Chinese officials have admitted that birth rates have plummeted among its ethnic Uighurs, fuelling claims that Beijing is subjecting its Muslim minority to a campaign of forced birth control.
Official statistics show that in Xinjiang, the north-western province where most of the 10 million strong Uighur community live, birth rates dropped by almost a third in 2018.
The figures follow accusations that Beijing is attempting to reduce the Uighur population by threatening women with fines or spells in mass detention camps if they flout harsh family planning measures.
At least a million Uighurs are believed to have passed through the detention camps in recent years, which Beijing insists are voluntary schools to teach Uighurs of the dangers of Islamic extremism.
Human rights groups say they are used to eradicate Uighur culture, in tandem with forced abortion and sterilisation policies that amount to “demographic genocide”.
The statistics on birth rates were released by Xinjiang to CNN in response to an article by the news organisation in July that alleged widespread mistreatment of Uighur women.
One mother of three, who had already spent time in an internment camp, claimed that Xinjiang officials had told her she would serve extra time there unless she agreed to sterilisation, despite her wanting to have a fourth child.
Chinese officials disputed much of the CNN report, which was based partly on findings by Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow at Washington’s Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, who is known for his research on Xinjiang.
But they said that the birth rate in the region had dropped from 15.88 per 1,000 people in 2017 to 10.69 per 1,000 people in 2018. That is a drop of roughly one-third, or the equivalent of 40,000 babies.
Up until 2015, the Chinese government enforced a “one-child” family planning policy countrywide, which allowed most urban couples no more than one baby. Ethnic minorities, such as the Uighurs, were typically allowed to have up to three, although in practice often had many more.
Beijing claims the drop in numbers simply reflects family planning policies now being properly enforced for the first time. However, critics have claimed that Uighur women are sometimes threatened with detention if they have more than two children.
Some women also claim to have been given medications in detention camps that stop them menstruating, or implanted against their will with intra-uterine devices to stop further pregnancies.
According to the statistics released by Xinjiang officials to CNN, there were almost 1,000 new IUD implants per 100,000 people in Xinjiang in 2018 – or 80 per cent of China’s total for the year.
The Xinjiang officials also told CNN that they attributed the drop in the birth rate in 2018 to improved prosperity in Xinjiang, reducing the need for its residents to have as many children. It also denied having birth-control policies tailored for a “single ethnic minority”.
“The rights and interests of Uighur and other ethnic minorities have been fully protected,” the officials said. “The so-called ‘genocide’ is pure nonsense.”
In response, Mr Zenz claimed that any fall in a natural birth rate would normally take place gradually over a matter of five years or a decade. In a statement to CNN, he also questioned the officials’ claims that women who had been sterilised had requested the treatment voluntarily, saying it was unlikely that “17 times more women spontaneously wanted to be sterilised.”