Legendary actor and humanitarian Richard Gere recently made a splash during a visit to Capitol Hill. Sporting a floppy, now pure-white mane of hair, the 73-year-old Gere flashed his still-boyish grin to members of Congress, staff, and visitors who flocked to see him, many snapping photos with the Golden Globe winner which they quickly shared on social media.
While Gere, who chairs the board of directors for the International Campaign for Tibet, graciously embraced the attention, he had a far more serious message and tone while testifying before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, the reason for his Washington visit.
For more than four decades, the “Officer and a Gentleman” and “Pretty Woman” star has used his international fame to urge the global community to do more to help protect the people of Tibet from the Chinese government’s attempts to wipe out their language, culture, and religion.
Even though the Tibetans have long resisted Chinese repression, the CCP has recently instituted more systematic and sophisticated methods, utilizing finely tuned digital spying and tracking technology to monitor every citizen’s movements, phone calls, texts, and Internet habits, Gere said.
“China’s surveillance no longer halts at the Tibetan border,” Gere told the commission in late March. “The CCP’s techno-authoritarianism and fear tactics extend to Tibetan communities abroad. This oppression is being perpetrated behind a digital iron curtain to hide reality on the ground. The development of these systems of repression, reaching all the way around the world, reflects the lengths the CCP will go to dismantle the Tibetan civilization.”
China’s escalating repression in Tibet is part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s increasingly harsh crackdown against all forms of religion. Over the last few years, news headlines have mainly focused on the more than 1 million Uyghur Muslims incarcerated in labor camps. Xi also has intensified the decades-long persecution of Tibetan Buddhists and practitioners of Falun Gong, a meditative spiritual discipline, and Chinese authorities are stepping up attacks and intimidation tactics against underground Christian churches, targeting both Protestants and Catholics.
Beijing’s assault on Tibetan Buddhism has evolved since its 1950 military invasion, the witnesses testified, transitioning from destroying religious institutions and banning gatherings and practices to one of tight control with the goal of eliminating core attributes of Buddhism and co-opting Tibetan Buddhists’ rights to determine their own leaders.
Testifying at the same hearing, Pnepa Tsering, the Sikyong, or head of the Tibetan government in exile, said Chinese authorities are trying to speed up the assimilation of the Tibetan people through large-scale forced relocations of Tibetans from their traditional homeland to Chinese territories and other parts of Tibet.
At the same time, the Chinese government is providing Han Chinese citizens incentives to move to Tibet and is either coercing or forcing children across Tibet into colonial-style boarding schools far away from their families or transferring them to areas in China.
Several witnesses, including Lhadon Tethong, director of the Tibet Action Institute, and Tenzin Dorjee, a senior researcher and strategist at the same group, cited their organization’s groundbreaking 2021 report, which found that 80% of Tibetan children are educated in a vast system of boarding schools run by the CCP, separated from their families and culture. Some as young as four years, Dorjee testified, are forced to take classes that include nursery rhymes and bedtime stories recited only in Mandarin in an all-Chinese environment that includes participating in war re-enactments dressed in Red Army suits.
During the hearing, Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican and longtime human rights champion who chairs the commission, cited a 2022 State Department report finding that the CCP has effectively placed Tibetan Buddhism under central government control and subjected Tibetan women to “coerced abortion or forced sterilization.”
At the end of his testimony, Gere urged members of Congress to follow the money – and scrutinize U.S. and Chinese business interests and any ongoing role these ties have played in assisting the CCP’s persecution of Tibetans. “It’s all about the money,” Gere lamented at the end of the hearing.
The message was well received. The four members of Congress who co-chair the commission had already begun an investigation into an American company’s sale of DNA testing kits and replacement parts to Tibetan authorities despite warnings from the U.S. government that the sale of such technologies could be used to intensify human rights abuses in several regions of China.
Thermo Fisher Scientific, a Massachusetts-based firm that manufactures analytical and laboratory products, chemicals, and supplies including those used in COVID test kits and vaccines, had previously ceased the sale of similar supplies to police in Xinjiang. It only did so, however, after scientists and human rights groups raised concerns that the supplies were possibly being used in elaborate human tracking and surveillance databases and schemes – or worse, to identify ideal involuntary organ donors among persecuted ethnic and religious minorities across China. Xinjiang is where Chinese authorities have incarcerated a million or more residents, mostly Uyghur Muslims, placing them into labor camps.
