China authorities have forced Uighur Muslims to eat pork dumplings during a traditional Han festival to eradicate the minority group’s own cultural, according to activists.
Beijing’s officials served the taboo food items to residents in Xinjiang, and those who refused to consume them would be sent into re-education camps, the World Uyghur Congress claimed.
The news comes as the Chinese government is accused of carrying out ‘demographic genocide’ against the Uighur Muslim population by allegedly forcing birth control onto local women.
Beijing’s officials served pork-filled dumplings known as zong zi (file photo above) to Uighurs on the Dragon Boat Festival, and those who refused to consume them would be sent into re-education camps, the World Uyghur Congress claimed
In this image from video, Zumret Dawut, a Uighur woman from China’s far western Xinjiang region, holds a phone with a picture of her kids at her home in Woodbridge, Va., on Monday, June 15, 2020. She says in China, a doctor tied her fallopian tubes. After waking from the anesthesia, she felt her womb ache, as though it was missing something. ‘I was so angry. I wanted another son,’ she said. (AP Photo/Nathan Ellgren)
The World Uyghur Congress, a Germany-based rights group for the ethnic minority, alleged that Chinese officials demanded Uighurs celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival by eating pork-filled ‘zong zi’, a type of triangle-shaped snack stuffed with glutinous rice and other ingredients.
The Dragon Boat Festival, or the ‘Duan Wu Festival’, falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar and is one of the most ancient festivals for the Han Chinese.
Pork is forbidden in Islam, and the Dragon Boat Festival is not usually celebrated by Muslims.
Uighur children play outdoors in Hotan, in western China’s Xinjiang region. The Associated Press has found that the Chinese government is carrying out a birth control program aimed at Uighurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, even as some of the country’s Han majority is encouraged to have more children
Dilxat Raxit, the spokesperson of the World Uyghur Congress, said officials had sent workers to bring pork dumplings to local families, completely ignoring the Islamic culture and dining tradition.
Raxit said in an article on the Congress’s website: ‘Those Chinese officials who went to Uighurs’ homes gave Uighurs zong zi with non-halal fillings. Chinese people have the culture of eating pork, and those officials who visited Uighurs’ homes brought (zong zi) with pork or pork fat.’
Citing local account, the Congress claimed that the such visits had been arranged ‘across Xinjiang in a planned way’.
‘If you refused to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival and did not eat or make zong zi, authorities would brand you as having extreme thoughts against the Chinese culture, and you would be sent to a re-education camp by force,’ Raxit added.
Alif Baqytali hugs his mother, Gulnar Omirzakh, at their new home in Shonzhy, Kazakhstan. Omirzakh, a Chinese-born ethnic Kazakh, says she was forced to get an intrauterine contraceptive device, and that authorities in China threatened to detain her if she didn’t pay a large fine for giving birth to Alif, her third child. (AP Photo/Mukhit Toktassyn)
On the other hand, the Chinese government is taking draconian measures to slash birth rates among Uighurs and other minorities as part of a sweeping campaign to curb its Muslim population, even as it encourages some of the country’s Han majority to have more children.
While individual women have spoken out before about forced birth control, the practice is far more widespread and systematic than previously known, according to an AP investigation based on government statistics, state documents and interviews with 30 ex-detainees, family members and a former detention camp instructor.
The campaign over the past four years in the far west region of Xinjiang is leading to what some experts are calling a form of ‘demographic genocide.’
Gulnar Omirzakh prepares a kettle of tea in her home in Shonzhy, Kazakhstan on Saturday, June 13, 2020. ‘God bequeaths children on you. To prevent people from having children is wrong,’ says Omirzakh of the Chinese government. ‘They want to destroy us as a people.’ (AP Photo/Mukhit Toktassyn)
The state regularly subjects minority women to pregnancy checks, and forces intrauterine devices, sterilization and even abortion on hundreds of thousands, the interviews and data show.
