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French senator calls for strong response to China's 'birth control' of Uighurs

(FILES) This file photo taken on June 4, 2019 shows a Uighur woman waiting with children on a street in Kashgar in China's northwest Xinjiang region.
(FILES) This file photo taken on June 4, 2019 shows a Uighur woman waiting with children on a street in Kashgar in China's northwest Xinjiang region. AFP - GREG BAKER

Reports that China forced women from its Uighur ethnic minority to be sterilised or have an abortion, demand a strong government response, French senator Esther Benbassa has said. Her comments add to global calls for a UN probe into what experts describe as "demographic genocide".

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"The crackdown of minorities by Chinese officials is not new but this is really persecution," commented senator Esther Benbassa.

The French-Turkish-Israeli historian was reacting to reports claiming the Chinese government is slashing birth rates among Uighurs and other minorities in its Xinjiang province, while loosening restrictions on Han Chinese - who represent 92 percent of the Chinese population.

The newly published research revealed this week sheds further light into Beijing’s Xinjiang crackdown. 

"We saw this coming a long time ago in university circles," Benbassa told RFI.

"We saw it in the news we used to receive about the fate of our colleagues working in this region. We warned the authorities, but France does not always react clearly, but there is no doubt there is a genocide," she said.

Her fears were echoed in a statement on Monday by a new global caucus of politicians called the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China.

Fears of genocide

"The world cannot remain silent in the face of unfolding atrocities," the group, made up of senior legislators from around the world, said in its statement.

"Our countries are bound by solemn obligations to prevent and punish any effort to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group," it added, citing fears of a hidden "genocide."

Demonstrators from the Uyghur Community protest in France, on Place du Trocadero in Paris on March 24, 2019 to raise awareness about their plight
Demonstrators from the Uyghur Community protest in France, on Place du Trocadero in Paris on March 24, 2019 to raise awareness about their plight AFP - KENZO TRIBOUILLARD

According to the findings, published by leading China scholar Adrian Zenz, birth rates in Xinjiang, an autonomous region on the north-west border of China, "fell by 84 percent in the two largest Uighur prefectures between 2015 and 2018, and declined further in 2019. For 2020, one Uighur region set an unprecedented near-zero population growth target". 

Under China's now-abandoned 'one child' policy, women had been encouraged and often forced to take contraceptives to limit the number of children they had.

Forced birth control

For Zenz, whose research is based on government data, policy documents and interviews of ethnic women, those birth-control measures are nothing compared to what is happening in Xinjiang right now. 

Uighur and other minority women have reported forced sterilisations and intrauterine device insertions (IUD), and officials have threatened to detain anyone who has too many children. 

China's birth control campaign has been fuelled by a policy of mass internment initiated in early 2017 for anyone showing “signs of religious extremism".

In reality, detainees were frequently women who violated birth control quotas.

A woman who fled Xinjiang last year told the Associated Press that they would chant the following lines during daily flag-raising events: “If we have too many children, we’re religious extremists. … That means we have to go to the training centres.” 

Being fair

The Chinese government has dismissed the reports as "fake news," insisting that it treats all ethnicities equally.

It said that the new birth-control measures are simply meant to be fair, allowing both Han Chinese and ethnic minorities the same number of children.

However, while fair on paper, research shows that in practice Han Chinese are largely spared the abortions, sterilisations, IUD insertions and detentions imposed on minority women for having too many children.

German researcher Zenz added that the findings raise concerns about whether China’s forced suppression of its minority population can be characterised as a “demographic campaign of genocide” under United Nations’ definitions.

UN inquiry

The report, published at a time when Beijing is facing a global backlash for its treatment of minority groups, has triggered calls for a UN investigation into human rights violations by the Chinese government.

"We hope to be able to make positive law, that is to say: coordinate between countries," said French senator André Gattolin, one of the members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China pushing for the UN inquiry, quoted in the daily Le Monde.

Gattolin, who has long campaigned against human rights abuses in China, said the aim was to achieve similar legislation to the Magnitsky Act, which "already exists in several European countries and punishes the perpetrators of political persecution in Russia".

Recent legislation by the Trump administration would point in that direction. The new US law imposes sanctions on those responsible for oppressing China's Uighurs, a majority Muslim, Turkic-speaking minority.

The UN estimates that more than one million Muslims have been detained in camps in Xinjiang which China says are vocational skills training centres and necessary to tackle extremism.

No time to wait

Benbassa disagrees. "They put them in camps, Uighur children cannot study in their own language, we're talking about a lost generation," she said.

Benbassa, who is also an author, began documenting Beijing's repression of the Uighur community after doing research on Turkey's Ottoman Empire. Uighurs, like Turks, are considered ethnically Turkic.

In 2018, she wrote an open letter to President Emmanuel Macron alerting him to the repression of China's Muslim minority and the plight of a teacher named Tiyip Taspholat who went missing.

"We were expecting a clear position from the government, for it to defend the Uighur community, its culture, and for it to ask China to put an end to its anti-ethnic policy against the Uighurs."

But the response she received several months later was disappointing. While the letter by the president's office stated its concern about the "situation in Xinjiang" and called on Beijing to "respect the rights of individuals" living there, it made no mention whatsoever of the Uighur population.

"I don’t think the French government is willing to put its relations with China in jeopardy to protect the Uighurs," Benbassa said, while insisting a strong response is needed.

As for a potential UN probe, she argues that time is of the essence. "People die during investigations. We must take a clear policy."

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