‘Family de-planning’ report
The coercive campaign to drive down indigenous birth-rates in Xinjiang
Nathan Ruser, Dr James Leibold
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 fertility at a moderate level” and decrease the birth-rate in southern Xinjiang by at least 4 children per thousand people from 2016 levels.
The crackdown has led to an unprecedented and precipitous drop in official birth-rates in Xinjiang since 2017. The largest declines have been in counties where Uyghur 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.
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 Uyghur and other religious and ethnic minorities.
This policy also stands in stark contrast to the loosening of birth control restrictions elsewhere in China.
Despite the relatively stable birth-rate ratio between Xinjiang and the rest of China, policymakers in Beijing and Urumqi saw high birth-rates in southern Xinjiang as an increasingly urgent problem and source of perceived instability, literally a breeding ground for the “three evil forces” of extremism, terrorism, and splittism.
As a result of this crackdown, Xinjiang’s region-wide birth-rate decreased significantly in 2018 and 2019, dropping from around 125 percent of the national average to less than 80 percent. Such radical fluctuation in rates hadn’t been seen in Xinjiang since the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962), when birth-rates dropped sharply before soaring upward after the end of the great famine associated with Mao’s failed experiment in collectivisation.
Our analysis of official Chinese government sources reveals a sharp decline in indigenous birth-rates in Xinjiang and a coercive regime of population control in which restrictions are disproportionately applied to Uyghurs and other indigenous communities.
Across Xinjiang, on average, for every 10 percent greater share of indigenous population a county contains, the 2018 birth-rate declined an additional 7.2 percent when compared to pre-crackdown levels. All other things being equal, the correlation (R-squared value) is strong enough that 54 percent of the variation in birth-rate decline can be explained by the percentage of the minority population alone.
That trend continued into 2019, for which the available data shows an even greater decrease in birth-rates, especially in counties with large indigenous populations. Looking at complete 2018 birth-rate data, the average decline in indigenous-majority counties was 35.7 percent; in 2019 (looking at incomplete data) the average decrease was 56.6 percent.
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.
County-level implementation documents call for a “drag-net style” (拉网式) investigation of illegal child births as far back as the early 1990s or even earlier, and the serious investigation and punishment of illegal births from 2017 or 2018 onward, in order to achieve complete coverage without any “blind-spots” or “dead-ends”; recent violations are to be treated severely and distant transgressions more leniently.
Implementation has focused not only on curbing fertility but also rooting out lax enforcement of family-planning targets. The campaign targeted so-called “two-faced people” and those grassroots cadres who fail to act, falsify reports or collude or intentionally conceal family-planning violations.
Amid the crackdown on “illegal births” in Xinjiang, wider Chinese society is facing a looming population crisis as birth-rates slump to their lowest level since 1949.
This aggressive policing of Indigenous wombs in Xinjiang is entirely inconsistent with the goals of the CCP at the national level, where it is loosening rather than tightening family-planning rules, and exposes the discriminatory, coercive and eugenic logic behind the Party’s population policies in Xinjiang.
Comparing Xinjiang’s drop in natality rate with data from the UN’s World Population Prospects project, the proportional decline in birth-rates in Xinjiang is the most extreme globally since 1950.
The effectiveness of China’s campaign to drive down indigenous birth-rates in Xinjiang is remarkably stark when Xinjiang is compared to similarly sized regions that have experienced large demographic shifts due to war or pogroms, such as Bosnia, Cambodia and Rwanda.
China’s statistical yearbooks have long provided researchers with valuable insights into some of the local and more granular-level changes occurring across the country.
Prior to 2017 (with the exception of 2015), birth-rate statistics were published at the county level and the rates for non-Han communities were specifically highlighted in addition to the overall birth-rate.
The most recent Xinjiang Statistical Yearbook was published in late March 2021 with data covering 2019. That edition omitted several key demographic statistics, including birth-rates by region, population figures by nationality, population figures by region and birth-control figures by region.
The report’s dataset and analysis offer new evidence that the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang likely contravene Clause (d), Article 2 of the 1948 Genocide Convention, to which China is a party, and constitute “measures intended to prevent births within the group”; although additional research is required to establish whether these actions have been “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part” the Uyghur people or other minority groups in Xinjiang, and thus constitute genocide.
The possibility of genocide means the global community must respond. It is imperative that the global community seeks further information and unfettered access to Xinjiang while continuing to pressure the authorities in Beijing and Urumqi to reconsider its abusive policies.