Even while the use of IUDs and sterilization has fallen nationwide, it is rising sharply in Xinjiang.
The population control measures are backed by mass detention both as a threat and as a punishment for failure to comply.
Having too many children is a major reason people are sent to detention camps, the AP found, with the parents of three or more ripped away from their families unless they can pay huge fines.
After Gulnar Omirzakh, a Chinese-born Kazakh, had her third child, the government ordered her to get an IUD inserted.
Two years later, in January 2018, four officials in military camouflage came knocking at her door anyway.
They gave Omirzakh, the penniless wife of a detained vegetable trader, three days to pay a $2,685 fine for having more than two children.
This Saturday, June 13, 2020 photo shows a January 2018 document telling Gulnar Omirzakh, a Chinese-born ethnic Kazakh, that she must pay a fine of 17,405 RMB ($2685) for having a third child, at her new home in Shonzhy, Kazakhstan. She says she was forced to get an intrauterine contraceptive device, and that Chinese authorities threatened to detain her if she didn’t pay the fine for having a third child. (Courtesy Gulnar Omirzakh via AP)
If she didn´t, they warned, she would join her husband and a million other ethnic minorities locked up in internment camps – often for having too many children.
‘God bequeaths children on you.
To prevent people from having children is wrong,’ said Omirzakh, who tears up even now thinking back to that day.
‘They want to destroy us as a people.’
Alif Baqytali plays on a tricycle at his home in Shonzhy, Kazakhstan on Saturday, June 13, 2020. Baqytali’s mother, Gulnar Omirzakh, a Chinese-born ethnic Kazakh, says she was forced to get an intrauterine contraceptive device, and that authorities threatened to detain her if she didn’t pay a large fine for giving birth to Alif, her third child. (AP Photo/Mukhit Toktassyn)
Gulnar Omirzakh, second right, and her husband, Baqytali Nur, third right, eat lunch with friends and family at their home in Shonzhy, Kazakhstan on Saturday, June 13, 2020. Omirzakh, an ethnic Kazakh, says she was forced to get an intrauterine contraceptive device when living in China, and that authorities threatened to detain her if she didn’t pay a large fine for having a third child. (AP Photo/Mukhit Toktassyn)
Birth rates in the mostly Uighur regions of Hotan and Kashgar plunged by more than 60 per cent from 2015 to 2018, the latest year available in government statistics.
Across the Xinjiang region, birth rates continue to plummet, falling nearly 24 per cent last year alone – compared to just 4.2 per cent nationwide, statistics show.
The hundreds of millions of dollars the government pours into birth control has transformed Xinjiang from one of China´s fastest-growing regions to among its slowest in just a few years, according to new research obtained by The Associated Press in advance of publication by China scholar Adrian Zenz.
FILE – In this Sept. 20, 2018 photo, a Uighur child plays alone in the courtyard of a home at the Unity New Village in Hotan, in western China’s Xinjiang region. The hundreds of millions of dollars the government pours into birth control have transformed Xinjiang from one of China’s fastest-growing regions into one of its slowest in just a few years, according to new research obtained by The Associated Press in advance of publication by China scholar Adrian Zenz. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
‘This kind of drop is unprecedented….there’s a ruthlessness to it,’ said Zenz, a leading expert in the policing of China’s minority regions.
‘This is part of a wider control campaign to subjugate the Uighurs.’
The Chinese Foreign Ministry referred multiple requests for comment to the Xinjiang government, which did not respond.
However, Chinese officials have said in the past that the new measures are merely meant to be fair, allowing both Han Chinese and ethnic minorities the same number of children.
For decades, China had one of the most extensive systems of minority entitlements in the world, with Uighurs and others getting more points on college entrance exams, hiring quotas for government posts and laxer birth control restrictions.
Under China´s now-abandoned `one child´ policy, the authorities had long encouraged, often forced, contraceptives, sterilization and abortion on Han Chinese.
