Published:  03:40 AM, 30 June 2020

China forces birth control on Uighurs to suppress population

China forces birth control on Uighurs to suppress population In this Monday, Dec 3, 2018, file photo, a guard tower and barbed wire fence surround a detention facility in the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China's Xinjiang region. -AP

The Chinese government is taking draconian measures to slash birth rates among Uighurs and other minorities as part of a sweeping campaign to curb its Muslim population, even as it encourages some of the country's Han majority to have more children.

While individual women have spoken out before about forced birth control, the practice is far more widespread and systematic than previously known, according to an AP investigation based on government statistics, state documents and interviews with 30 ex-detainees, family members and a former detention camp instructor.

The campaign over the past four years in the far west region of Xinjiang is leading to what some experts are calling a form of "demographic genocide."

The state regularly subjects minority women to pregnancy checks, and forces intrauterine devices, sterilization and even abortion on hundreds of thousands, the interviews and data show. Even while the use of IUDs and sterilization has fallen nationwide, it is rising sharply in Xinjiang.

The population control measures are backed by mass detention both as a threat and as a punishment for failure to comply. Having too many children is a major reason people are sent to detention camps, the AP found, with the parents of three or more ripped away from their families unless they can pay huge fines. Police raid homes, terrifying parents as they search for hidden children.

After Gulnar Omirzakh, a Chinese-born Kazakh, had her third child, the government ordered her to get an IUD inserted. Two years later, in January 2018, four officials in military camouflage came knocking at her door anyway. They gave Omirzakh, the penniless wife of a detained vegetable trader, three days to pay a $2,685 fine for having more than two children.

If she didn't, they warned, she would join her husband and a million other ethnic minorities locked up in internment camps - often for having too many children."God bequeaths children on you. To prevent people from having children is wrong," said Omirzakh, who tears up even now thinking back to that day. "They want to destroy us as a people."

The result of the birth control campaign is a climate of terror around having children, as seen in interview after interview. Birth rates in the mostly Uighur regions of Hotan and Kashgar plunged by more than 60% from 2015 to 2018, the latest year available in government statistics. Across the Xinjiang region, birth rates continue to plummet, falling nearly 24% last year alone - compared to just 4.2% nationwide, statistics show.

The hundreds of millions of dollars the government pours into birth control has transformed Xinjiang from one of China's fastest-growing regions to among its slowest in just a few years, according to new research obtained by The Associated Press in advance of publication by China scholar Adrian Zenz.

"This kind of drop is unprecedented....there's a ruthlessness to it," said Zenz, a leading expert in the policing of China's minority regions. "This is part of a wider control campaign to subjugate the Uighurs."

China's foreign ministry called the story "fabricated" and "fake news," saying the government treats all ethnicities equally and protects the legal rights of minorities.

"Everyone, regardless of whether they're an ethnic minority or Han Chinese, must follow and act in accordance with the law," ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday when asked about the AP story.Chinese officials have said in the past that the new measures are merely meant to be fair, allowing both Han Chinese and ethnic minorities the same number of children.

For decades, China had one of the most extensive systems of minority entitlements in the world, with Uighurs and others getting more points on college entrance exams, hiring quotas for government posts and laxer birth control restrictions.

Under China's now-abandoned 'one child' policy, the authorities had long encouraged, often forced, contraceptives, sterilization and abortion on Han Chinese. But minorities were allowed two children - three if they came from the countryside.

Under President Xi Jinping, China's most authoritarian leader in decades, those benefits are now being rolled back. In 2014, soon after Xi visited Xinjiang, the region's top official said it was time to implement "equal family planning policies" for all ethnicities and "reduce and stabilize birth rates." In the following years, the government declared that instead of just one child, Han Chinese could now have two, and three in Xinjiang's rural areas, just like minorities.

But while equal on paper, in practice Han Chinese are largely spared the abortions, sterilizations, IUD insertions and detentions for having too many children that are forced on Xinjiang's other ethnicities, interviews and data show. Some rural Muslims, like Omirzakh, are punished even for having the three children allowed by the law.

