China’s Own Documents Show Potentially Genocidal Sterilization Plans in Xinjiang
Ethnic minorities are being targeted by family planning departments as reproduction restrictions loosen on Han Chinese.
Target 1: target population for intrauterine contraception device placement 524 people
Target 2: [target] population for sterilizations 14,872 people.”
These are direct quotes from the 2019 family planning budget of Hotan, the capital city of a prefecture with a population of 2.53 million in in southern Xinjiang, China. The neighboring county of Guma, population 322,000, set a similarly precise “performance target” figure of 5,970 intrauterine contraception device (IUD) placements and 8,064 female sterilizations for that year.
These two counties, predominantly home to members of the Uighur ethnic minority, planned to sterilize approximately 14 and 34 percent of women between 18 and 49—in a single year. Per capita, that represents more sterilizations than China performed in the 20 years between 1998 and 2018 combined. Documents from Xinjiang’s Health Commission indicate that this is part of a wider project targeting all of Xinjiang’s southern minority regions in 2019 and 2020.
Since 2017, up to 1.8 million Uighurs, Kazaks, and other Turkic minority groups in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang have been swept up in what is probably the largest incarceration of an ethnoreligious minority since the Holocaust. Exile Uighurs and China researchers have described this campaign as a “cultural genocide.” Now, new research I published this month with the Jamestown Foundation provides strong evidence that Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang also meet the physical genocide criterion cited in Section D of Article II of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide: “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the [targeted] group.”
Starting in 2018, a growing number of female former internment camp detainees testified that they were given injections that coincided with changes in or cessation of their menstrual cycles. Others reported that they were forcibly fitted with IUDs prior to internment or subjected to sterilization surgeries.
That same year, published natural population growth rates (calculated as birth minus deaths, and excluding migration) in Xinjiang plummeted. In Kashgar and Hotan, two of the prefectures that make up the Uighur heartland, combined natural population growth rates fell by 84 percent between 2015 and 2018, from 1.6 percent to 0.26 percent. In some Uighur counties, 2018 saw more deaths than births. In 2019, Xinjiang’s birth rates declined by a further 24 percent, with ethnic minority regions seeing stronger declines between 30 and 56 percent. In contrast, birth rates across the whole country fell by only 4.2 percent between 2018 and 2019.
Worryingly, most recent birth rate figures in Uighur regions are not being published. In an unusual development, Hotan’s annual report, always published in March or April each year, was not yet out by the end of June, but one of its counties reported a negative population growth rate. For the first time since its publication, Kashgar’s annual report did not disclose birth or death rates. However, its total population decreased compared to the previous year. Clearly, the government has something to hide.
Given that Uighur birth rates remained stable even during the horrific years of the Cultural Revolution, the most recent declines signal a worrying new development. The campaign of mass internment would certainly negatively impact birth rates. However, by itself it cannot have depressed population growth to such low levels.
Instead, comprehensive new evidence from government documents reveals a systematic state campaign of suppressing minority births, while simultaneously encouraging a mass influx of new Han Chinese workers and settlers.
For years, Han Chinese officials and academics have lamented “excessive minority population” growth in Xinjiang. Li Xiaoxia, the director of the Institute of Sociology at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences, wrote in 2017 that high Uighur population growth rates exacerbated spatial ethnic segregation, “strengthening the viewpoint that one ethnic group owns a [particular] land area.” Such sentiments are seen as dangerous, because they “weaken national identity and identification with the Chinese Nation-Race, impacting long-term rule and stability.”
However, government efforts to enforce family planning targets were often met with failure. A 2013 World Bank report on vocational training needs in Xinjiang, compiled by two Han Chinese authors, states that “Xinjiang’s enforcement of family planning in rural and minority regions has been comparatively relaxed.” Many of Xinjiang’s officials and researchers blame this directly on the minorities’ predominantly Muslim faith. One of them wrote in 2016: “It is undeniable that a wave of extremist religious thinking has fueled a resurgence in birth rates in Xinjiang’s southern regions.”