But minorities were allowed two children – three if they came from the countryside.
Under President Xi Jinping, China´s most authoritarian leader in decades, those benefits are now being rolled back.
In 2014, soon after Xi visited Xinjiang, the region´s top official said it was time to implement ‘equal family planning policies’ for all ethnicities and ‘reduce and stabilize birth rates.’
In the following years, the government declared that instead of just one child, Han Chinese could now have two, and three in Xinjiang’s rural areas, just like minorities.
But while equal on paper, in practice Han Chinese are largely spared the abortions, sterilizations, IUD insertions and detentions for having too many children that are forced on Xinjiang´s other ethnicities, interviews and data show.
Some rural Muslims, like Omirzakh, are punished even for having the three children allowed by the law.
FILE – In this Monday, Dec. 3, 2018, file photo, people line up at the Artux City Vocational Skills Education Training Service Center at the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China’s Xinjiang region. The Associated Press has found that the Chinese government is carrying out a birth control program aimed at Uighurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, even as some of the country’s Han majority is encouraged to have more children. The measures include detention in prisons and camps, such as this facility in Artux, as punishment for having too many children. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)
FILE – In this Monday, Dec. 3, 2018, file photo, a guard tower and barbed wire fence surround a detention facility in the Kunshan Industrial Park in Artux in western China’s Xinjiang region. The Associated Press has found that the Chinese government is carrying out a birth control program aimed at Uighurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, even as some of the country’s Han majority is encouraged to have more children. The measures include detention in prisons and camps, such as this facility in Artux, as punishment for having too many children. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)
State-backed scholars have warned for years that large rural religious families were at the root of bombings, knifings and other attacks the Xinjiang government blamed on Islamic terrorists.
The growing Muslim population was a breeding ground for poverty and extremism, ‘heightening political risk,’ according to a 2017 paper by the head of the Institute of Sociology at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences.
Another cited as a key obstacle the religious belief that ‘the fetus is a gift from God.’
Outside experts say the birth control campaign is part of a state-orchestrated assault on the Uighurs to purge them of their faith and identity and forcibly assimilate them into the dominant Han Chinese culture.
They´re subjected to political and religious re-education in camps and forced labor in factories, while their children are indoctrinated in orphanages.
Uighurs, who are often but not always Muslim, are also tracked by a vast digital surveillance apparatus.
‘The intention may not be to fully eliminate the Uighur population, but it will sharply diminish their vitality, making them easier to assimilate,’ said Darren Byler, an expert on Uighurs at the University of Colorado.
‘It’s genocide, full stop.
‘It´s not immediate, shocking, mass-killing on the spot type genocide, but it´s slow, painful, creeping genocide,’ said Joanne Smith Finley, who works at Newcastle University in the U.K.
‘These are direct means of genetically reducing the Uighur population.’
For centuries, the majority was Muslim in the arid, landlocked region China now calls ‘Xinjiang’ – meaning ‘New Frontier’ in Mandarin.
FILE – In this Sept. 20, 2018 file photo, a mural depicting Uighur and Han Chinese men and women carrying the national flag of China, decorates the wall of a home at the Unity New Village in Hotan, in western China’s Xinjiang region. Outside experts say the government’s birth control campaign for Muslim minorities is part of a broader effort to forcibly assimilate the Uighur and Kazakh populations and rewire their culture, language and identity. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
After the People´s Liberation Army swept through in 1949, China´s new Communist rulers ordered thousands of soldiers to settle in Xinjiang, pushing the Han population from 6.7% that year to more than 40% by 1980.
The move sowed anxiety about Chinese migration that persists to this day.
Drastic efforts to restrict birth rates in the 1990s were relaxed after major pushback, with many parents paying bribes or registering children as the offspring of friends or other family members.
