Family De-planning: The Coercive Campaign to Drive Down Indigenous Birth-rates in Xinjiang
In this report, we provide new evidence documenting the effectiveness of the Chinese government’s systematic efforts to reduce the size of the indigenous population of Xinjiang through a range of coercive birth-control policies.
Using the Chinese government’s own publicly available statistics, we have compiled a dataset of county-level birth-rates (natality) across 2011-2019. We then marshal this data to analyse trends across nationalities and spatial regions in Xinjiang, before and after the 2016 crackdown, and comparatively with other countries as recorded in the UN population dataset. Finally, we place these statistics in context through our analysis of county-level implementation documents and other official Chinese language sources which have been previously overlooked.
In 1979, Deng Xiaoping launched the “one child policy” and created a complex set of bureaucratic institutions and practices for controlling population growth. Party officials rather than women would decide what they did with their bodies.
The one-child policy has seen a dramatic drop in China’s fertility rate and unleashed new concerns about a looming demographic crisis. Yet the instinct to control remains. As Party officials are loosening family-planning rules on Han women, they are simultaneously cracking down on the reproductive rights of Uyghur and other indigenous nationalities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) over perceived fears of instability and uneven growth.
In the name of stability and control, the CCP under President Xi Jinping is seeking to fundamentally transform the social and physical landscape of Xinjiang. This includes the construction of hundreds of prison-like detention centres and the mass internment of Uyghurs, Kazakh and other indigenous nationalities; a regime of highly intrusive and near constant surveillance; the erasure of indigenous culture, language and religious practices and sites; and mandatory job assignments that are indicative of forced labour; among other now well-documented human rights abuses.
Beginning in April 2017, Chinese Communist Party authorities in Xinjiang launched a series of “strike-hard” campaigns against “illegal births” with the explicit aim to “reduce and stabilise a moderate birth level” and decrease the birth-rate in southern Xinjiang by at least 4.00 per thousand from 2016 levels. This followed years of preferential exceptions from family-planning rules for indigenous nationalities.
The crackdown has led to an unprecedented and precipitous drop in official birth-rates in Xinjiang since 2017. The birth-rate across the region fell by nearly half (48.74 percent) in the two years between 2017 and 2019.
The largest declines have been in counties where Uyghurs and other indigenous communities are concentrated. Across counties that are majority-indigenous the birth-rate fell, on average, by 43.7 percent in a single year between 2017 and 2018. The birth-rate in counties with a 90 percent or greater indigenous population declined by 56.5 percent, on average, in that same year.
In 2017, the Chinese government’s approach to birth control among minority nationalities shifted from “reward and encourage” towards a more coercive and intrusive policing of reproduction processes. Hefty fines, disciplinary punishment, extrajudicial internment, or the threat of internment were introduced for any “illegal births.” Family-planning officials in Xinjiang were told to carry out “early detection and early disposal of pregnant women found in violation of policy.”
While the Chinese government argues it has adopted a uniform family-planning policy in Xinjiang, the county-level natality data suggests these policies are disproportionately affecting areas with a large indigenous population, meaning their application is discriminatory and applied with the intent of reducing the birth-rate of Uyghurs and other religious and ethnic minorities. This policy also stands in stark contrast to the loosening of birth control restrictions elsewhere in China.
Policy implementation documents from Xinjiang explicitly set birth-rate targets that are among the lowest in the world, and the birth-rate has declined from a rate similar to those in neighbouring countries such as Mongolia or Kazakhstan to only slightly higher than that of Japan, where the low birth-rate is seen as a “national crisis.”
The sharp drop in birth-rates in Xinjiang (a region with a population of nearly 25 million) is proportionally the most extreme over a two-year period globally since 1950. Despite notable contextual differences, this decline in birth-rate is more than double the rate of decline in Cambodia at the height of the Khmer Rouge genocide (1975-79).
The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, to which China is a signatory, prohibits states from “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group,” as an aspect of the physical element to genocide. Our analysis builds on previous work and provides compelling evidence that Chinese government policies in Xinjiang may constitute an act of genocide; however further research is required to establish the intent and mental element of this crime. We call for the Chinese government to give researchers, journalists and human rights experts full and open access to Xinjiang.
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12 May 2021