According to the China Statistical Yearbook 2020, compiled by the National Bureau of Statistics, the birthrate in Xinjiang last year was only 8.14 births per 1,000 people.
That is little more than half the figure for 2017, when the birthrate was 15.88 births per 1,000 people.
Xinjiang’s natural population growth rate – which accounts for deaths as well as births – declined even more precipitously over the same period, from 11.4 per 1,000 in 2017 to 3.69 per 1,000 in 2019. That is a decline of more than 67%.
China’s birthrate is falling across the country for a variety of reasons, but Xinjiang’s decline is much greater than the national average. And there are signs that the decline was even more dramatic in some areas of Xinjiang, especially the south where Uyghurs are concentrated.
For example, in Hotan prefecture, where the Uyghurs make up about 97% of the population, the birthrate was 8.58 per 1,000 people in 2018. Before 2017, it was more than 20 births per 1,000 people.
Chinese authorities attribute the decline to strict implementation of family planning policies with punishment for violations.
Under China’s one-child policy for Han Chinese, which was completely abolished in 2016, Uyghurs and some other ethnic minorities were allowed to have larger families. Current regulations in Xinjiang restrict urban families to two children and agrarian families to three.
Those who have more children are required to pay a fee of three-to-eight times local per capita income of the preceding year.
While the law is now the same across China, it may be more onerous for Uyghurs who are accustomed to have larger families, a pattern that may have made authorities uneasy.
“It appears Chinese authorities had been concerned for some time about the relatively high growth of the ethnic minority population in relation to that of the Han population, even though the ethnic minority population still only makes up less than 9% of the PRC total population as a whole,” said professor Joanne Smith Finley, a China expert at Britain’s Newcastle University.
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Finley said the ruling Communist Party is also concerned about continuing reluctance among young Han professional couples to have a second child.
“While the CCP is increasingly keen for more couples to have a second child to reverse the decline in the size of China’s labor force and to redress the gender imbalance, it wants more Han children rather than ethnic minority children to shore up the Han-majoritarian state,” Finley said.
China has built a vast system of reeducation camps targeting ethnic Uyghurs, which the United States and other countries have said amount to an act of genocide. Outside rights groups estimate more than a million people have been detained in them.
While China insists the camps provide education and training aimed at lifting people out of poverty, Finley is one of many observers who describe them as punitive internment camps.
“The knowledge that upwards of 1 million Uyghurs and other [ethnic minorities] are interned in these camps, in many cases because of bearing too many children, serves as a powerful disincentive to either have more children or to resist the state’s coercive birth control policies,” she said.
“We have stacks of evidence that show couples exceeding birth limits are subject to incarceration, mainly in the form of ‘reeducation,’” said Tim Grose, associate professor of China Studies at Indiana’s Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
While China’s official yearbook attributes declining birthrates to a cultural shift away from marriage and family, Ilshat Hassan Kokbor of the Uyghur American Association offers a simpler explanation — forced sterilizations and abortions by the Chinese government.
According to an Associated Press investigation based on government statistics, state documents and interviews with 30 ex-detainees, family members and a former detention camp instructor, the state regularly subjects minority women to pregnancy checks, and forces intrauterine devices, sterilization and even abortion on hundreds of thousands of detainees, leading to what some experts call a campaign of “demographic genocide.”