That all changed with an unprecedented crackdown starting in 2017, throwing hundreds of thousands of people into prisons and camps for alleged ‘signs of religious extremism’ such as traveling abroad, praying or using foreign social media.
Authorities launched what several notices called ‘dragnet-style’ investigations to root out parents with too many children, even those who gave birth decades ago.
‘Leave no blind spots,’ said two county and township directives in 2018 and 2019 uncovered by Zenz, who is also an independent contractor with the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a bipartisan nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. ‘Contain illegal births and lower fertility levels,’ said a third.
Minority residents were ordered to attend weekly flag-raising ceremonies, where officials threatened detention if they didn´t register all their children, according to interviews backed by attendance slips and booklets.
Notices found by the AP show that local governments set up or expanded systems to reward those who report illegal births.
In some areas, women were ordered to take gynaecology exams after the ceremonies, they said.
In others, officials outfitted special rooms with ultrasound scanners for pregnancy tests.
‘Test all who need to be tested,’ ordered a township directive from 2018.
‘Detect and deal with those who violate policies early.’
Abdushukur Umar was among the first to fall victim to the crackdown on children.
A jovial Uighur tractor driver-turned-fruit merchant, the proud father considered his seven children a blessing from God.
But authorities began pursuing him in 2016.
The following year, he was thrown into a camp and later sentenced to seven years in prison – one for each child, authorities told relatives.
‘My cousin spent all his time taking care of his family, he never took part in any political movements,’ Zuhra Sultan, Umar´s cousin, said from exile in Turkey.
‘How can you get seven years in prison for having too many children? We´re living in the 21st century – this is unimaginable.’
Fifteen Uighurs and Kazakhs told the AP they knew people interned or jailed for having too many children. Many received years, even decades in prison.
Leaked data obtained and corroborated by the AP showed that of 484 camp detainees listed in Karakax county in Xinjiang, 149 were there for having too many children – the most common reason for holding them. Time in a camp – what the government calls ‘education and training’ – for parents with too many children is written policy in at leastthreecounties, notices found by Zenz confirmed.
In 2017, the Xinjiang government also tripled the already hefty fines for violating family planning laws for even the poorest residents – to at least three times the annual disposable income of the county.
While fines also apply to Han Chinese, only minorities are sent to the detention camps if they cannot pay, according to interviews and data.
Government reports show the counties collect millions of dollars from the fines each year.
In other efforts to change the population balance of Xinjiang, China is dangling land, jobs and economic subsidies to lure Han migrants there.
It is also aggressively promoting intermarriage between Han Chinese and Uighurs, with one couple telling the AP they were given money for housing and amenities like a washing machine, refrigerator and TV.
‘It links back to China´s long history of dabbling in eugenics….you don´t want people who are poorly educated, marginal minorities breeding quickly,’ said James Leibold, a specialist in Chinese ethnic policy at La Trobe in Melbourne.
‘What you want is your educated Han to increase their birth rate.’
Sultan describes how the policy looks to Uighurs like her: ‘The Chinese government wants to control the Uighur population and make us fewer and fewer, until we disappear.’
Once in the detention camps, women are subjected to forced IUDs and what appear to be pregnancy prevention shots, according to former detainees. They are also made to attend lectures on how many children they should have.
Seven former detainees told the AP that they were force-fed birth control pills or injected with fluids, often with no explanation. Many felt dizzy, tired or ill, and women stopped getting their periods. After being released and leaving China, some went to get medical check-ups and found they were sterile.
It´s unclear what former detainees were injected with, but Xinjiang hospital slides obtained by the AP show that pregnancy prevention injections, sometimes with the hormonal medication Depo-Provera, are a common family planning measure. Side effects can include headaches and dizziness.
Dina Nurdybay, a Kazakh woman, was detained in a camp which separated married and unmarried women. The married women were given pregnancy tests, Nurdybay recalled, and forced to have IUDs installed if they had children. She was spared because she was unmarried and childless.
