With the Covid-19 pandemic dominating headlines, many important issues have been forgotten or shelved. One of those is the plight of Uyghurs and other persecuted minorities in Xinjiang in northwestern China.
I’d like to clarify the often-conflicting reports on Xinjiang and drill down into the demographic statistics to give an accurate picture of the balance between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang. What they reveal is terrifying.
First, though, two misconceptions must be cleared up.
It’s often said that Han Chinese living in Xinjiang are “colonialists” who arrived in Xinjiang after 1949. This is not true. Although it sounds like parroting the Communist Party line, Han Chinese have lived in what is now called Xinjiang for centuries. Imperial China exercised great influence over the region since the Han Dynasty. Han migration increased after Muslim rebellions in northwestern China were crushed in the late 1800s. It continued during the Republic of China era.
But Han always constituted a small minority of Xinjiang’s population prior to 1949 — only 300,000 Han Chinese lived in Xinjiang when the People’s Republic was founded, when 4.6 million Uyghurs were living there.
Another misconception is that Xinjiang has always been Muslim. Xinjiang, known as “Land in the West (西域)” in classical ancient Chinese literature, was Buddhist for many centuries. Buddhist grottoes and ancient temples still dot the landscape. It was also featured in the Chinese classic Journey to the West, in which a Tang Dynasty monk crosses through Buddhist kingdoms in what is now Xinjiang with his unconventional disciples.
Cities like Khotan/Hotan were Buddhist hubs before armed Muslim conquest imposed Islam from the 10th century through violent jihad. Non-Muslim minorities such as Mongols and ethnic Xibe people (related to the Manchus) still live in Xinjiang.
Misconceptions aside, we now look at what happened after 1949. From the Revolution to 2015, Xinjiang’s population underwent a major transformation. The Xinjiang Construction Corps (新疆建设兵团) was founded with Mao’s instructions as soon as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) took over the region; millions of Han Chinese poured into Xinjiang.
By 2015, Han Chinese numbers had swelled from 300,000 to 8.6 million and the Uyghurs had more than doubled from 4.6 million to 11.27 million. Han migration from poor inland provinces was especially encouraged during the Mao era, with revolutionary propaganda legends such as “8000 ladies from Xiang/Hunan Province going up Mount Tianshan (八千湘女上天山)”. (This refers to thousands of women who moved from the southern province of Hunan to Xinjiang to marry People’s Liberation Army soldiers who had been instructed to settle there and cultivate the virgin lands.)
Then, during the Cultural Revolution, many urban Red Guards settled there after Mao sent troublemakers to remote rural regions. For example, tens of thousands of student revolutionaries from Shanghai moved to Xinjiang in the late 1960s. Even today many local Han Chinese and even Uyghurs speak a bit of the Shanghainese dialect in the farms and towns where the young Red Guards settled. With the relatively high birthrate of both the Han and Uyghur population, Xinjiang’s population grew rapidly.
Han migration to Xinjiang peaked during the Mao era. Following Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1980s, the settler-led PLA unit of the Xinjiang Construction Corps was almost disbanded by the reformist Communist leader Hu Yaobang and was only saved by the vigorous protests from old PLA generals, especially Wang Zheng, the man who led the conquest back in 1949.
But Han migration dwindled and became voluntary (until the late 2010s, when Xi Jinping revived the settler incentives). Many Red Guards and young urban settlers returned to cities like Shanghai and Beijing.
That is when the demographic momentum of Xinjiang took another turn.
In 1975, the government of Xinjiang began to implement “family planning” – but only amongst the Han Chinese population, which by then numbered around 4 million. At that time, the Uyghur fertility rate was around 6.13, whilst the Han rate was 5.2. Restrictive family planning rules only began to get implemented in earnest amongst the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in 1988, and by then the fertility discrepancy between the Han and the Uyghur had become much more pronounced. Uyghur women in 1988 had around 5.2 children, whilst Han women only had 2.5.
Xinjiang also had very different birth restrictions compared to the rest of China. Urban Han couples had to follow the one-child policy like everyone else in China, but urban Uyghur couples were allowed to have two children and rural Uyghurs could have three.
Han Chinese in Xinjiang lived under strict rules and were controlled by the Party since most of them worked in government-run farms and factories. As in northeastern China, the Xinjiang Han birthrate nosedived and by the 1990s was already well below the replacement TFR of 2.1.
Rural Uyghurs meanwhile had de facto birth freedom up until 1992 or 1993. Many reports suggest that strict enforcement only came in the late 1990s. Even then Uyghurs had a TFR of 3.21, according to the 2000 census, whilst the Han TFR was about 1.0. Thus, by 2000, the Uyghurs had consolidated a fertility advantage of double or even triple the Han fertility rate.
