China’s religious minorities are its last hope for a Year of the Dragon baby boom

In recent months, stories about China’s human rights abuses and persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, like the Uyghurs, Hui Muslims and house church Christians, have slowly faded from view. It was impossible to lure readers away from the wars in Ukraine and in Gaza.

However, as the Year of the Dragon rolls around, there is speculation about whether China will have a mini baby boom -- the Year of the Dragon is the most auspicious in the Chinese zodiac. The Washington Post, the Guardian and the South China Morning Post all ran stories speculating on the possibility of births finally increasing after years of steep decline. In previous 12-year cycles, “Dragon year baby booms” definitely occurred in Chinese-speaking communities across East Asia.

What journalists failed to notice is that within China, there are communities and ethnic groups with consistently high fertility regardless of the zodiac. However, China’s harsh religious and ethnic policies threaten to transform China’s last demographically fertile enclaves and turn them into the barren wastelands like the rest of East Asia. This means that China’s “last chance cohort” of fertile communities might soon be history.

In 2023, Human Rights Watch and the Financial Times produced a report detailing how China is expanding its crackdown on Islam outside of Xinjiang and targeting mosques of the previously thriving Hui Muslim minority, especially in the north-western provinces of Gansu and Ningxia. Many of the mosques were razed; others were combined to reduce the number of mosques; and most of them were stripped of minarets and domes to look like Han Chinese temples. Thousands of mosques have vanished and many of those remaining are not open to worshippers or are so heavily under surveillance that few dare to enter.

Mosque destruction is not the only way China is restricting Islamic practises and freedoms. It employs a whole toolkit -- restricting minors from entering mosques or attending religious education, installing surveillance cameras inside mosques, and asking imams to “Sinicise” their sermons and infuse them with patriotic and Communist ideologies.

When it comes to ethnic minority youths, Beijing has another trick up its sleeve -- huge boarding schools, with attendance compulsory for many in rural areas from Xinjiang to Ningxia Tibet to Inner Mongolia to the ethnic Yi areas of Sichuan. For many, these boarding schools are the only way their children will have access to education.

Tibetan activists complain that these schools are eroding the children’s cultural identity and native language skills; they fear that this will lead to cultural extinction as these children hardly ever see their family and are subject to intense brainwashing. Similarly, it will become very difficult for parents to transmit their own religious beliefs to their children.

Demographic consequences

So what are the demographic consequences? Well, in order to explain this, we need to look at the unique position ethnic minority regions, especially Muslim majority ones, occupy in the China of 2023.

It is very easy to dismiss East Asia and China as a demographic wasteland. Vast swathes of the region have had ultra-low fertility rates for decades, and South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and north-eastern China have seen their Total Fertility Rate (TFR) recently plunge below 1.

However, dig a little deeper and vast regional differences do exist -- in parts of China, where up to 200-300 million people live, fertility rates continue to be close to, if not above the replacement fertility rate of 2.1. Whilst this still remains low by global standards, it is very high from an East Asian perspective.

Many of these regions have large ethnic minority populations. The 2020 census showed that these fertile belts are mostly in the western regions where most ethnic minorities live.

Take Gansu and Ningxia provinces. Both provinces have been targeted in the mosque crackdowns, especially in the Hui majority regions. However, these are the same regions in China where the TFR is the highest. Guanghe County, a county with a Muslim majority with both Hui and Turkic Muslim populations and known as the “Mecca of China” due to its omnipresent mosques, had a TFR of 2.92 in 2020, when the national TFR was hovering at around 1.2. Nearby Dongxiang Autonomous County, which is populated by Mongol-speaking Muslims, the TFR was even higher at 3.28, triple the national average and on par with parts of Pakistan.

In Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, the fertility differentials continue -- Hui majority counties such as Xiji, Haiyuan and Tongxin have TFRs of 2.3, whilst the Han Chinese counties of Ningxia such as Pingluo and Yanchi have TFRs of around 1.5, which makes a huge difference demographically.

Most counties in Tibet also have TFRs above replacement rate, and in the ethnic Yi majority region of Daliangshan in Sichuan Province, Meigu county has the province’s highest TFR at 2.97 according to the 2020 census, again nearly triple the national and provincial average.




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China is crushing its minorities

However, these healthier fertility rates might not hold if China’s policies continue in these ethnic minority areas. One only needs to look at the Uyghur majority Xinjiang to see how rapidly fertility rates can fall - about how much the TFR has plummeted following China’s massive re-education and family planning campaigns in the Xi Jinping years in this once fertile outpost. Ningxia and Gansu have been spared from the harsh excessive crackdowns thus far but with these increasingly restrictive campaigns, the only likely trend for their birth rates is downwards, as religious motivation begins to lose its influence on ethnic minority youth, with a government hell-bent on enforcing the “Sinicisation of religion”.

In modern society, religion has now become the last “glue” for many communities to remain demographically healthy and fertile and if the religious life and transmission of religious knowledge to the next generation is severely disrupted, these birth rates will inevitably plummet as children are imbued with mainstream culture, which is deeply anti-natalist in China and elsewhere.

Instead of speculating about whether the Year of the Dragon will bring a much-needed baby boom (I believe that its effects will not be significant), China should focus on these ethnic and religious minorities who are consistently above replacement TFR and stop its aggressive campaign to strip them of their religion and cultural identity. They may be China’s last hope of having a fertile and demographically healthy community.

But again, most of them are not Han Chinese, so they might not be producing the kind of babies Beijing wants. 

William Huang is an avid researcher of China and East Asia’s looming demographic crisis. A product of China's one-child policy, it was only when he went overseas to study that he realised just how much damage this policy has done to the Chinese nation and his generation.

Image: Bigstock



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