The exterior of Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., of Waltham, Mass., is seen in this April 26, 2007 file photo.

© 2007 AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, file

Thermo Fisher Scientific, a large US-based medical technology manufacturer, announced this week it would stop selling human identification technology in China’s Xinjiang region. After more than a year of unanswered questions from Human Rights Watch, members of the US Congress, and others – culminating in a damning New York Times exposé of its sales in Xinjiang – Thermo Fisher chalked the decision up to “fact-specific assessments.”

Xinjiang, in northwestern China, has been synonymous with gross human rights violations for decades. Since late 2016, the Chinese government has accelerated abuses under its “Strike Hard” Campaign, which entails mass arbitrary detention of Turkic Muslim minorities, Orwellian surveillance, and harsh restrictions on cultural, religious, and linguistic rights. 

Thermo Fisher’s decision leaves many key questions unanswered: What about sales of that technology to Chinese police in other parts of the country? The police’s abusive collection of DNA materials from people unconnected to crimes is not confined to Xinjiang. What about other companies’ technology that has been misused? Will the numerous other companies that may – wittingly or not – be enabling China’s surveillance state rethink their business? And what will Thermo Fisher do to prevent these types of sales from happening again?

In the past two years, Human Rights Watch has documented Chinese authorities’ alarming enthusiasm for facial and voice recognition technology, compulsory collection of biometric data, “big data” platforms, the social credit system, QR codes, and apps used by security forces to monitor people’s everyday life, and many other high-technology tools – all in a context where people enjoy virtually no privacy rights or ability to challenge government violations. Companies operating in China should be under no illusions that the authorities might deploy technology to commit serious abuses. As Thermo Fisher now notes: “[W]e recognize the importance of considering how our products and services are used – or may be used – by our customers.”

International companies across China would do well to urgently evaluate how their products and services are being used, and who their customers are. Any firm that cannot show it has assessed the human rights impact of its commercial activities and mitigated harm in what United Nations experts have labelled a “no rights zone” should do so now – even if that might mean not doing business with Chinese authorities at all.