China’s abusive treatment of its Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province is, by now, an open secret. Human rights groups estimate that up to one million Uyghur people have been detained over the past decade in what the Chinese state calls “re-education” camps. A new study now provides the most compelling evidence that China is actively seeking to control and reduce the population of Uyghurs and replace them with Han Chinese.
Dr. Adrian Zenz, a German anthropologist and one of the world’s foremost experts on the topic of Xinjiang internment camps, is the lead author of the new study, which found China is employing cruel population control policies and tactics, such as enforced birth control, forced displacements, and re-education camps. These measures could see between 2.6 and 4.5 million fewer Uyghurs being born by the year 2040. Zenz goes as far as stating that these ethnic cleansing policies could be classed as genocide under the 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention.
Who are the Uyghurs?
The Uyghur are Turkic-speaking people who live for the most part in northwestern China, in Xinjiang, which is officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
The first mention of these Central Asian people in Chinese records dates from the 3rd century CE. In the 8th century, they even established their own kingdom along the Orhan River and what is now Mongolia.
Today, the Uyghur people, which are Sunni Muslims, number around ten million in Xinjiang, around half of the region's population. However, Uyghur used to constitute a larger proportion of Xinjiang's population until a large number of Han (ethnic Chinese) began moving into the autonomous region. This migration began in the 1950s and became especially pronounced after 1990. By the late 20th century, Han Chinese constituted two-fifths of Xinjiang's population.
Over time, tensions between the two ethnic groups grew, resulting in protests and culminating in an outbreak of violence in 2009, in which 200 people were killed and some 1,700 were injured. In response, Chinese authorities have cracked down on Uyghurs suspected of being dissidents and separatists.
However, human rights groups have accused China's government of using its security crackdown as an excuse to launch an ethnic cleansing campaign meant to turn Xinjiang into a Han-majority region. Up to one million Uyghurs are reportedly detained in "political training centers", which have been likened to the gruesome re-education camps from the bloody Mao Zedong era. China also installed an extensive state surveillance programme with cameras, checkpoints, and constant police patrols in Uyghur-dominated areas.
According to Human Rights Watch, people's behavior is monitored with a mobile app, such as how much electricity they are using and how often they use their front door.
Forced labor and mass sterilization, part of China's strategy to revamp Xinjiang's ethnic makeup
Satellite imagery suggests that factories have been used within the grounds of the heavily fortified internment camps. Xinjiang produces about a fifth of the world's cotton, and human rights groups have accused China of using forced labor in the camps to produce much of this cotton.
Many Western brands have removed Xinjiang cotton from their supply chains in 2021. In response, China blocked the online shops and greatly hindered sales for H&M, Nike, Burberry, Adidas, Converse, and other brands that announced they would no longer source their cotton from Xinjiang.
In a new study published today in the journal Central Asian Survey, Zenz compiled the most important evidence to this date concerning Uyghur abuse at the hand of Chinese authorities, concluding that China is on a campaign to depopulate Xinjiang of Uyghurs.
According to Zenz, Beijing is “attaching great importance to the problem of Xinjiang’s population structure and population security,” which it intends to 'optimize' with instructions on how to proceed coming from the very top of the central government.
After analyzing a trove of publicly available documents, the researcher documented a state-run scheme meant to forcibly uproot, assimilate, and reduce the population of Uyghur people. These efforts have ramped up starting since 2017, resulting in mass internment for 'political re-education', but also systematic birth control, mass sterilization, and forced displacement.
In a previous 2020 study, Zenz revealed that Xinjiang authorities are administering drugs and injections to Uyghur women in detention, implanting intrauterine contraceptive devices, and coercing women to accept surgical sterilization.
As a result, population growth rates have fallen nearly 85% in the two largest Uyghur prefectures between 2015 and 2018. Meanwhile, the birth rate in Han-majority counties declined by only 20%.
Zenz estimates that the birth control measures could result in a potential loss to the Uyghur population of between 2.6 and 4.5 million by 2040.
“My study reveals the presence of a long-term strategy by Beijing to solve the Xinjiang “problem” through “optimization” of the ethnic population structure,” Zenz said in a statement. “The most realistic method to achieve this involves a drastic suppression of ethnic minority birth rates for the coming decades, resulting in a potential loss of several million lives. A smaller ethnic minority population will also be easier to police, control and assimilate.”
The 1948 U.N. Genocide Convention defines genocide as "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group," and Zenz says that this optimization campaign could fall under this definition.
Initially, China denied the existence of internment camps in the Xinjiang region. After the evidence was undeniable, Chinese authorities defended their existence as a necessary measure against terrorism and separatist violence. China has dismissed claims it is trying to reduce the Uyghur population through mass sterilizations as "baseless", and says allegations of forced labor are "completely fabricated".
“The most concerning aspect of this strategy is that ethnic minority citizens are framed as a “problem”. This language is akin to purported statements by Xinjiang officials that problem populations are like “weeds hidden among the crops” where the state will “need to spray chemicals to kill them all. Such a framing of an entire ethnic group is highly concerning,” Zenz said.