One day in February 2018, one of her cellmates, a Uighur woman, had to give a speech confessing what guards called her ‘crimes.’ When a visiting official peered through the iron bars of their cell, she recited her lines in halting Mandarin.
‘I gave birth to too many children,’ she said. ‘It shows I´m uneducated and know little about the law.’
‘Do you think it´s fair that Han people are only allowed to have one child?’ the official asked, according to Nurdybay. ‘You ethnic minorities are shameless, wild and uncivilized.’
Nurdybay met at least two others in the camps whom she learned were locked up for having too many children. Later, she was transferred to another facility with an orphanage that housed hundreds of children, including those with parents detained for giving birth too many times. The children counted the days until they could see their parents on rare visits.
‘They told me they wanted to hug their parents, but they were not allowed,’ she said. ‘They always looked very sad.’
Another former detainee, Tursunay Ziyawudun, said she was injected until she stopped having her period, and kicked repeatedly in the lower stomach during interrogations. She now can´t have children and often doubles over in pain, bleeding from her womb, she said.
Ziyawudun and the 40 other women in her ‘class’ were forced to attend family planning lectures most Wednesdays, where films were screened about impoverished women struggling to feed many children. Married women were rewarded for good behavior with conjugal visits from their husbands, along with showers, towels, and two hours in a bedroom. But there was a catch – they had to take birth control pills beforehand.
Some women have even reported forced abortions. Ziyawudun said a ‘teacher’ at her camp told women they would face abortions if found pregnant during gynecology exams.
A woman in another class turned out to be pregnant and disappeared from the camp, she said. She added that two of her cousins who were pregnant got rid of their children on their own because they were so afraid.
FILE – In this Sept. 20, 2018 file photo, a Uighur woman and children sit on a motor-tricycle after school at the Unity New Village in Hotan, in western China’s Xinjiang region. Birth rates in the mostly Uighur regions of Hotan and Kashgar have plunged by more than 60% since 2015, government statistics show. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
Another woman, Gulbakhar Jalilova, confirmed that detainees in her camp were forced to abort their children. She also saw a new mother, still leaking breast milk, who did not know what had happened to her infant. And she met doctors and medical students who were detained for helping Uighurs dodge the system and give birth at home.
In December 2017, on a visit from Kazakhstan back to China, Gulzia Mogdin was taken to a hospital after police found WhatsApp on her phone. A urine sample revealed she was two months pregnant with her third child. Officials told Mogdin she needed to get an abortion and threatened to detain her brother if she didn’t.
During the procedure, medics inserted an electric vacuum into her womb and sucked her fetus out of her body. She was taken home and told to rest, as they planned to take her to a camp.
Months later, Mogdin made it back to Kazakhstan, where her husband lives.
‘That baby was going to be the only baby we had together,’ said Mogdin, who had recently remarried. ‘I cannot sleep. It´s terribly unfair.’
The success of China´s push to control births among Muslim minorities shows up in the numbers for IUDs and sterilization.
In 2014, just over 200,000 IUDs were inserted in Xinjiang. By 2018, that jumped more than 60 percent to nearly 330,000 IUDs. At the same time, IUD use tumbled elsewhere in China, as many women began getting the devices removed.
A former teacher drafted to work as an instructor at a detention camp described her experience with IUDs to the AP.
It started with flag-raising assemblies at her housing compound at the beginning of 2017, where residents were forced to chant: ‘If we have too many children, we´re religious extremists….That means we have to go to the training centers.’ After every flag-raising ceremony, police rounded up parents with too many children – over 180 – until ‘not a single one was left,’ she said. Officers with guns and tasers hauled her neighbors away at night, and from time to time pounded on her door and swept her apartment for Qurans, knives, prayer mats and of course children.
‘Your heart would leap out of your chest,’ she said.
