A Uyghur instructor stands near a window during a class at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute
China is pursuing a “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, says a report based on official Chinese documents and academic debate.
The new report by German researcher Adrian Zenz is the latest of a series of studies of Chinese measures to control and assimilate the 12 million Uyghurs of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) that have formed the basis of genocide accusations against Beijing laid by several Western governments and legislatures, including the United States.
It comes two months after Zenz published a report on China’s efforts to reduce population growth in the XUAR thorough birth control and population transfer policies that could result in a large drop in births among Uyghurs of 2.6 million to 4.5 million by 2040, based on population projections by Chinese researchers.
In “‘End the Dominance of the Uyghur Ethnic Group’: An Analysis of Beijing’s Population Optimization Strategy in Southern Xinjiang,” published Aug. 24 in the academic journal Central Asian Survey, Zenz explores the academic and official debate in China over how to dilute the Uyghur population in southern Xinjiang.
Officials and academics describe the population share of Han Chinese, the China’s national majority ethnic group, of 56 percent in northern Xinjiang as reasonable, while a Han population in southern Xinjiang of only eight percent is seen as a security concern, Zenz wrote in the 22-page report.
“Therefore, increasing the Han population is seen as the number-one method to control southern Xinjiang and suppress the unrest that could be created by Uyghurs in resistance,” Zenz told RFA in an interview.
“So you have to dilute the Uyghur population and to do that you have to limit Uyghur population growth while also trying to bring in large numbers of Han, and you cannot just have a highly increased population in southern Xinjiang, because there’s only so much water, so much arable land, so many resources,” he said.
‘Easier to police’
Xinjiang is divided into distinct northern and southern halves by the Tianshan mountain range, with the capital Urumqi and the region’s industrial base in the north, where most Han Chinese live, and Uyghurs living more traditional lives in the southern half of the XUAR, which is the size of Alaska or Iran.
China’s policies are “designed to achieve assimilation [by] trying to neutralize, assimilate, and dilute the Uyghur population,” added Zenz. “It’s also a way to promote intermarriage, interethnic marriage, which is another way to dilute the Uyghurs,” said a senior fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C.
“If you mix a lot of Han into a Uyghur community, that community changes. You can also justify a change in policy, so that you no longer need to respect the minority language or religion because it’s no longer mono-ethnic, [but rather] multiethnic,” he said.
China has continually demolished mosques; imprisoned Uyghur intellectuals, artists and business leaders; replaced Uyghur with Chinese as the main language in schools; and built a pervasive and intrusive surveillance system to monitor Uyghurs’ moves, previous RFA reports have documented.
“Involuntary birth prevention measures could result in a loss of several million lives. A smaller ethnic minority population will also be easier to police, control and assimilate,” Zenz’s report says.
“Arguably, the strategy to optimize the population gives us a clear understanding of the government’s long-term intent regarding southern Xinjiang’s ethnic minority populations,” he wrote.
Zenz concludes that China’s plans to reduce the ethnic minority population could constitute crimes under 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which holds that imposing measures intended to prevent births within a group constitutes an act of genocide when “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.”
“Population ‘optimization’ discourses and related policies provide a basis to assess Beijing’s ‘intent’ to destroy an ethnic minority population in part through birth prevention per the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention,” says the paper’s abstract.
‘Optimization’ talk raises alarms
“The ‘destruction in part’ can be assessed as the difference between projected natural population growth without substantial government interference and reduced growth scenarios in line with population ‘optimization’ requirements,” the report says.
Zenz has been vilified in state media for his research, and in March he was one of 10 European individuals and four entities hit with travel and other sanctions by China in response to European Union penalties imposes on XUAR officials for abuses of Uyghurs.
In 2018, Zenz’s research found that up to one million Uyghurs were being held in internment camps in the XUAR, an accusation that Chinese officials at first denied, but later acknowledged, calling them vocational training centers designed to combat religious extremism.
In June 2020, Zenz documented the forced sterilization of detained Uyghur women, with authorities imposing surgery, giving them medication that affected reproductive cycles, or implanting intrauterine devices (IUDs).
Uyghur groups welcomed the new report, which comes weeks before the Sept. 10-13 second round of hearings in London known as the “Uyghur Tribunal” investigating whether China’s treatment of its ethnic Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims constitutes genocide.
In June, more than 30 witnesses and experts provided testimony at the first round of the tribunal about enforced disappearances, the compulsory sterilization of women and forced contraception, organ harvesting, and torture by Chinese authorities in the XUAR. The tribunal has no state backing or powers of sanction or enforcement.
‘Eugenic and genocidal intent’
Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, said the report “reveals China’s intention to target and reduce the Uyghur population.”
“Although China has been rejecting the findings and reports of international media, think tanks and research organizations for exposing the ongoing Uyghur genocide, this report further bolsters the fact that China is in fact committing genocide,” he said, calling on the international community to act without delay to stop it.
Yonas Diamond, legal counsel at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montreal, said Zenz has delivered “crucial findings” about how Beijing adopts and implements policies against Uyghurs, particularly in southern Xinjiang, where they make up the majority of the population.
“This just adds to already the mountain of evidence that we have demonstrating the way the Chinese government targets the destructive campaign against the Uyghur sand other Muslims in the region,” he told RFA.
“You really know that when these researchers and government policies are targeting southern Xinjiang, it’s really about targeting the Uyghur population, and that’s important because now we have more evidence of the genocidal language baked into the policy that is obscured behind technical language,” Diamond said.
“But really what’s there is eugenic and genocidal intent.”