This, along with a surge in conservative Islamic practices and widespread anger towards Communist rule amongst the Uyghurs, alarmed Beijing. Since the 1990s, there had been occasional bombs and small-scale rebellions. At the same time the Construction Corps, once full of vigorous young Han soldiers, was a shadow of is former self, with many ageing settlers returning to inland China, leaving an ever-shrinking number of Han youths behind, many of whom also wanted to leave Xinjiang.
Uyghur birthrates remained relatively steady throughout this period, with fertility rates remaining above replacement rate until around 2010. This can be best illustrated through the age composition in Xinjiang — in 2010 26 percent of Uyghurs were below the age of 14, compared to 13.5 percent of Han.
Chinese academics and party cadres began to warn the Party leadership that it was losing control in Xinjiang. As tens of thousands of mosques popped up, many Uyghurs refused to obey the family planning rules and Chinese academic papers began to be filled with language such as “the uncontrolled growth of Uyghurs especially in southern Xinjiang” and “Han Chinese migration rates are slowing and natural growth is approaching zero”.
Chinese demographers reported that Uyghur birth rates remained stubbornly high due to a lack of education and rising religious radicalism. They warned that drastic actions had to be taken, especially in southern Xinjiang, where “runaway population growth” existed and Party control was weak. Northern Xinjiang is 75 percent Han, whilst the reverse is true in southern Xinjiang, where the rebelliousness and terrorist attacks were concentrated.
The 2009 Urumqi riots and the 2014 series of attacks by radicalized Uyghurs were the last straw for the CCP.
In May 2014, Xi Jinping stated that “all ethnicities must have converging birth policies”. This meant that the extra quota for Uyghur births must be ended or that Han Chinese must also be allowed to have as many as the Uyghurs.
Mind you, this policy was created completely for political purposes with no consideration for the sanctity of human life or human rights. In 2015, the President’s instructions became law. Preferential birth policies for Uyghurs ended and Han couples in rural areas could have three children, whilst both urban Han and Uyghur were limited to two.
Since then, reports of forced sterilisations and abortions have spiked in Xinjiang. From Ili to Hotan birth control rules were tightened just as the one-child policy was being dismantled everywhere else in the country. But the most pronounced birth rate decline came after 2017 — as damning government statistics reveal.
In 2009, Xinjiang reported around 345,000 births and a crude birth rate of 15 per thousand. At that time, the Han Chinese crude birth rate was already lower than 10 per thousand, a figure that has been largely steady since the late 1990s. This means that Han Chinese population growth has been propped up by migration since the beginning of this century, and that its population will begin to fall naturally in the coming years. In 2016, the crude birth rate in Xinjiang was 15.34 per thousand, largely similar to 2009.
This is when things started to change and it correlates perfectly with the widely-known reports of re-education camps. In 2017, the birthrate hit 15.88 per thousand, but in 2018 it had dropped by more than a third to just 10.69 per thousand.
Natural growth was slashed in one year from y 11.40 to just 6.13 per thousand.
Incredibly, Xinjiang was transformed from one of China’s highest birth rate regions to one of its lowest in just a single year. In 2019 the precipitous decline continued — only 205,000 births were reported in 2019 compared to 330,000-345,000 only two years before. The crude birth rate was 8.14 per thousand, making Xinjiang one of the lowest birth rate regions in the country.
In less than three years, Xinjiang had turned from being one of the most fertile provinces of China to one of the least fertile. The suffering imposed on the Uyghurs to make this happen is almost unimaginable.
Take the birth rate of the two most Uyghur areas of Xinjiang (where they make up more than 90 percent of the population) from 2017 to 2018.
Hotan’s Uyghur population grew 3.1 percent year-on-year in 2017 but in 2018 it only grew by 0.3 percent, whilst its birth rate halved in one year from 16.3 to 8.6 per thousand. Kashgar went from 13 per thousand in terms of crude birth rate in 2017 to 7.94 in 2018, also nearly halving in just one year.
A very sharp intervention by the authorities must have occurred in heavily Uyghur southern Xinjiang. Based on previous experience of such interventions elsewhere in China, ferocious campaigns of mass sterilization and forced abortions must have taken place.
There are only two precedents for this, even in China: mass sterilisations in 1983 and the “Hundred Days Without Births” campaign in the eastern province of Shandong in 1991. Both of these harrowing campaigns deserve articles on their own.
It would be hypocritical for a pro-life Chinese to decry the atrocious one-child policy against the Han Chinese and ignore the plight of the Uyghurs. Sure, the perpetrators of the Kunming, Beijing and Urumqi attacks were radicalized Uyghurs, but the crimes of a handful of terrorists do not warrant an assault on the freedoms of an entire ethnic group.
Han Chinese – and the rest of the world, for that matter — have turned a blind eye to how atrociously the Uyghurs are being treated. In order to reconcile the two ethnicities and achieve lasting peace, we need to know the truth about what the Communist Party is doing in Xinjiang.