Then, that August, officials in the teacher’s compound were told to install IUDs on all women of childbearing age. She protested, saying she was nearly 50 with just one child and no plans to have more. Officials threatened to drag her to a police station and strap her to an iron chair for interrogation.
She was forced into a bus with four armed officers and taken to a hospital where hundreds of Uighur women lined up in silence, waiting for IUDs to be inserted. Some wept quietly, but nobody dared say a word because of the surveillance cameras hanging overhead.
Her IUD was designed to be irremovable without special instruments. The first 15 days, she got headaches and nonstop menstrual bleeding.
‘I couldn´t eat properly, I couldn´t sleep properly. It gave me huge psychological pressure,’ she said. ‘Only Uighurs had to wear it.’
Chinese health statistics also show a sterilization boom in Xinjiang.
Budget documents obtained by Zenz show that starting in 2016, the Xinjiang government began pumping tens of millions of dollars into a birth control surgery program and cash incentives for women to get sterilized. While sterilization rates plunged in the rest of the country, they surged seven-fold in Xinjiang from 2016 to 2018, to more than 60,000 procedures. The Uighur-majority city of Hotan budgeted for 14,872 sterilizations in 2019 – about 34% of all married women of childbearing age.
Even within Xinjiang, policies vary widely, being harsher in the heavily Uighur south than the Han-majority north. In Shihezi, a Han-dominated city where Uighurs make up just 2% of the population, the government subsidizes baby formula and hospital birth services to encourage more children, state media reported.
Zumret Dawut got no such benefits. In 2018, the mother of three was locked in a camp for two months for having an American visa.
In this image from video, Zumret Dawut, a Uighur from China’s far western Xinjiang region, holds documents she brought with her, at her new home in Woodbridge, Va., on Monday, June 15, 2020. Dawut says in China, she was forcibly sterilized for having a third child after being released from a Xinjiang detention camp. (AP Photo/Nathan Ellgren)
This Monday, June 15, 2020 photo shows the receipt for a fine levied on Zumret Dawut, a Uighur woman from China’s far western Xinjiang region, for having too many children. Dawut, who now lives in Woodbridge, Va., says she was fined 18,400 RMB ($2,600) for having a third child and forcibly sterilized after being released from a Xinjiang detention camp. (Courtesy Zumret Dawut via AP)
When she returned home under house arrest, officials forced her to get gynecology exams every month, along with all other Uighur women in her compound. Han women were exempted. They warned that if she didn’t take what they called ‘free examinations’, she could end up back in the camp.
One day, they turned up with a list of at least 200 Uighur women in her compound with more than two children who had to get sterilized, Dawut recalled.
‘My Han Chinese neighbors, they sympathized with us Uighurs,’ Dawut said. ‘They told me, `oh, you´re suffering terribly, the government is going way too far!´’
Dawut protested, but police again threatened to send her back to the camp. During the sterilization procedure, Han Chinese doctors injected her with anesthesia and tied her fallopian tubes – a permanent operation. When Dawut came to, she felt her womb ache.
‘I was so angry,’ she said. ‘I wanted another son.’
Looking back, Omirzakh considers herself lucky.
After that frigid day when officials threatened to lock her up, Omirzakh called relatives around the clock. Hours before the deadline, she scraped together enough money to pay the fine from the sale of her sister´s cow and high-interest loans, leaving her deep in debt.
For the next year, Omirzakh attended classes with the wives of others detained for having too many children. She and her children lived with two local party officials sent specially to spy on them. When her husband was finally released, they fled for Kazakhstan with just a few bundles of blankets and clothes.
The IUD still in Omirzakh’s womb has now sunk into her flesh, causing inflammation and piercing back pain, ‘like being stabbed with a knife.’ For Omirzakh, it´s a bitter reminder of everything she´s lost – and the plight of those she left behind.
‘People there are now terrified of giving birth,’ she said. ‘When I think of the word `Xinjiang,´ I can still feel that fear.’
Contact AP´s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org