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A Demographic Snapshot of Xinjiang


Author: Björn Alpermann

6 March 2024

 

The demographics of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are an area of considerable controversy. While the Chinese government highlights the growth of its minority populations, international researchers have been concerned about forced sterilization campaigns among its minoritized ethnic groups (https://jamestown.org/product/sterilizations-iuds-and-mandatory-birth-control-the-ccps-campaign-to-suppress-uyghur-birthrates-in-xinjiang/) and population exchange through settling more Han in the region (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02634937.2021.1946483).

What do Chinese official statistics tell us about the current situation?


The headline figures


Little noticed by the public until now, data from the late 2020 census show that the Han Chinese population in the XUAR has increased by a quarter in gross terms within a decade. This indicates state-controlled Han immigration. In comparison, the increase in the Uyghur population has been much smaller. This is due to stricter enforcement of birth restrictions on Uyghur women as well as the mass incarceration of young men (and women). Indirectly, the chilling effect of the harsh political climate and heightened cultural assimilation will also have contributed to falling birth rates among minorities. The Chinese government attempts to mask this in its official pronouncements.


Let’s take a more detailed look: The XUAR's first statistical communiqué on the 7th National Census of 2020 (https://www.chinanews.com.cn/gn/2021/06-14/9499365.shtml) puts the region's total population at 25.852 million (an increase of 4.039 million since 2010, or 18.52% more than in 2010). The Han Chinese population is put at 10.92 million, an increase of 2.174 million since 2010. Close to two million (1.948 million to be precise) of these are newcomers who migrated from outside the XUAR according to this source. The Uyghur population is put at 11.624 million, an increase of 1.623 million. The respective shares of the total XUAR population are given as 42.24% (Han) and 44.96% (Uyg.). Unfortunately, this source does not provide a breakdown of other ethnic groups (numbering 3.3 million or 12.80% of the total regional population). What is NOT directly stated: According to the above data, the gross increase in the Han Chinese population from 2010 to 2020 is 24.86% -- i.e., 8.63 percentage points above that of the Uyghur population (which increased by only 16.23%). As I will show below, this is primarily due to immigration of Han and lower birth rates (especially of minorities).




Author’s graph based on XUAR's first statistical communiqué on the 7th National Census of 2020 (https://www.chinanews.com.cn/gn/2021/06-14/9499365.shtml).



Drop in birth rates


This divergence of growth dynamics is covered up in the State Council Information Office's September 2021 white paper on Xinjiang Population Dynamics and Data (http://download.china.cn/en/doc/20210926FullText.docx). There is no explicit information on the Han population there. Instead, it emphasizes how high the growth rates of the Uyghur population are. Yet, according to official data, the growth rate of the Uyghur population has declined in the last decade compared to the decade before: Comparing the census data of 2000 and 2010, there was an increase of 19.8% (against only 16.2% increase in the following decade, see above). This lower population growth rate comparing the first and second decades of the 21st century can be explained by the drastic drop in the annual birth rate for the entire XUAR population. This annual birth rate (calculated in permille to the entire population) fell from 15.88 per thousand (2017) to 8.14 per thousand (2019) – almost a halving within two years according to the Xinjiang Statistical Yearbook 2019 (published in 2020, Table 3-2). Unfortunately, the same yearbook published in 2021 does not report an annual birth rate figure for 2020 as should be expected. Figures contained in the Annual Statistical Bulletins published by the XUAR Statistical Bureau show a further drop to 6.16 per thousand in 2021 and 6.53 per thousand in 2022; http://www.tjcn.org/tjgb/31xj/37442.html).


To put this in context, Figure 2 below contrasts this steep drop in Xinjiang’s birth rate with the development of birth rates in autonomous regions and provinces with large non-Han populations [Data for 2020 missing]. As can be seen, the XUAR annual birth rate was one of the highest nationwide in 2017 (at 15.88 permille) and fell below the national average (10.94 permille) already in 2018 (at 10.69 permille). This national average figure is broadly representative of the majority Han Chinese demographic trend. Subsequently, the Xinjiang annual birth rate went further downhill and displayed a growing gap to the national average, as seen in Figure 2. It only slightly recovered in 2022 but is still below the national average. None of the other regions and provinces shows anything like this rapid decrease, all have more modest declines in birth rates. The contrast between Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and XUAR is particularly striking, since both start out at virtually identical levels of birth rates in 2017 (16.00 permille and 15.88 permille respectively). But in 2022 the two regions show a gap of 7.71 permille points (14.24 permille in TAR versus 6.53 permille in XUAR). These figures provide further indications that the wave of repression in the late 2010s in Xinjiang coupled with specific measures to reduce birth rates left direct marks in the region’s demographics.






