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U.S. lifts sanctions on Chinese police institute accused of human rights abuses

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The U.S. has lifted its sanctions on a Chinese police institute it once alleged was part of human rights abuses. In exchange, China is going to work more closely with the U.S. to stop the movement of fentanyl and related chemicals into the U.S. But as NPR's Emily Feng reports, there's concern lifting those sanctions could enable more abuses.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: When Chinese leader Xi Jinping and President Biden met in San Francisco on Wednesday, one of the topics was a police institute in China's Xinjiang. That's the region where Beijing's built up an advanced security apparatus, in large part to monitor and detain the ethnic Uyghur population there. And the police institute in question researches something called population genetics. Yves Moreau, an engineering professor at KU Leuven, a university in Belgium, explains.

YVES MOREAU: Population genetics is trying to understand how populations vary across the world. I mean, obviously, we can just look at people's faces across the world, and we see, well, there are differences. And so trying to understand the link between the changes, subtle changes in genetics.

FENG: That's population genetics. And China's Institute of Forensic Science, as it's called, which studies this, is run by the Ministry of Public Security, China's equivalent of the FBI. It is beefing up its genetic sequencing capabilities, trying to differentiate ethnic groups within China from their DNA found at crime scenes. Moreau found documentation showing this.

MOREAU: This was very surprising. The extent of purchases, the procurement efforts were very, very substantial.

FENG: Procurement of about 40 high-end genetic sequencing machines. That's more than some countries have. The Institute of Forensic Science also sent their top scientist abroad, a researcher named Li Caixia. And Li ended up at Yale University. A prominent American geneticist at Yale named Kenneth Kidd agreed to let her work for a year in his lab in 2014.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: I mean, did you have any concerns at the outset?

KENNETH KIDD: Not at the outset.

FENG: This is NPR's Ailsa Chang interviewing Kidd on this collaboration in 2019, because by that point, his collaboration with Li Caixia was under scrutiny. The Forensics Institute had filed patents saying they could tell Uyghurs and other ethnic groups apart using their DNA. The U.S. imposed sanctions on the Forensics Institute in 2020, in large part to stop it from buying U.S. equipment. U.S. officials said they feared the institute's research was used to disproportionately surveil and target ethnic Uyghurs and other groups in China. Sociology professor Mark Munsterhjelm, at Canada's University of Windsor, was among the researchers who first discovered the institute's patents online.

MARK MUNSTERHJELM: It's utilizing and, in a way, resurrecting what were once discredited concepts of race, and particularly because it's being targeted against a marginalized group under conditions of incredible repression.

FENG: Now that sanctions are gone, he fears the institute could resume the ethnic profiling research.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Taipei. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
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