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Police officers check the identity cards of a people as security forces keep watch in a street in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China on March 24, 2017. © 2017 Thomas Peter/Reuters

Global concern is finally on the rise about Xinjiang, a region of China in which ethnically Turkic Muslims have long endured shocking repression. As governments grapple for ways to put pressure on Beijing over these abuses, attention is turning toward whether international firms doing business in the region are complying with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, that set out companies’ responsibilities to respect human rights. 

Chinese authorities are creating a profiling and policing infrastructure to identify people considered disloyal to the Chinese Communist Party under the ruse of promoting “social stability.” Human Rights Watch has documented the Xinjiang police’s abusive mass surveillance projects, including gathering DNA and other biometric information, often without people’s knowledge or consent. China lacks privacy protections against state surveillance, or an independent judicial system. Ethnic minorities have no real power to question – much less resist – authorities’ demands.

In June 2017, Human Rights Watch discovered that Thermo Fisher, a Massachusetts-based biotechnology company, had sold DNA processing technology to the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau. Human Rights Watch wrote repeatedly to the company about abuses in Xinjiang, and asking whether it is complying with the Guiding Principles to ensure that its business operations aren’t furthering abuses. Its replies provide little comfort: that it is legal to sell the equipment; that, “given the global nature of our operations, it is not possible for us to monitor the use or application of all products we manufactured;” and that they “expect all of our customers to act in accordance with appropriate regulations and industry-standard best practices.”

In June, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asserted in a letter to the Congressional Executive Commission on China that Thermo Fisher’s sales were legal. At a July commission hearing, Senator Marco Rubio aptly pointed out that, “China lacks the kinds of legal safeguards that other countries implement to manage their DNA databases,” and added, “These are the same companies that are up here every day in Washington, D.C. lobbying for us not to raise these issues so they can have access to China’s 1.3-billion-person marketplace...This is sick.”

All governments concerned about the increasingly dire situation in Xinjiang should ask companies from their countries a critical question: what you are doing in Xinjiang may not break the law – but is it defensible?

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