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PROJECT SYNDICATE: Why Is the Uyghur Population Shrinking?

The below article was published by Project Syndicate, photo credit: Greg Baker / AFP via Getty images

Chinese authorities have long been notorious for mandating abortion, sterilization, and intrauterine devices, so it is natural to assume that the dramatic decline in births in Xinjiang reflects the impact of such measures. But the real reason is more complicated.

MADISON, WISCONSIN – After becoming the Communist Party of China’s chief of Xinjiang Province in 2016, Chen Quanguo oversaw a security crackdown that led to a drop in births so sharp that it shocked the world. Some observers accused China’s leadership of committing genocide against the province’s mostly Muslim Uyghur population through forced sterilization and abortion. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed the allegations as “fake news,” arguing that Xinjiang’s Uyghur population had grown steadily to 12.7 million in 2018, an increase of 25% from 2010 – and higher than the 14% increase in the province’s total population.

But recently released 2020 census figures have delivered what amounts to a slap in the foreign ministry’s face. The data show that in 2020, Xinjiang’s Uyghur population had grown by only 16% since 2010, to 11.6 million, compared to a 19% increase in Xinjiang’s total population. Even more shocking, the Uyghur population aged 0-4 was only 36% the size of that aged 5-9.

The only comparable antecedent to this plunge in births was in Shandong Province in the early 1990s, where some Party officials tried to launch a campaign to go “newborn-free in 100 days.” By 2000, the population of 5-9 year olds in Tai’an, a city in Shandong, was only 28% the size of the cohort aged 10-14. Back in 1980, when Chinese authorities were discussing the one-child policy, there was even a creepy proposal to have a “newborn-free year” every few years.

To understand why Xinjiang’s births have plummeted, it helps to review the history of population control in the province. China implemented family planning nationwide in 1973 and imposed the one-child policy in 1980. But for ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, family planning came later. Starting in 1989, minority urban couples in Xinjiang were allowed two childrenRural couples were allowed two as well, and were less likely to be forced to have abortions and sterilizations. Those “lenient” policies, combined with lagging education, led to higher fertility rates among Uyghurs. For example, the national fertility rates in 1989, 2000, and 2010 were 2.3, 1.22, and 1.18 children per woman, respectively, and 4.31, 2.0, and 1.84 for Uyghur women.

Chen’s predecessor, Zhang Chunxian, was keen on population control when he was CPC secretary of Hunan Province from 2005 to 2010. Arguing that “to grasp family planning is to grasp productivity,” he launched a campaign to strengthen family planning in Hunan in 2006. The campaign swept up my cousin-in-law, who was forced to abort her first child a few days before her due date because she had not applied for a birth permit in time.

In 2010, Zhang was reassigned to Xinjiang, and Hunan’s new governor, Xu Shousheng, arrived with plans to launch another campaign to strengthen population control in the province. In January 2011, I posted an “Open Letter to the Secretary and Governor of Hunan on Family Planning” online, euphemistically criticizing Zhang and Xu. In response, the Hunan authorities invited me to lecture on the topic in Hunan, and Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur economist and award-winning human-rights defender, joined me in calling for an end to family planning for the Uyghurs.

In the event, Zhang did not strengthen family planning in Xinjiang. Births in the province remained stable during his tenure. But we now know that, under Chen’s rule, births plummeted from 389,695 in 2017 to 267,250 in 2018, and to 159,528 in 2021, implying three-quarters of a million fewer births in 2018-21.

Since Chinese authorities have long been notorious for mandating abortion, sterilization, and intrauterine devices, it is natural to assume that the dramatic decline in births in Xinjiang reflects such measures. But matters are not so simple, because there were slightly fewer abortions and IUDs in Xinjiang in 2017-20 than in 2013-16; and though there were 70,000 more sterilizations, that figure is still an order of magnitude smaller than the drop in births.

Given that couples in Xinjiang can legally have two or three children, it is unlikely that the authorities systematically forced abortions, ligations, and IUDs on women who had only one or two children. Why, then, was the Uyghur fertility rate in 2020 only one child per woman? Most likely, it is because Chen’s brutal crackdown both undermined Uyghur fertility habits (under the pretext of fighting Islamic extremism) and reduced the resources for parenting, through economic recession and rising unemployment. As rural Xinjiang suffered severe cultural repression and economic deprivation, the fertility rate in 2020 fell to an unusually low level compared to the province’s urban areas.

Moreover, improved education has also contributed partly to the decline in births, by leading more women to delay marriage and childbearing. Chinese authorities have invested heavily to provide 15 years of free compulsory education in Xinjiang, compared with nine years nationwide. As a result, Xinjiang’s high-school gross enrollment rate increased from 69% in 2010 to 99% in 2020, while the nationwide rate rose from 83% to just 91%. Uyghurs have suffered from forced sterilization, of course. But it is this forced cultural shift that appears to have had more serious consequences for the birth rate.

While the Chinese authorities have been very effective at lowering fertility rates, they have proved to be far less competent at boosting them. The recent “two-child” and “three-child” policies have both been abject failures. Looking ahead, every effort to encourage procreation in Xinjiang will fail if the region’s socioeconomic vitality continues to decline.

This failure will cause China to lose its geopolitical advantage in Central Asia, where it is in a struggle for influence with Russia. China’s rulers have heaped praise on Chen, but they have yet to recognize that his security crackdown in Xinjiang sowed the seeds of severe long-term problems.

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