Shifts in ethnic composition


On top of once-in-a-decade censuses, local authorities also report official statistics continuously based on the population registration system. Absolute figures of this reporting system cannot be directly compared with the census due to methodological differences in the survey. Nevertheless, the trends over time can be compared for corroboration. The data from the registration system show that the Han Chinese population of XUAR initially increased from 2010 to 2015, but slightly decreased again in 2016, 2017, and 2018 (i.e., the period in which security measures in the region were massively tightened) https://doi.org/10.25972/WUP-978-3-95826-163-1 pp.68-71 and pp.190-198). In numbers: Taking the 2010 value as 100, the index was 103 in 2015 but fell to only 94 in 2018. This means that most of the increase in the comparison of the 2010 and 2020 Census data actually occurred only toward the end of this decade, namely in 2019 and 2020. Thus, the increase in Han Chinese population would be even much faster than the comparison of the census data ten years apart suggests, since it ensued in a much shorter period of time.


All of the above data refer to the “permanent resident population” (常住人口). In the census definition, this includes people who have moved in but have not changed their permanent residence (户口), provided their duration of residence exceeds six months at the time of the survey (PLA dependents are not included). The number of short-term migrants from outside the XUAR is reported in the above-mentioned white paper as 3.39 million. It can be assumed that these are almost exclusively Han. If these are added to the permanent population (total pop. 29.24 million), the Han share is 48.9 % (14.31 million), while the share of the Uyghur population (still 11.62 million) drops to 39.7 %.




Author’s graph based on State Council Information Office (Sept. 2021), Xinjiang Population Dynamics and Data http://zw.china-embassy.gov.cn/eng/zgjj/202112/t20211216_10470540.htm; 新疆维吾尔族自治区第七人口普查公报(第一号)全区人口情况 https://www.chinanews.com.cn/gn/2021/06-14/9499365.shtml.

Note: For 2020 (B) the number of short-term migrants has been added to the category “Han”, whereas the figures for 2010 and 2020 (A) only include “permanent resident population”.



Conclusion


To conclude, the last decade has seen a rapid increase in the Han Chinese population in the XUAR mainly through inmigration, while the growth of the Uyghur population has been contained. Neither has come about naturally (alone) but has been spurred by policies adopted starting in 2017. Here, the effects of “optimizing the population” (= increasing the Han proportion through state-led migration), which Chinese scholars have been advocating for “security reasons” for several years,[1] become apparent. Several policies combine to limit the Uyghur population growth: two direct factors are mass incarceration and harsher implementation of family planning than before. But on top of that several indirect factors also seem to play a role: an increase in economic hardship through job market discrimination and severe limitations on mobility, and the planned separation of children and parents as well as of social communities and networks through boarding school facilities, whole-day school, whole-day work etc. An exact evaluation of the importance of each of these factors remains a desideratum for future studies. However, irrespective of the exact mix of driving forces, it is clear that the Uyghur population is thus increasingly minoritized within XUAR.


Finally, it is worth pointing out that all the figures cited above come from official Chinese sources and are therefore not a “fabrication” of “China-hostile forces” as is often claimed.


[1] Li, Xiaoxia 李晓霞 (2017) 新疆的人口问题及人口政策分析 (Analysis of Xinjiang’s Population Problems and Population Policies). 中共社会主义学院学报 (Journal of Central Institute of Socialism), 2(206), 68–78; Li, Weichao 李为超 und Wang Lijuan 王立娟 (2020) 兵团发挥优化人口资源特殊作用问题研究 (A Discussion on Playing the Special Role of the XPCC in Optimizing the Population Resources). 西北人口 (Northwest Population), 41(191), 116–126.


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