Beijing Plans a Slow Genocide in Xinjiang

By , a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, and , an attorney specializing in international criminal law and reparations.


In January, the U.S. government determined China’s actions in its northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region constituted genocide against its Uyghur ethnic minority population. Four other national parliaments have since followed suit. These determinations were mainly based on evidence of systematic suppression of births, since the United Nations’ 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide stipulates the act of “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group” constitutes an act of genocide if it is “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

Some legal experts have questioned whether Beijing’s atrocities against the Uyghurs meet the high threshold for a genocide determination. To date, evidence that Beijing’s campaign of preventing births is intended to destroy the Uyghur people at least substantially “in part” has remained somewhat inconclusive. Even though an intent to commit genocide can be inferred from a pattern of conduct, this is more complicated in the absence of mass murder. What is the Chinese government’s long-term intent behind sterilizing large numbers of Uyghur women?

The answers to these important questions can be found in the words of Chinese officials themselves. In an upcoming peer-reviewed publication in Central Asian Survey (available in preprint here), Adrian Zenz, a co-author of this piece, presents comprehensive and compelling new evidence based on published statements and reports from Chinese academics and officials. Their core message is straightforward: The Uyghur population as such is a threat that endangers China’s national security. Its size, concentration, and rapid growth constitute national security risks that must be mitigated if the region’s “terrorism” problem is to be solved.

Beijing has begun suppressing Uyghur birth rates to “optimize” ethnic population ratios for counterterrorism purposes. In southern Xinjiang alone, where Uyghurs are concentrated, this would reduce population growth by preventing between 2.6 and 4.5 million births by 2040, likely shrinking the number of Uyghurs as a whole.

Liao Zhaoyu, dean of the Institute of Frontier History and Geography at Xinjiang’s Tarim University, has argued the region’s terrorism problem is a direct result of high Uyghur population concentrations in southern Xinjiang. Due to a recent exodus of Han, “the imbalance of the ethnic minority and Han population composition in southern Xinjiang has reached an unbelievably serious degree.” Liao argues southern Xinjiang must “change the population structure and layout [to] end the dominance of the Uyghur ethnic group.”

Xinjiang’s most high-profile voice on this highly sensitive subject is Liu Yilei, deputy secretary-general of the party committee of Xinjiang’s Production and Construction Corps and a Xinjiang University dean. In 2020, Liu argued “the root of Xinjiang’s social stability problems has not been resolved.”

“The problem in southern Xinjiang is mainly the unbalanced population structure,” Liu added. “Population proportion and population security are important foundations for long-term peace and stability. The proportion of the Han population in southern Xinjiang is too low, less than 15 percent. The problem of demographic imbalance is southern Xinjiang’s core issue.”

In 2017, the year when the mass internment campaign began, Chinese President Xi Jinping himself issued instructions related to “Researching and Advancing the Optimization Work of the Ethnic Population Structure in Southern Xinjiang.” The related document has not been made public.

Other Chinese researchers have argued the “foundation for solving Xinjiang’s counterterrorism” is “to solve the human problem.” Specifically, this requires “diluting … the proportion of ethnic populations” by increasing the Han population share and reducing the shares of populations with “negative energy,” such as religious and traditionally minded Uyghurs. This process of targeted ethnic dilution, first proposed by Xi during his visit to Xinjiang in 2014, is referred to as “population embedding.” A consistent theme in the discourse around this “human problem” is the eugenics-based concept of “population quality” (or “renkou suzhi”), a long-standing concept in Chinese Communist Party thought where Uyghurs are considered to be inherently “low quality” as a minority ethnic group.

To boost Han population shares, Beijing has to induce millions of Han to move to southern Xinjiang. By 2022, it plans to settle 300,000 Han people there. However, the south is also Xinjiang’s most ecologically fragile region. Arable land and water are scarce. Urbanization and industrial development vastly increased per capita resource utilization. Chinese studies estimate Xinjiang as a whole was already overpopulated by 2.3 million persons in 2015, significantly exceeding its ecological population carrying capacity.

Boosting Han population shares without significantly exceeding carrying capacities requires drastic reductions in ethnic minority population growth. Calculations show the most ideal range for this growth is in fact negative: around negative 2.5 per mile. By 2040, the state could boost Han population shares in southern Xinjiang to nearly 25 percent by settling 1.9 million Han. This would dilute Uyghur population concentrations in line with counterterrorism targets. The ethnic minority population there would shrink from currently 9.5 million to 9 million by 2040, a decline that could pass unnoticed by outside observers. A smaller population is also easier to control and assimilate.

Based on adapted projections that were recently published by Chinese researchers in Sustainability, a peer-reviewed international journal, southern Xinjiang’s ethnic minority population could increase to an estimated 13.1 million people by 2040 without severe measures to prevent births.

The 4.1 million person discrepancy between 9 million and 13.1 million people can be understood to constitute the “destruction in part” caused by the state’s “optimization” of ethnic population ratios. This would reduce the projected ethnic minority population during the coming 20 years by nearly one third (31 percent).

How realistic is this plan? After a draconian campaign of suppressing births, natural population growth in southern Xinjiang is already trending toward zero. Some regions planned to push it below zero for 2020 and 2021. Recently, Xinjiang has told family planning offices to “optimize the population structure” and carry out “population monitoring and early warning.” The region has created all the necessary preconditions for “optimizing” its ethnic population structure. It also no longer reports birth rates or population counts by region or ethnic group.