The campaign of mass internment that started in 2017 under Xinjiang’s current Party Secretary Chen Quanguo provided the ideal context for an unprecedented crackdown on minority birth rates. My research shows that the detentions have primarily targeted male heads of households. In some regions, government lists show that up to 50 percent of them had been sent to detention camps or prisons. With community leaders, religious authority figures, and husbands removed, nothing prevented the state from seizing complete control over female minority reproductive systems.
In February, a leaked government document called the “Karakax List” (after its origin from Karakax County) showed the reasons given for hundreds of camp detainees being detained. Surprisingly, the most common reason was having had too many children. Frequently, the detainees had only had one more child than permitted by the state. Birth control violations were often the only stated reason for internment.
In contrast, in January 2016 China abolished its one-child policy, and it has since encouraged its citizens to have two children in order to maintain positive population growth. Some provinces are doling out financial rewards such as tax breaks and wedding or childbirth subsidies in order to boost birth rates.
The Karakax List indicates a spike in the number of Uighurs detained for birth control violations during the spring of 2018. During precisely that time, Xinjiang’s minority regions issued draconian new regulations for dealing with birth control policy violations, with three counties explicitly threatening violators with internment. Karakax County’s 2018 government work report proudly stated that by “severely curbing behaviors that violate birth control [policies], birth and natural population growth rates declined dramatically.” Between 2016 and 2018, Karakax’s natural population growth rate plunged by 83 percent.
However, punishing birth control violations with internment has been just one of several strategies to suppress minority birth rates. The second approach was a mass deployment of IUDs, a widely used form of birth control around the world and the most commonly used form in China. In 2018, a stunning 80 percent of all newly placed IUDs in China were fitted in Xinjiang, even though the region only makes up 1.8 percent of the country’s population. By 2019, Xinjiang planned to subject over 80 percent of women of childbearing age in the rural southern four minority prefectures to “birth control measures with long-term effectiveness.” In Xinjiang’s minority regions, this term refers to either IUDs or sterilizations. One minority prefecture issued a related statement that women for whom the procedure wouldn’t pose medical risks must have IUDs placed “immediately,” and that the risks, known as contraindications, must be proved through a diagnosis certified by a higher health authority.
Before long, requiring minority women to get IUDs was not enough. The third and most draconian birth prevention strategy—sterilizations—soon followed. Until recently, sterilization surgeries had been uncommon in Xinjiang in order to avoid offending the predominantly Muslim population’s religious sensibilities. Once the state began openly persecuting any form of religious behavior, this was no longer an issue. In 2018, the region performed over seven times more sterilizations per capita than the national average. Then, in 2019, when a growing number of male detainees were shifted from internment camps to either prisons or forced labor compounds, the state moved toward what appears to be a campaign of mass female sterilization.
This campaign is part of a project titled “Free Technical Family Planning Services to Farmers and Pastoralists.” It provides free “birth control surgeries” specifically in Xinjiang’s southern Uighur regions. The project’s explicit aim is to reduce these regions’ 2020 birth and population growth rates by “at least” 0.4 percentage points below the 2016 level. The free “birth control surgeries” include IUD placements, abortions, and sterilizations. The project’s combined funding for 2019 and 2020 amounted to 260 million RMB, about $36 million, on the regional level alone.
The evidence suggests that this campaign aims to sterilize some women with one or two children, and many or all women with three or more children. One Uighur county’s 2019 family planning policy explicitly stated that women with three or more children are to be sterilized. According to the 2010 national census, about 20 percent of all Uighur women across China had three or more children; in some predominantly Uighur prefectures, that share may be as high as 36.1 percent, which might explain Hotan City’s 34.3 percent sterilization target. In addition, in 2019 and 2020 Xinjiang budgeted about 1.5 billion RMB, over $200 million, at the regional level alone for financial rewards for women who supposedly voluntarily opt for IUDs or sterilizations even though they are legally permitted to have a third child.
