On Jan. 19, one day before Mike Pompeo, secretary of state in the Donald Trump administration, left office, he abruptly claimed that China’s policy regarding a domestic ethnic minority amounted to genocide. Some others followed suit and lashed out at China despite their lack of knowledge on the issue. Some even attempted to stoke the fire of sanctions against China.
Nevertheless, if a foreigner were to visit China and ask any random person on the street, chances are that all will dismiss the allegation as absurd.
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, defined genocide as acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. In no way does China’s policy in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region meet the definition — not even close.
First, the family planning policy of China is neither a novelty nor a policy that targets a particular group. China’s population steeply increased after 1949 for several reasons, starting with the government policy to encourage childbirth to recover from the fallout of the Chinese civil war. More manpower was needed for national renewal.
Second was that any typical agrarian society, as China was back in those days, preferred a large cohort of offspring, in particular boys because males are better at heavier tasks. As a result, China’s population grew from 542 million in 1949 to 647 million in 1957, a net growth of 105 million over the course of eight years.
In 1974, the Chinese population topped 900 million, which prompted the National People’s Congress to pass a resolution setting up the State Family Planning Commission in 1981. In the following year, family planning was enshrined in China’s Constitution as a basic state policy, and family sizes were subsequently limited.
Obviously, the policy does not target any ethnic group. In fact, local governments will loosen and calibrate the family planning policy for ethnic minority groups. For instance, while a couple of Han ethnicity living in an urban area of Xinjiang could have one child, a couple of Uygur ethnicity (or other ethnic minorities) can have at least two children. If a Han couple lives in rural Xinjiang, they could have two children, and an ethnic minority couple could have at least three.
As a matter of fact, the family planning policy is more relaxed than that. During the author’s visit to a southern rural area of Xinjiang, it was a common to find the policy relaxed even further. Couples often raise four or more children. This is inconceivable in other parts of China.
Second, the population growth trajectory of the Uygur ethnic group shows the region can by no means be associated with genocide. The census suggests that the Uygur population grew from 3.7 million when the region was established in 1955 to 11.3 million in 2015, doubling in just six decades — approximately the same natural growth rate as other ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang.
As of 2018, the Uygur population reached 12.7 million, of which 2.5 million sprouted up between 2010 and 2018. Of course, under-reported births in breach of the family planning policy and changes in calculation methods are at play in these data, and so population growth varied from year to year. There are other factors that may have affected population growth as well. For example, people may migrate to other provinces for employment or they may have gained greater awareness of contraception.
In short, people’s mindset about reproduction changes over time. A rule of thumb is that more developed societies are generally accompanied by a diminished desire to raise more children. Nonetheless, the Uygur population in Xinjiang continues to expand rapidly. How then could genocide take place?
Last, it is true that the family planning policy is not free from controversy, but it is an important policy in China’s drive of catch-up growth, so to speak. The author has discussed the policy with some foreign religion research fellows, who argued that human intervention is beyond the comprehension of religious people for whom giving birth is seen as God’s will for mankind. But the policy represents an important step by China — a country in the grip of prolonged weakness and with limited resources to sustain human development —in its effort to balance population growth with preservation of the environment and natural resources.
As we speak now, China has passed its birth peak as a result of mindset changes and the availability of birth control measures. Since 2014, the government has relaxed the policy and encouraged more childbirth.
The so-called genocide claim lays bare the prejudice and utter lack of knowledge regarding China’s family planning policy and Xinjiang’s affairs. For most Chinese people, the policy is part of family memory, and an integral part of our social fabric. Any attempt to stir up confusion and smear China is at least patronizing and at worst a self-righteous act of arrogance.