State-backed scholars have warned for years that large rural religious families were at the root of bombings, knifings and other attacks the Xinjiang government blamed on Islamic terrorists.

The growing Muslim population was a breeding ground for poverty and extremism, "heightening political risk," according to a 2017 paper by the head of the Institute of Sociology at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences. Another cited as a key obstacle the religious belief that "the fetus is a gift from God."

Outside experts say the birth control campaign is part of a state-orchestrated assault on the Uighurs to purge them of their faith and identity and forcibly assimilate them.

They're subjected to political and religious re-education in camps and forced labor in factories, while their children are indoctrinated in orphanages. Uighurs, who are often but not always Muslim, are also tracked by a vast digital surveillance apparatus.

"The intention may not be to fully eliminate the Uighur population, but it will sharply diminish their vitality," said Darren Byler, an expert on Uighurs at the University of Colorado. "It will make them easier to assimilate into the mainstream Chinese population."

Some go a step further."It's genocide, full stop. It's not immediate, shocking, mass-killing on the spot type genocide, but it's slow, painful, creeping genocide," said Joanne Smith Finley, who works at Newcastle University in the U.K. "These are direct means of genetically reducing the Uighur population."

For centuries, the majority was Muslim in the arid, landlocked region China now calls "Xinjiang" - meaning "New Frontier" in Mandarin.After the People's Liberation Army swept through in 1949, China's new Communist rulers ordered thousands of soldiers to settle in Xinjiang, pushing the Han population from 6.7% that year to more than 40% by 1980.

The move sowed anxiety about Chinese migration that persists to this day. Drastic efforts to restrict birth rates in the 1990s were relaxed after major pushback, with many parents paying bribes or registering children as the offspring of friends or other family members.

That all changed with an unprecedented crackdown starting in 2017, throwing hundreds of thousands of people into prisons and camps for alleged "signs of religious extremism" such as traveling abroad, praying or using foreign social media. Authorities launched what several notices called "dragnet-style" investigations to root out parents with too many children, even those who gave birth decades ago.

"Leave no blind spots," said two county and township directives in 2018 and 2019 uncovered by Zenz, who is also an independent contractor with the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a bipartisan nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. "Contain illegal births and lower fertility levels," said a third.

Officials and armed police began pounding on doors, looking for kids and pregnant women. Minority residents were ordered to attend weekly flag-raising ceremonies, where officials threatened detention if they didn't register all their children, according to interviews backed by attendance slips and booklets. Notices found by the AP show that local governments set up or expanded systems to reward those who report illegal births.

In some areas, women were ordered to take gynecology exams after the ceremonies, they said. In others, officials outfitted special rooms with ultrasound scanners for pregnancy tests."Test all who need to be tested," ordered a township directive Zenz found from 2018. "Detect and deal with those who violate policies early."

Abdushukur Umar was among the first to fall victim to the crackdown on children. A jovial Uighur tractor driver-turned-fruit merchant, the proud father considered his seven children a blessing from God.But authorities began pursuing him in 2016. The following year, he was thrown into a camp and later sentenced to seven years in prison - one for each child, authorities told relatives.

"My cousin spent all his time taking care of his family, he never took part in any political movements," Zuhra Sultan, Umar's cousin, said from exile in Turkey. "How can you get seven years in prison for having too many children? We're living in the 21st century - this is unimaginable."

Fifteen Uighurs and Kazakhs told the AP they knew people interned or jailed for having too many children. Many received years, even decades in prison.

Leaked data obtained and corroborated by the AP showed that of 484 camp detainees listed in Karakax county in Xinjiang, 149 were there for having too many children - the most common reason for holding them.

Time in a camp - what the government calls "education and training" - for parents with too many children is written policy in at least three counties, notices found by Zenz confirmed.

In 2017, the Xinjiang government also tripled the already hefty fines for violating family planning laws for even the poorest residents - to at least three times the annual disposable income of the county.

While fines also apply to Han Chinese, only minorities are sent to the detention camps if they cannot pay, according to interviews and data. Government reports show the counties collect millions of dollars from the fines each year.


---AP




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