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China: DNA Phenotyping Profiles Racial Minorities

In the United States, targeting minorities means political pushback; in China, no such discussion is allowed

According to a recent article in the New York Times, the city of Tumxuk in Xinjiang in western China, is the lab for better DNA phenotyping technology. DNA phenotyping was first developed in the United States for forensic identification. But many fear that China is developing it for racial discrimination.

Essentially, there are two ways to match DNA to faces: One is called DNA typing, which involves matching unknown DNA to a known person’s DNA in a biometric database. The other is DNA phenotyping, which predicts a person’s face based on their DNA. DNA typing is the straightforward science of matching DNA sequences. The major ethical issue is informed consent. Many of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, for example, were required to provide a sample.

DNA phenotyping, on the other hand, tries to reconstruct a person’s face based on population-level genetic trends coupled with the general facial features of that population. While there is some merit to the idea that the population of a particular geographic region will have similar DNA patterns, this science comes with a host of assumptions that, when taken too far, crosses the line into pseudoscience.

For example, a person’s phenotype is their physical characteristics, including hair or eye color, which are based on both genes and environment. There was a time when scientists believed that the genotype dictates the phenotype. That is, your DNA determines who you are. Now we know that many factors go into a person’s physical appearance, including epigenetic factors, lifestyle choices, environmental pressures, etc. In short, scientists cannot accurately reconstruct a person’s face using DNA alone. Sometimes DNA can predict a person’s geographic origins, which can then be used to predict race. But as commercial DNA tests have demonstrated, test results can be at odds with family history. See, for example, “My Grandmother Was Italian. Why Aren’t My Genes Italian?” (NPR, January 22, 2018)

Thus, DNA phenotyping features many of the same scientific flaws that tarred the hereditary science of the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century. And, as with the eugenics movement, once a totalitarian regime decides to engage in racial cleansing, the results can be monstrous.

Questions have been raised whether the Tumxuk study participants gave proper consent, especially considering that two of the internment camps for Uyghurs (western Chinese Muslims) are located in Tumxuk. However, constraints on news gathering make reports hard to verify:

The police prevented reporters from The New York Times from interviewing Tumxuk residents, making consent impossible to verify. Many residents had vanished in any case. On the road to one of the internment camps, an entire neighborhood had been bulldozed into rubble.

Sui-Lee Wee and Paul Mozur, “China Uses DNA to Map Faces, with Help from the West” at New York Times (December 3, 2019)

DNA phenotyping is, in theory, more accurate with more data samples (i.e., DNA from people of a certain region) fed into an algorithm that studies patterns. But even if the test could predict geographic origin, it still cannot reproduce a particular person’s face:

Currently, it often produces facial images that are too smooth or indistinct to look like the face being replicated. DNA cannot indicate other factors that determine how people look, such as age or weight. DNA can reveal gender and ancestry, but the technology can be hit or miss when it comes to generating an image as specific as a face.

Sui-Lee Wee and Paul Mozur, “China Uses DNA to Map Faces, with Help from the West” at New York Times (December 3, 2019)

In What’s the Use of Race? (MIT Press, 2010), bioethicist Pamela Sankar devotes a chapter to the problem of predicting a person’s face from their DNA: In the chapter “Forensic DNA Phenotyping: Reinforcing Race in Law Enforcement.” She points out that population-level trends do not necessarily translate to individuals. The supposition that they do is called the “ecological fallacy.”

China’s Racial Profiling

China’s Ministry of Public Security seems particularly interested in studying ethnic minorities. The tech sector has already received bad press on account of Hikvision advertising facial recognition technology that can distinguish between Uyghur and Han. Dr. Yves Moreau, who commented in Nature on some of the problems earlier this month, told the New York Times that his survey of journal articles on forensics research between 2011 and 2018 found that Tibetans “were over 40 times more frequently studied than China’s ethnic Han majority, and that the Uighur population was 30 times more intensely studied than the Han.” Furthermore, many of these articles were co-authored by someone working in China’s police, military, or judiciary. Among the journals he surveyed were big-name publishers Springer and Wiley.

China isn’t the only country that is working on DNA phenotyping. The U.S. leads the world in this technology, and several of the Chinese studies received funding from European institutions. But there is a significant difference: In the U.S., the purpose of phenotyping is to identify the perpetrator of a crime. There is pushback both in the United States and in other countries against the possible abuse of this technology for racial discrimination, Many observers are concerned that in China, by contrast, phenotyping is just one more way to oppress a people group in the guise of preventing terrorism. And while other countries permit debate on the ethics of such technologies, China does not.

For these reasons, Moreau and others call on companies and governments to pay closer attention to how their DNA sequencing and identification technology is being used:

US law forbids the export of fingerprint-recognition technology to some destinations or users deemed problematic by the US government, such as the Chinese police. But, the United States does not restrict the export of more invasive DNA-profiling and facial-recognition technology.

Yves Moreau, “Crack down on genomic surveillance” at Nature

Within the scientific community, there is a constant push for international collaboration and data sharing to further research. But, this openness can backfire when the data is used for unethical purposes. The question then becomes whether countries that support the development of this technology are complicit in its subsequent use:

The Chinese government is building ‘essentially technologies used for hunting people,’ said Mark Munsterhjelm, an assistant professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario who tracks Chinese interest in the technology. In the world of science, Dr. Munsterhjelm said, “there’s a kind of culture of complacency that has now given way to complicity.”

Sui-Lee Wee and Paul Mozur, “China Uses DNA to Map Faces, with Help from the West” at New York Times (December 3, 2019)

Research organizations are aware of the problems but not sure what they can do. Recent reports have led several journal publishers to re-evaluate whether researchers obtained proper consent from ethnic minority research subjects. Typically, it is the responsibility of an academic institution’s ethics committee to ensure that proper consent protocols are followed. But, as several bioethicists have pointed out, “that arrangement can break down when an authoritarian state is involved.” That’s an unfortunate irony because it was the abusive experiments conducted by Nazi researchers that provided the original impetus for international standards on informed consent.

DNA phenotyping may not successfully reproduce a particular person’s face. But, to a government that justifies its human rights violations in places like Xinjiang on security grounds, that may be less important than its role as a measure against possible terrorism.

Further reading from Heather Zeiger’s reporting on ethnic minorities in China

Why China leans hard on Central Asia: The region is critical to China’s ambitions, hence the generous offers of state-of-the-art surveillance technology

China: What You Didn’t Say Could Be Used Against You An AI voiceprint could be used to generate words never said.

In China, high-tech racial profiling is social policy. For an ethnic minority, a physical checkup includes blood samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and voice recordings. The Chinese government seeks a database of everyone in the country, not only to track individuals but to determine the ethnicity of those who run up against the law.


The internet doesn’t free anyone by itself. China is testing 100% surveillance on the Uyghurs, a strategically critical minority.

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

China: DNA Phenotyping Profiles Racial Minorities