These findings shed important new light on Beijing’s intent to physically destroy in part the Uyghur ethnic group by preventing births within the group. The new publication convincingly argues other measures aimed at achieving ethnic population changes since Han will not accomplish the overall goal due in part to ecological, economic, and other practical constraints. As such, the prevention of Uyghur births is a critical and necessary part of China’s overall “optimization” policy in Xinjiang—a policy considered to be a matter of national security. Importantly, understanding the role that birth prevention and long-term population reduction plays in this overall policy distinguishes China’s actions against the Uyghurs from its general national population control measures and from its treatment of other ethnic and religious minorities, such as Tibetans.

In its 2007 judgment in the Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro case, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the judicial body that has jurisdiction over disputes between states in relation to the Genocide Convention, held that “the intent must be to destroy at least a substantial part of the particular group.” The ICJ expanded on the criteria for assessing the “substantial part” threshold in its 2015 Croatia v. Serbia judgment, holding it is not merely a numerical assessment but also takes into account the intent to destroy “within a geographically limited area” and the “prominence of the allegedly targeted part within the group as a whole.” We argue that a long-term policy of preventing millions of Uyghur births meets this threshold.

Two additional factors are important to understanding the gravity of the current situation facing the Uyghurs. First is China’s systematic imprisonment of Uyghur religious, intellectual, and cultural elites, with the increased imposition of lengthy sentences as opposed to arbitrary detention. The systematic removal of persons central to maintaining and transmitting Uyghur culture and identity is accompanied by a policy of family separations, where Uyghur children are taught to adopt the majority Han culture. Second is the concern that China’s assumption of the needed “optimization” levels may change over time if the Uyghur population, even when reduced in number, does not assimilate as envisioned. Genocidal intent can develop and strengthen over time as it has done in past genocides. The perception of Uyghurs as a human threat to China’s national security suggests birth prevention targets could increase over time, increasing the threat to the continued existence of the group as a whole.

Much of the debate surrounding the classification of China’s actions against the Uyghurs in terms of states making a genocide “determination” focuses on the legal question of establishing “genocidal intent.” Specifically, debates have arisen regarding the burden of proof applicable to findings based on circumstantial evidence and inferences, based primarily on the legal framework of international criminal law. We question whether this framework and evidentiary inquiry is necessary for purposes of a state making a genocide determination. A state is not a judicial body nor is it reaching a determination that implicates the fundamental human rights of an individual (such as fair trial rights or the right to liberty). Most importantly, state genocide determinations are intended to inform policy responses, which are fundamentally different from the purpose of international criminal law or judicial proceedings generally. This point could not be more clearly made than by the fact that it is only this week that the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has finally confirmed the conviction of Ratko Mladic for the Srebrenica genocide, a genocide that took place 26 years ago.

International criminal law is an important accountability tool, such as after a crime has been committed, but is not an appropriate tool for purposes of preventing or responding to an unfolding genocide. The new findings present compelling evidence of a genocidal policy that is only now beginning to unfold and which will take place over decades.

In our view, when states attempt to mimic international judicial proceedings and apply evidentiary standards that relate to individual criminal liability, this creates significant risks that they will not meet their obligations under international law as a state. The Genocide Convention obligates all state parties to the convention to prevent genocide. In its 2007 Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro judgment, the ICJ held that this “obligation to prevent, and the corresponding duty to act, arise at the instant that the State learns of, or should normally have learned of, the existence of a serious risk that genocide will be committed.”

The U.N. Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect has identified risk factors for “atrocity crimes” (meaning genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity) in its Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes. Risk factor 10, which is specific to genocide, provides indicators for “signs of an intent to destroy in whole or in part a protected group.” Notably, this framework was used by the U.N. Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar in its 2019 findingson the situation facing the Rohingya. We suggest this is the more appropriate framework that should guide state genocide determinations, bearing in mind their distinct policy response purpose. Applying this framework, many of the signs of genocidal intent outlined under risk factor 10 are present with respect to China’s actions against the Uyghurs.

In sum, the newly published research provides states and the international community with compelling evidence that a genocide is slowly being carried out. Of particular concern is China’s perception of concentrated Uyghur populations as a national security threat. Other signs of genocidal intent under the U.N. framework are also clearly present. However, even those states that may not share this conclusion cannot deny that, at a minimum, there is a serious risk of genocide occurring. We argue states are therefore obligated to act urgently on that knowledge.

Adrian Zenz is a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington and supervises doctoral students at the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal, Germany. His research focus is on China’s ethnic policy, public recruitment in Tibet and Xinjiang, Beijing’s internment campaign in Xinjiang, and China’s domestic security budgets. Zenz is the author of “Tibetanness” Under Threat: Neo-Integrationism, Minority Education, and Career Strategies in Qinghai, P.R. China and co-editor of Mapping Amdo: Dynamics of Change. He has played a leading role in the analysis of leaked Chinese government documents, including the “China Cables” and the “Karakax list.” Zenz is an advisor to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and a frequent contributor to international media.

Erin Rosenberg is an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law and an attorney specializing in international criminal law (ICL) and reparations. She worked for a decade in ICL, beginning at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia on the Ratko Mladic case, before moving to the International Criminal Court, where she worked in the Appeals Chamber and at the Trust Fund for Victims. She is the former senior advisor for the Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where she was the lead author for the report series, Practical Prevention: How the Genocide Convention’s Obligation to Prevent Applies to Burma. She is a member of the editorial committee of the Journal of International Criminal Justice and the American Bar Association’s working group on crimes against humanity.

Originally published in Foreign Policy.