Together with local co-funding, the regionwide “free technical family planning” project has enough money to sterilize potentially up to nearly 200,000 or about 12 percent of all married women aged 18 to 49 years in rural southern Xinjiang. However, at least one minority prefecture received additional central government funding for this initiative, indicating that these estimates could be higher. There is also nothing to say that this campaign will end in 2020. Its obvious intermediate goal would be to sterilize the 20 percent or more of these women who have had more than two children, plus a percentage of those with fewer children.
Along with the mass deployment of IUDs, this campaign enables the Chinese government to permanently maintain Uighur natural population growth rates at levels that are 85 to 95 percent below those of the past two decades. Xinjiang’s goal in Uighur regions is to achieve “zero birth control violation incidents”—not one minority child is to be born outside the will of the state. Such targets are no joke. Hotan prefecture’s 2019 birth control performance indicators mandated that the entire region, which has over half a million women of childbearing age, could have no more than exactly 21 birth control policy violations that year. Technically, the government can now dial minority birth rates up and down at will, like opening or closing a faucet.
Unfortunately, it is unclear where all this will end. Numerically stagnant or declining populations are easier to control. Alarmingly, Xinjiang’s 2019 population growth rate was far below its original target.
Under the one child policy, China had previously implemented repressive birth control measures. However, they were nothing close to now what is now seen in Xinjiang: punishing violators in extrajudicial internment camps, sterilizing up to a third of all women in a single year, sending women to family planning clinics with armed police forces, or setting near-zero population growth targets.
A women who fled Xinjiang last year told the Associated Press that they would chant these lines during daily flag-raising events: “If we have too many children, we’re religious extremists. … That means we have to go to the training centers.” Soon after, she and hundreds of other Uighur women were taken to a hospital by armed police guards and forcibly fitted with IUDs. In 2019, Xinjiang’s population growth rate was far below its original target.
Xinjiang’s birth prevention tactics are just one aspect of what appears to be a multipronged strategy of ethno-racial domination. Between 2015 and 2018, 2 million new residents moved to Xinjiang—all of them to regions dominated by China’s Han majority. The state promotes such in-migration through lucrative offers. In 2019, a Han Chinese-dominated region in Xinjiang sought to attract young families from eastern China (ages 35 and under) with promises of 5.8 acres of arable land, new apartments, government jobs with annual salaries of up to 102,500 RMB (about $14,000, above the national average), and additional monthly livelihood subsidy payments.
Additionally, regional authorities actively encourage interethnic marriages between Han men and Uighur women in an apparent effort to dilute Uighur cultural identity and promote assimilation into the “Chinese Nation-Race.” The internment of vast numbers of ethnic minority men in camps and sites of coercive labor facilitate this process of what often appear to be coerced relationships.
These findings indicate that Beijing is complementing its pursuit of cultural genocide in Xinjiang with a campaign of ethno-racial supremacy—a campaign that meets at least one of the five criteria for physical genocide specified by the U.N. It is high time that the international community takes decisive measures. The situation warrants an investigation into crimes against humanity, including an assessment whether Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang are gradually progressing from cultural genocide to a form of demographic genocide.
Adrian Zenz is a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington and supervises doctoral students at the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal, Germany. His research focus is on China’s ethnic policy, public recruitment in Tibet and Xinjiang, Beijing’s internment campaign in Xinjiang, and China’s domestic security budgets. Zenz is the author of “Tibetanness” Under Threat: Neo-Integrationism, Minority Education, and Career Strategies in Qinghai, P.R. China and co-editor of Mapping Amdo: Dynamics of Change. He has played a leading role in the analysis of leaked Chinese government documents, including the “China Cables” and the “Karakax list.” Zenz is an advisor to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and a frequent contributor to international media.
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