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Controversial studies by EMC researcher using Uighur DNA retracted

Two academic journals recently retracted controversial articles co-authored by an Erasmus…

Investigate journalism platform Follow the Money found out that articles based on DNA research by Erasmus MC researcher Fan Liu, among others, were withdrawn from two journals. According to the journals, the researchers could not sufficiently demonstrate that the DNA samples, taken from Uyghurs, were collected on a voluntary basis.

In a comment to FTM, Erasmus MC said that it would not take any action against Liu, because the research was not commissioned by the university hospital itself. Liu conducted the research for the Beijing Institute of Genomics, where he works in addition to his part-time appointment as assistant professor at Eramsus MC.

Under the bus

Meryem completely fails to understand why the hospital doesn’t even plan a serious conversation with this researcher. “Erasmus MC actually said: we are not interested in what happens outside our building. If a policeman commits a burglary outside working hours, the police won’t say: it doesn’t matter, it happened off duty, would they?”

She says she is still proud to be a EUR student (‘Erasmus was an impressive historical figure’) and she sees the Netherlands as a country ‘in the frontline of humanitarian action’. “But surely it should not be so simple to throw the Uyghurs under the bus because of business interests? Every scientist should always act humanely, and that has not happened here.”

Already in 2019, The New York Times expressed suspicions that DNA had been taken involuntary from hundreds of Uyghurs. On the basis of DNA, facial reconstruction is possible, which, according to the newspaper, could be used for mass surveillance. For Meryem, it is clear that the samples were not taken voluntary. “We Uyghurs are never free. We are like lab animals, although I must say that the mice in a hospital lead a better life.”

Blood test

Ten years ago, health workers first came to the village where Meryem lived at the time. “They promised a blood test, so you could see if you had a condition,” she says. That sounded very enticing, because health care, she says, is very poorly regulated for Uyghurs in Xinjiang. “There are ‘agricultural hospitals’, where you get some of your costs reimbursed by the insurance. But the care there is very poor. If you want to go to a real hospital, you have to pay for the whole thing.”

So such a blood test sounded very attractive to her family members as well. “But I warned back then: they are not coming to help us. I said, don’t go!” That she now encounters results of similar research from a scientist at Erasmus MC, she finds ‘terrible’.

Meryem describes the situation of the Uyghurs as ‘worse than genocide’. “Every decade millions of people disappear. Every census comes up lower.” Family members suddenly disappear, probably to ‘re-education camps’, where, according to Amnesty International, among others, people are brainwashed and even tortured.

Forced abortion

According to Meryem, China has more methods to make Uyghur culture disappear. Children no longer learn the Uyghur language at school, but only Chinese. Women are forced to have abortions. “That is then called family planning, with a friendly name. You’ll get 200 euros if you have an abortion. Don’t do it? Then you go to jail.”

Han Chinese are lured to move to Xinjiang by advertisements featuring Uyghur actresses. “Then they get a free house, a guaranteed job and an Uyghur wife,” he says. The women get a financial reward if they accept the proposal, Meryem says. “If you want to say no, they say to you: do you think about your family?”

'Extremist'

The message from the Chinese government is clear: at the drop of a hat, Uyghurs are labelled ‘extremist’, literally, with a dot on their identity card. “If your name is Mohammed, for example, that can be enough to be accused of extremism. If you lock your front door, so that the security services can’t walk into your house uninvited. When you use the word ‘inshallah’ (‘God willing’, ed.) or any other Arabic term on the phone. Or if your sister doesn’t want to marry a Han Chinese.” Once you are an ‘extremist’, you can forget about life. Finding work, travelling, everything becomes nearly impossible.

The fact that Meryem studied in Europe also put her on the radar of the security services. “I was regularly interrogated during visits to China about who I was in contact with and what I was talking about. The attention of the security services led to Meryem being unable to have contact with her mother from 2017. “And that while I called her every day until then,” Meryem says with tears in her eyes. “It was heartbreaking.” Only since January this year very limited contact has been possible again, after her mother went to the police station to ask for permission to speak to her daughter. “Contacting my siblings directly is still forbidden”, Meryem says.

The fate of the Uyghurs has had a great impact on Meryem’s life. “I always live in fear, the fear that they will do something to my family. If my husband does not come home from shopping at the agreed time, I panic after only 15 minutes.” She has a Chinese fellow student. “I don’t know anything about this person, so I don’t know if this student spies on me. But I do think about it. My fears are actually getting worse.”

* Meryem’s name is fictitious in the interests of her and her family’s safety; her real name is known to the editors.

Erasmus MC’s response to the above article

Erasmus MC understands and regrets the anxiety that the Uyghur student (‘Meryem’) feels for the oppression of her family and her people in China. The media reports on the subject give cause to do so. Her personal experience will exacerbate this. But the suggestion that Erasmus MC is given to ‘throwing Uyghurs under the bus’ is absolutely misplaced.

Furthermore, contrary to what is stated in the article, a conversation did take place with the researcher concerned on this subject, but there was no reason to take any measures.

Erasmus MC conducts theoretical research into the genetics of human appearance as part of a global cooperative arrangement. This theoretical research, which uses genetic material from many thousands of people around the world, including Uyghurs, cannot possibly contribute to facial recognition. This is not the intention of the research, and its findings can in no way lead to the selection of minorities using DNA, nor does it concern recognising, suppressing and excluding Uighurs. Not at this time, and not in the immediate or foreseeable future. Moreover, it would go against our core values.

Erasmus MC has never used Uyghur datasets collected by institutions affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Security or the Chinese police and disapproves of their use in research. Erasmus MC therefore questions the Uyghur samples from which the researcher, Dr Fan Liu, used genetic data in some publications, based on research he carried out as part of his main appointment at the Beijing Institute of Genomics Chinese Academy of Sciences (from which he has since resigned). Erasmus MC has not been involved with these studies and publications in any respect.   As was customary at the time, Dr Fan Liu mentioned the name of Erasmus MC as his second affiliation because of his part-time position there.

The datasets that Erasmus MC used were collected by reputable academic institutions according to internationally accepted ethical guidelines, well before anything became known about the oppression of Uyghurs in China. Erasmus MC had access to the consent forms and the ethical approval forms, both the Chinese ones and the translated English versions. Even so, given the vulnerable position of Uyghurs in China and the sensitivity of the subject, Erasmus MC decided in early 2020 to no longer use Uyghur datasets for scientific research. This decision was not taken because we assume that the ethical rules of informed consent were breached at the time. We still believe that this was done with due care and according to applicable ethical and scientific standards.

This decision has consequences from a scientific point of view, because this population group will not be part of the theoretical research. As scientists, we make every effort to include all relevant ethnic groups so that the knowledge domain contains balanced and comprehensive information. A one-sided (i.e. Eurocentric) focus has been criticised in the past – and rightly so. But the distressing position that Uighurs in China find themselves in, and the social debate surrounding their situation, have compelled us to decide otherwise in this case.

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