Both the Trump and Biden administrations formally designated China’s systematic persecution of the Uyghur population as a genocide, specifically citing evidence that the Chinese government has slashed birth rates among Uyghurs and other minorities through forced sterilization and birth control.
In 2019, the Trump administration prohibited the sale of American goods to most law enforcement agencies in Xinjiang unless the companies received a license. In 2020, several U.S. federal agencies issued a joint warning that companies selling biometric technology and other products in Xinjiang should be aware of the “reputational, economic and legal risks.”
But in 2021, the New York Times discovered that DNA-collection tools made by two American companies, Thermo Fisher and Promega, were continuing to flow to the Xinjiang region, with sales occurring through Chinese companies that buy the products and resell them to the police in Xinjiang.
More recently, the Intercept last fall uncovered a deal between Thermo Fisher and Tibetan police to purchase hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of DNA profiling kits and other supplies. That news broke shortly after two human rights groups documented vast Chinese government campaigns to collect DNA from ethnic Tibetans.
In September, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab published a report by author Emile Dirks estimating that authorities have collected DNA from 919,000 to 1.2 million Tibetans, a fourth to a third of the region’s population.
Human Rights Watch, which uncovered the first findings about sales of DNA kits to Xinjiang police, found that the biometric collection includes blood samples from children in Tibet and the surrounding region.
In December, the bipartisan co-chairs of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China sent a letter to Thermo Fisher President and CEO Marc Casper asking him why the DNA kits and DNA sequencer replacement parts were sold directly to Tibetan police. Those who signed the letter include Smith, along with Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, Sens. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat.
“As you may know, the bipartisan leadership of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China has taken a keen interest in the U.S. exports that facilitate the [People’s Republic of China’s] mass biometric collection and surveillance efforts,” the members wrote. “There are so few safeguards for how DNA is gathered and used in the PRC that we are alarmed that U.S. companies, including Thermo Fisher Scientific, may be wittingly or unwittingly aiding or abetting human rights abuses.”
The members demanded answers to several questions, including whether Thermo Fisher had conducted investigations into how its products were purchased by police in Tibet and why its DNA products were reportedly used in Xinjiang even after a company ban on selling to police there. More broadly, it asked whether the company would consider a blanket prohibition on selling to state and non-state entities in all of China “to assure its shareholders and the American public that its products cannot be used” to commit human rights abuses.
The answer they received was noncommittal and unresponsive to several of their questions, according to commission sources.
“Thermo Fisher’s failure to provide a substantive response to our bicameral letter raises serious concerns about the company’s commitment to human rights and their inability to condemn the crimes of the Chinese Communist Party,” a spokeswoman for Rubio told RealClearPolitics.
Smith went further and condemned the company for continuing to do business with CCP authorities despite U.S. government warnings that the sales likely assist in Chinese government surveillance of its citizens.
“Biometric data – DNA and iris scans – of over a million Tibetans have been harvested and stored by the CCP,” said Smith. “Blood samples were drawn even from children in kindergarten.”
“And you know what is even more shocking?” he continued. “It is the role of an American company, Thermo Fisher Scientific, in this genetic data collection and genetic surveillance program.”
In February 2019, Thermo Fisher announced it would stop selling its DNA testing products to Xinjiang authorities “as consistent with Thermo Fisher’s values, ethics code, and policies.”
But in a January letter to CECC co-chairs, which RealClearPolitics obtained, Casper, Thermo Fisher’s president and CEO, vigorously defended his company’s sales in Tibet. The kits and parts it sold to authorities there in 2022 are “entirely consistent with a law enforcement entity engaging in routine forensics investigations in a locality with a population on part with the Tibet Autonomous Region.”
“Based on the throughput and capabilities of the products, orders of this size could not reasonably support the widespread sampling report in the media,” Casper argued, noting that the company hasn’t made “any other substantial deliveries in the region.”
“Thermo Fisher, therefore, is confident that the products that we or our distributors have provided are being used for their intended use in Tibet, namely police casework and forensics,” Casper wrote.
Concerning Xinjiang, Casper said there are no sales by Thermo Fisher or any authorized distributor to entities listed in the transaction data provided to the company by The New York Times. Thermo Fisher did not respond to multiple inquiries from RCP about the statements Casper made in the letter.
