Birthrates in Xinjiang fell by almost half in the two years after the Chinese government implemented policies to reduce the number of babies born to Uyghur and other Muslim minority families, new research has claimed.
The figures show unprecedented declines which were more extreme than any global region at any time in the 71 years of UN fertility data collection, including during genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia, according to the authors of the report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Aspi).
The data adds to mounting evidence of coercive fertility policies in Xinjiang, including first-person accounts of forced sterilisation or birth control, and leaked policing data on the internment of women for violating family planning regulations.
They are among Chinese government policies believed to be designed to forcibly assimilate the Uyghur and other Muslim populations. In April, Human Rights Watch determined the Chinese government was committing crimes against humanity but said the extent of coercive birth control and sexual violence, while alarming, needed more investigation.
The authors of the report, Nathan Ruser and James Leibold, said they compiled it using publicly available Chinese government statistics to create datasets of county-level birthrates from 2011 to 2019, and comparing counties with higher proportions of Uyghur and other Muslim minorities.
It covered the period before, during, and after the implementation of the Chinese Communist party’s campaigns against “illegal births” in April 2017, when authorities also stopped publishing statistics on the birthrates of separate minority groups.
Aspi’s report found the birthrate across Xinjiang fell by 48.74% between 2017 and 2019. In counties where the population was at least 90% non-Han Chinese, the birthrate dropped by an average 56.5% between 2017 and 2018. By examining county-level statistics, the report provided further evidence of “the systematic targeting” of communities, it said.
“Previous research by both Chinese and foreign experts has examined the tightening of birth control policy in Xinjiang and a corresponding drop in natural population growth beginning in 2015, but even more dramatically after 2017,” it said.
Among the evidence cited in the report, Aspi also included state media reports about crackdowns on “illegal births”, and the collection of US$1m from 629 families over four months in a single county. In other areas authorities launched hotlines and rewarded people who informed on their neighbours, and punished officials who failed to meet targets.
“The crackdown has led to an unprecedented and precipitous drop in official birthrates in Xinjiang since 2017. The birthrate across the region fell by nearly half (48.74 %) in the two years between 2017 and 2019,” said the report.
Citing state media, the report said in 2017, 460 party members and state employees were punished for illegal births in Hotan prefecture, where 97% of the population is Uyghur or from other non-Han groups.
While China’s government enforced a one-child policy for decades, it allowed minority families to have three children in rural areas or two in urban areas. The report said while the overall birthrate for the Xinjiang region remained relatively stable throughout the period, many individual counties, especially in the Uyghur-majority south, had exceptionally high birthrates in the past decade. There were 68 children born per 1,000 people in Kashgar in 2014, compared with 16.5 at the regional level.
Aspi said policymakers saw this as “an increasingly urgent problem and source of perceived instability, literally a breeding ground for the ‘three evil forces’ of extremism, terrorism and splitism”.
The Chinese government denies allegations of mistreatment, genocide and crimes against humanity, saying many of its policies – including the mass detention network it says includes vocational training centres – are anti-terrorism efforts. It says birth control is entirely the choice of individuals and there is no agency interference. This claim has been contradicted by women who claim they were coerced into sterilisation or contraception.
The crackdown on minority population growth comes at the same time the Chinese government is trying to stave off a demographic crisis due to low birthrates in the rest of the country, and an ageing population.
The Aspi report was published a day after the Chinese government released figures from its once-a-decade census, finding the decade to 2020 had the slowest annual population growth since the early 1960s. The census reported a bigger increase to China’s minority population compared with the Han population, however this was not broken down to county levels, and included the seven years prior to the major interventions on fertility in Xinjiang.
“One thing we found is that in other provinces of similarly high minority populations … the birthrate climbed by about 3% in the last decade,” said Ruser. “So these policies seem to be very deliberately targeted towards the community of Xinjiang and the Uyghur community. When they talk about those general minority figures, I think you have to keep in mind there are 55 other minorities.”