The answer may lie in Beijing’s attitudes towards its ethnic minorities, especially those in Xinjiang.
The Chinese government strongly denies the genocide allegations and says any attempt to limit the Uyghur population falls under the country’s standard birth control policies.
Experts said Beijing was reluctant to remove all quotas on the number of children per family for several reasons. But a major factor is that ending the policy would make it much more difficult to justify Beijing’s attempts to limit the population in Xinjiang and other areas with large minority groups, which tend to have more children.
“Continuing to limit births among populations deemed problematic is certainly part of the math,” said Darren Byler, Xinjiang expert and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado.
“If there were no policy across the country, it would be difficult to apply a separate policy for the poor and for Muslims.
Counter the trend
China’s birth rate has fallen rapidly since the introduction of the one-child policy over 40 years ago, which limited couples to one baby in order to reduce poverty and stem a population boom .
While the policy has been successful in curbing birth rates as China has developed, in recent years officials have worried that the country will not have enough young workers to continue fueling its economic growth. A rapidly aging workforce, waiting for promised pensions, has only exacerbated these pressures.
Some Uyghurs have moved beyond this and in many cases it has been tolerated.
But when the Chinese government began its crackdown in Xinjiang in 2017, which reportedly involved sending millions of Uyghurs to a large complex of detention centers, there was a simultaneous tightening of family planning policies.
Between 2017 and 2018, Xinjiang’s birth rates fell by a third, from 15.8 per 1,000 people to 10.7 per 1,000 people.
At a time when the Chinese government was desperate to raise birth rates, sterilizations in the region reached 243 per 100,000 people in 2018, according to official government documents referenced in a report by Xinjiang researcher Adrian Zenz. This is much higher than the rate of 33 per 100,000 inhabitants for the rest of the country.
And while the use of IUD birth control devices fell in China between 2016 and 2018, Zenz cited documents showing that in Xinjiang, it fell to 963 per 100,000 people.
Uyghur women who have since left Xinjiang say they have been subjected to forced contraception and sterilizations.
In his report, Zenz cited official Chinese government policy guidelines from 2017 that call on administrators to “severely attack behaviors that violate family planning (policies).” From that year, minority regions launched a “special campaign to control birth control violations”.
The Chinese government has not mentioned minorities, including Uyghurs, in its easing of the three-child policy, and authorities have consistently denied charges of forced contraception and sterilization.
Experts said the rules are unlikely to be relaxed for minorities anytime soon.
“If you were to universally lift birth restrictions, they would lose their justification for tightening birth control policies against specific sectors of Chinese society that they don’t like,” said Carl Minzner, law professor at the ‘Fordham University.
Jobs and monitoring
Keeping control over Xinjiang’s birth rates isn’t the only reason the Chinese government is keeping three-child limits for families.
Experts said Beijing would be reluctant to find new roles for the tens of thousands of people employed by the government to oversee the country’s massive family planning policy.
At the same time, removing the limits would do away with one of the many ways the Chinese government has to monitor its population, Byler said, forcing Beijing to find another reason to exercise intimate domestic surveillance.
There could also be a very practical reason why the Chinese government has kept its family planning policy regime in place, even though it has relaxed it slightly.
Beijing may need to tighten the rules again in the future.
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