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China targets Muslim women in push to suppress births in Xinjiang

Qelbinur Sedik in Utrecht, the Netherlands, where she now lives, pictured in 2020. Sedik, an ethnic Uzbek, fled China in 2019.
Qelbinur Sedik in Utrecht, the Netherlands, where she now lives, pictured in 2020. Sedik, an ethnic Uzbek, fled China in 2019.ILVY NJIOKIKTJIEN/NYT

When the government ordered women in her mostly Muslim community to be fitted with contraceptive devices, Qelbinur Sedik pleaded for an exemption. She was nearly 50 years old, she told officials in Xinjiang. She had obeyed the government’s birth limits and had only one child.

It was no use. The workers threatened to take her to the police if she continued resisting, she said. She gave in and went to a government clinic where a doctor, using metal forceps, inserted an intrauterine device to prevent pregnancy. She wept through the procedure.

“I felt like I was no longer a normal woman,” Sedik said, choking up as she described the 2017 ordeal. “Like I was missing something.”

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Across much of China, authorities are encouraging women to have more children, as they try to stave off a demographic crisis from a declining birthrate. But in the far western region of Xinjiang, they are forcing them to have fewer, as they tighten their grip on Muslim ethnic minorities.

It is part of a vast and repressive social reengineering campaign by a Communist Party determined to eliminate any perceived challenge to its rule, in this case, ethnic separatism. Over the past few years, the party, under its top leader, Xi Jinping, has moved aggressively to subdue Uyghurs and other Central Asian minorities in Xinjiang, putting hundreds of thousands into internment camps and prisons. Authorities have placed the region under tight surveillance, sent residents to work in factories, and placed children in boarding schools.

By targeting Muslim women, the authorities are going even further, attempting to orchestrate a demographic shift that will affect the population for generations. Birthrates in the region have already plunged in recent years, as the use of invasive birth control procedures has risen, findings that were previously documented by a researcher, Adrian Zenz, with The Associated Press.

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While authorities have said the procedures are voluntary, interviews with more than a dozen Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim women and men from Xinjiang, as well as a review of official statistics, government notices and reports in the state-run media, depict a coercive effort by the Chinese Communist Party to control the community’s reproductive rights. Authorities pressured women to use IUDs or get sterilized. As they recuperated at home, government officials were sent to live with them to watch for signs of discontent. One woman described having to endure her minder’s groping.

If they had too many children or refused contraceptive procedures, they faced steep fines or, worse, detention in an internment camp. In the camps, the women were at risk of even more abuse. Some former detainees say they were made to take drugs that stopped their menstrual cycles. One woman said she had been raped in a camp.

To rights advocates and Western officials, the government’s repression in Xinjiang is tantamount to crimes against humanity and genocide, in large part because of the efforts to stem the population growth of Muslim minorities. The Trump administration in January was the first government to declare the crackdown a genocide, with reproductive oppression as a leading reason. The Biden administration affirmed the label in March.

Sedik’s experience, reported in The Guardian and elsewhere, helped form the basis for the decision by the US government. “It was one of the most detailed and compelling first-person accounts we had,” said Kelley E. Currie, a former US ambassador who was involved in the government’s discussions. “It helped to put a face on the horrifying statistics we were seeing.”

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Beijing has accused its critics of pushing an anti-China agenda.

The recent declines in the region’s birthrates, the government has said, were the result of authorities fully enforcing long-standing birth restrictions. The sterilizations and contraceptive procedures, it said, freed women from backward attitudes about procreation and religion.

“Whether to have birth control or what contraceptive method they choose are completely their own wishes,” Xu Guixiang, a Xinjiang government spokesman, said at a news conference in March. “No one nor any agency shall interfere.”

The campaign in Xinjiang is at odds with a broader push by the government since 2015 to encourage births, including by providing tax subsidies and free IUD removals. But from 2015 to 2018, Xinjiang’s share of the country’s total new IUD insertions increased, even as use of the devices fell nationwide.

The contraception campaign appeared to work.

Birthrates in minority-dominated counties in the region plummeted from 2015 to 2018, based on Zenz’s calculations. Several of these counties have stopped publishing population data, but Zenz calculated that the birthrates in minority areas probably continued to fall in 2019 by just over 50 percent from 2018, based on figures from other counties.

The sharp drop in birthrates in the region was “shocking” and clearly in part a result of the campaign to tighten enforcement of birth control policies, said Wang Feng, a professor of sociology and an expert in Chinese population policies at the University of California, Irvine. But other factors could include a fall in the number of women of childbearing age, later marriages, and postponed births, he said.

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As the government pushes back against growing criticism, it has withheld some key statistics, including annually published county-level data on birthrates and birth control use for 2019. Other official data for the region as a whole showed a steep drop in IUD insertions and sterilizations that year, though the number of sterilizations was still mostly higher than before the campaign began.