Dirks, who authored the Citizen Lab report on extensive DNA collection in Tibet, used open-source writings and social media postings referring to police DNA collection as the basis for his research. He also found that among strict pandemic lockdowns in 2020, government and local media posts mentioning mass DNA collection in the region tripled, with some local authorities combining DNA testing with what they described as COVID prevention.
“There is no indication that these people who had their DNA collected are suspected of or had any involvement in any criminal activity,” Dirks said in an interview.
Dirks also stressed that there were “broad references to social stability” in the social media posts from Tibetan police involved in conducting the DNA tests, although there was “no one particular reason” consistently provided for collecting the biometric data from so many people.
From his years of studying police activity in China, Dirks also took issue with Thermo Fisher’s rationale for continued sales to Tibetan law enforcement agencies because the company says it’s confident the products are being used in routine police casework and forensics.
“Remember in China, there really isn’t a firm line being drawn between what the Western World considers normal casework, and social control and repression,” he said. “Oftentimes the distinction between the two are quite blurred.”
The Chinese government has a long history in Tibet of failing to establish and enforce laws designed to prevent the most basic human rights abuses, including arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and execution – laws standard for mainland Chinese citizens (although often broken to punish dissidents).
And the Chinese government has passed new laws, such as Hong Kong’s national security law, passed in 2020, to outlaw public protests and voicing dissent over the Internet — anything it deems subversive to the CCP’s authority. The government has used these expansive powers to oversee and manage schools and social organizations, shut-down media outlets and impose Internet blackouts. The Hong Kong courts used the law to convict Cardinal Zen, a 90-year-old Catholic cardinal, and five others for failing to register a fund that aimed to help people arrested in widespread protests four years ago.
The Chinese government has waged its longest campaign of repression against the Tibetan people. The brutal persecution began in the late 1940s under Chairman Mao Zedong’s regime. Some 6,000 monasteries were destroyed and thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns were arrested and killed. The Tibetan government was abolished entirely after the failure of the 1959 Tibetan uprising and the flight of the Dalai Lama to India. Another period of brutality came during the crackdown against any form of protest after the deadly Tiananmen Square massacre when then-President Jiang Zemin quashed violent rebellions against Chinese rule in Tibet. Hundreds of Tibetans were killed, and thousands were imprisoned.
The Dalai Lama has said that, all told, the Chinese government is responsible for the deaths of 1.2 million Tibetans, or a fifth of the population, while thousands of Tibetans still languish in prisons and labor camps. The Chinese government disputes the numbers and argues it has a right to the land, citing the Qing Dynasty’s 18th century rule.
The reasons behind China’s targeting of Tibet are manifold: The region is rich in oil, natural gas, and other minerals, and Tibet marks China’s western edge and is a vital link between China and South and Central Asia. Given its history of resisting China’s dominance, Tibetan advocates contend that the regime is threatened by Tibetan culture, its distinct language and religion.
“China is committing genocide in Tibet and has been working for decades to change history, to distort and obscure the present situation on the ground so as to erase Tibet from the world stage, both in the past and in the present,” Tethong said during the hearing.
Thermo Fisher’s intransigence in the face of blatant human rights transgressions throughout Tibet is a prime example of Washington’s ongoing struggle to prevent American technology from becoming tools of repression by authoritarian regimes around the world.
Sen. Rubio has authored legislation tightening export control laws aimed at preventing American firms from enabling human rights abuses. Last week, the U.S. China and Security Commission held a hearing on China’s pursuit of defense technologies and implications for U.S. and multilateral export control laws and regulations.
Several human rights experts argue that Washington needs to overhaul out-of-date U.S. laws governing American companies’ sales to China and other repressive regimes. In 1990, after Tiananmen Square, Congress passed laws prohibiting U.S. companies from selling fingerprinting devices, weapons, and ammunition to Chinese police. Rubio and others argue that the sanctions should be updated to include the latest technological advances in surveillance products, facial recognition software, and DNA equipment.
Now that China has grown more bellicose toward Taiwan and has imposed stricter control of Hong Kong while drawing closer to Russia, the U.S. needs to recognize that increased business and diplomatic ties with China have utterly failed to make it more cooperative with the U.S. or improve its human rights record, Tibetan activists argue.
“The U.S., and the West in general, has conceded so much ground to China in the last three decades and moved the equilibrium so far toward Beijing’s baseline,” said Tenzin Dorjee. “It is time to liberate ourselves from the tragically misguided notion that sweeping human rights under the rug would somehow make China more likely to cooperate on issues of geopolitical interest.”