Millions of people around the world are swabbing their cheeks and discovering their past. Getting yourself tested can cost as little as 400 RMB.
Finding out where you came from, in a literal sense, brings a feeling of belonging to some, reveals family secrets for others and shines a light on the past for all. You can also get an expert opinion from one of the many DNA firms out there and reveal all the branches of your unique family tree.
Reports claim the U.S. is on track to soon have the DNA date of 100 million individuals. A handful of privately held American companies currently hold troves of DNA data yet tracing your heritage through DNA testing is not generally considered controversial. True, a company will have your genetic information on file, which could conceivably be used against you in some sinister plot, but such fears didn’t stop over 26 million Americans from sending in their swabs last year.
It’s no secret, however, that China possesses the world’s largest DNA database. A 2017 report in the English-language China Daily told the world the plan, which is being enacted as scheduled. In the report, the deputy director of the provincial health and family planning commission, Lan Qing, told the paper that the government planned a six-billion-yuan project to create a genetic information database for ethnic Chinese. “When the facilities are ready, the designed capacity for DNA sequencing will be up to 400,000 to 500,000 samples per year,” Lan Qing told the media three years ago, while noting that the first phase involved collecting health and medical information on about 80 million people, and would be completed in about four years. The big data was to be amassed on premise of heath research: genetic mutations, gene interactions, and how the environmental affects human health.
But there is another obvious use for DNA collection – solving crimes. The case of Gao Chengyong has been cited as one of the motivators for China’s DNA collection as it relates to crime. Gao was arrested in 2016 on charges of bribery. But after his DNA was analyzed, Gao was found to be responsible for a rape and killing spree in inner Mongolia. The accidental discovery came after almost three decades of police work that included collecting over 200,000 fingerprints, offering large rewards and looking over DNA samples on file to find the person who raped and killed 11 women and girls. One victim was only eight years old.
Gao subsequently confessed and was executed. The idea was then born of a national database of male DNA. Why only male DNA? Well, you don’t need a degree in criminal science to understand that the overwhelming number of violent crimes are perpetuated by men. And you don’t need to collect every man’s DNA, anywhere from five to ten percent gives researchers a very decent chance of linking saliva, blood or other DNA to the suspect’s male relatives.
Western media have cried foul and newspapers such as The New York Times have been highly critical. One report called China’s efforts to build a DNA database of its citizens a “genetic Skynet.” We shouldn’t dismiss the “Big Brother” concerns lightly; but of course, the reality is that the Chinese government views privacy and rights very differently from liberal western nations. China’s pushback argues the murder rate is much higher in the U.S., where far too few cases are solved. What’s wrong with using DNA to ensure national security? Is not the collective good is more important than individual rights? This debate is undoubtedly going to continue as China takes a stronger global role and promotes its version of a world order.
There is one area of genetics, however, where China seems to be drawing a line. Gene-editing is arguably a bigger threat to humanity than DNA collection – either by private or state-run institutions. It’s easy to see the rosy side of playing with genetics. Science could eliminate or modify genes responsible for horrific diseases that cause tremendous suffering. But science – which itself is neither good nor evil – has a track record of being misapplied, to put it mildly. Designer babies. Night vision for soldiers. A host of enhanced senses. The list of possibilities is the stuff of comic books come to life.
China has thus far decided that gene editing without strict oversight will not be tolerated; even when the “edits” are arguably good. Chinese researcher He Jiankui ended up with a three-year jail term for producing genetically edited babies, which he claimed were made to be HIV-resistant. Like the rest of world, China is struggling with the new realities of science. DNA files on a huge portion of citizens has been ruled acceptable, but gene editing is so far, forbidden. What’s certain is that this emerging superpower, for better or for worse, is not going to let the west dictate how it navigates the future.
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