinese police, who use all sorts of techniques to repress minorities such as the Uyghurs and the Tibetans.
The mass collection of DNA gives the authorities a magical power, says Moreau. ‘You are establishing what somebody looks like on the basis of a single drop of blood. That makes people extremely afraid, and that fear is an important element in controlling people. Psychologically, it is very effective.’
The research into the Y chromosome and kinship carried out in part by Dutch institutes can already be applied by the Chinese government.
In Xinjiang, for example, more children were born than expected based on the one-child policy. The government suspects that Uyghurs do either not register newborns or place them with relatives. Moreau: ‘With a DNA study in hand, the police can now prove that someone does have several children and impose a hefty fine.’
In May 2019, the European Society of Human Genetics again called on Chinese authorities to stop the mass collection of DNA without consent. It stated that a huge database of profiles for which people have not given their consent is ‘dangerous’.
In 2017, Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch already warned that the Chinese were moving their Orwellian system to the genetic level with DNA techniques: ‘Mass DNA collection by the powerful Chinese police – without adequate privacy safeguards or an independent legal system – is a perfect recipe for abuse.’
In 2007, the Netherlands Forensic Institute, part of the Ministry of Justice and Security, entered into a partnership with the Institute of Forensic Science (IFS) in Shanghai, a subsidiary of the Ministry of Justice.
According to a spokesperson for the NFI, this collaboration, which focused on research and development (R&D) and sharing knowledge, ended after six months. In those six months, employees of the IFS visited the NFI and vice versa.
In July 2010, the NFI gave a six-day training course to a group of Chinese, two of whom work for the IFS. In the spring of 2016, two IFS employees paid an educational visit to the Digital Technology department in Rijswijk. It lasted four days.
In September 2018, six IFS employees travelled to Rijswijk, where they spent a day learning about the construction and set-up of a new forensic lab.
In most cases, the costs of these visits were reimbursed by the Institute of Forensic Science.
Helping China to manage its database
This training courses were of great importance to the Chinese. Internal Chinese documents show that the database grew so rapidly that the police had difficulties in standardising and managing the blood samples and profiles.
The Institute of Forensic Science is China’s leading forensic institute in terms of education and training. It reports on its website that, in the space of a year, it has already conducted nearly 30,000 judicial reviews ‘in various criminal, civil and administrative cases’, and has played an important role ‘in safeguarding national security [..] rectifying unjustified, false and wrong cases [..] and maintaining social stability’.