A Chinese official report asserting that population growth in Xinjiang since 1949 refutes a series of reports on mass internment, forced birth control and other Chinese policies to reduce the proportion of Uyghurs in the region has angered the Uyghurs, while experts accused Beijing of cherry-picking the numbers.
The State Council Information Office’s Xinjiang population white paper comes amid vigorous Chinese efforts to avoid scrutiny and condemnation of a litany of documented abuses in the region, including mass internment camps, sexual assaults, forced abortions, and forced labor.
Amid a surge in international awareness of the situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) that began about three years ago, a territory the size of Alaska or Iran, the U.S. and other western states have determined that the treatment of Uyghurs constitutes genocide and crimes against humanity.
China, which rejects the genocide allegations, has launched an all-out propaganda drive to counter the reports, which have led to sanctions against XUAR officials, and moves by Western customs authorities to block Xinjiang products suspected of having been produced with forced labor.
State media and Chinese diplomats regularly vilify the scholars who revealed the mass internment and birth control programs, and Xinjiang officials hold frequent news conferences to promote Beijing’s views. China has not, however, permitted UN or other independent outside observers visit the region to investigate.
The newest document in that campaign, “Xinjiang Population Dynamics and Data,” claims that an increase in the population of Xinjiang, particularly that of the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, in the seven decades since Communist China was founded, refutes studies of the past decade showing forced birth control and other measures to curb the Uyghur population.
The report cites census data indicating that of the region’s total population of 25.85 million, ethnic minorities in Xinjiang totaled 14.93 million — up from 4.45 million in 1953 — while Han Chinese comprised the remainder.
The number of Uyghurs increased from 3.61 million in 1953 to 11.62 million in 2020, and accounted for nearly 84 percent of the population in the four prefectures in southern Xinjiang, where the Uyghurs are concentrated, the white paper said.
The report says the Uyghur population grew at a 1.67-percent compound annual growth rate during the first two decades of the current century — much higher than that of the overall ethnic minority population of China, which increased at the rate of 0.83 percent since 2020.
The newest report follows the release in July of another white paper,
“Respecting and Protecting the Rights of All Ethnic Groups in Xinjiang,” which asserted that Beijing has upheld political, economic, cultural, and social rights as well as freedom of religious belief throughout the XUAR.
A ‘high number of bald-faced lies’
Holes in China’s claims were quickly identified by outside scholars.
A “central distortion” of the white paper is a claim that the Uyghur population in Xinjiang increased from 2010 to 2020 that ignores a decline in the population growth rate from 2017 onwards, when “Uyghur births were brutally suppressed,”
Wrote Rian Thum, a historian of Islam in China and the Uyghurs.
“So they’re hiding the crash in Uyghur population growth rates 2017-2020 by presenting all data in a block that includes a period of high Uyghur growth rates (2010-2016). They never say what happened between 2017 and 2020,” Thum tweeted.
“There’s also an unusually high number of bald-faced lies for a white paper,” he said, adding that he found it telling that the Chinese government document did not disclose the current population growth rate for Uyghurs in the XUAR.
“How did 2020 compare to 2019? This would seem to be crucial data for a state looking to convince the world that it is not preventing births in an indigenous group,” he said.
Uyghur political commentator Asiye Uyghur also pointed out a discrepancy in the white paper’s population data.
“The Xinjiang Investigative Team of China’s Statistical Bureau announced its findings on Sept. 5, 2010, and stated 3.7 million births were prevented in Xinjiang due to the enforcement of the family planning policy for more than two decades up to 2006,” he told RFA.
The government white paper did not refer by name to Adrian Zenz, the German anthropologist whose studies based on excavations of data and Xinjiang policy debate from official Chinese documents have revealed the detention of some 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in “re-education” camps, the forced sterilization of detained Uyghur women, and plans to dilute the Uyghur population in southern Xinjiang.
A report on the white paper by China’s state-run Xinhua news agency accused foreign media and politicians of spreading rumors and fabrications about Xinjiang.
“This is a calculated campaign to undermine the Chinese government’s enormous efforts to protect ethnic equality, and misrepresent the historic progress that has been made on human rights in the region,” the agency said, quoting the paper.
“Their goals are to discredit China, interfere in China’s internal affairs, restrict China’s development, and destroy stability and prosperity in Xinjiang,” the white paper said.
‘Statistics are the CCP’s tool’
The Communist Party-affiliated Global Times tabloid lumped researcher Zenz as among “these anti-China scholars, who have no professional demographic knowledge, are racking their brains to seek ‘evidence’ for their guilty presumption against China.”
The Global Times quoted Li Jianxin, a demographer at Peking University who contributed to the white paper, as saying that social and economic development; rising education levels, especially for young women; and a change in fertility patterns; and “de-radicalization” all helped bring down the Uyghur population.
Zenz, however, drew on government documents showing that population growth rates in the region had declined by 84 percent in the two largest Uyghur prefectures between 2015 and 2018, and declined further in several minority regions in 2019.
Government documents from 2019 showed that authorities had plans for a campaign of mass female sterilization in rural Uyghur regions, subjecting women of childbearing age in the rural southern four minority prefectures to birth prevention surgery or forced sterilizations, Zenz wrote in a July report on the sterilization of detained Uyghur women.
Zenz also documented official discussion of “population optimization strategy” to dilute the Uyghur majority in southern Xinjiang by raising the proportion of Han Chinese through immigration while imposing strict birth controls on the Uyghurs.
Using population projections by Chinese researchers, Zenz calculated that this could result in a drop in births among Uyghurs of 2.6 million to 4.5 million by 2040.
“These findings provide the strongest evidence yet that Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang meet one of the genocide criteria cited in the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, namely that of Section D of Article II: “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the [targeted] group,” Zenz wrote in his birth control report.
Dolkun Isa, president of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress exile group, said the report “attempts to present the so-called normal and natural growth of the Uyghur population as if China hasn’t arbitrarily locked up millions of Uyghur people in concentration camps, forcibly sterilized hundreds of thousands of Uyghur women, separated Uyghur children from their parents, aborted countless Uyghur babies, forced Uyghur women to marry Chinese men, and coerced tens of thousands into forced labor.”
“China will never be able to escape its criminal responsibility for the commission of genocide and crimes against humanity in East Turkestan by manipulating and manufacturing the Uyghur population growth data,” he said, using the Uyghurs’ preferred name for the XUAR.
Chinese human rights lawyer Teng Biao told RFA that the government’s statistics, including the nationwide population census, are meant to serve the political aims of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“They falsified the census statistics for many years,” he said. “Statistics are the CCP’s tool only. They are definitely not credible. China’s narrative is to counter Western accusations of genocide.”
Reported by Mihray Abdilim and Alim Seytoff for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.