By CONOR FINNEGAN and VICTOR ORDONEZ, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — The Chinese government has deployed a mass sterilization campaign against Muslim ethnic minorities in the country’s western provinces, according to a new report, which argues the tactics could amount to genocide.

China’s treatment of Uighurs, the Muslim ethnic group that has historically lived in China’s westernmost province, known as Xinjiang, has come under increased scrutiny in the last couple years, as the Chinese government ramped up what it casts as a “re-education” campaign that uses mass detention camps.

Those camps are used as a form of threat and punishment, with officials detaining women and families who fail to comply with pregnancy checks or forced intrauterine contraceptive devices — more commonly known as IUDs — sterilizations, and even abortions.

The result is a huge drop in birth rates among China’s Muslim population, even as it moves Han Chinese, the country’s main ethnic group, into the mineral-rich region. Birth rates in Uighur areas have plunged by over 60% in the last three years alone, according to the report published by the Jamestown Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

“We first thought that internment and strict enforcement of family planning was greatly depressing population growth rates in Uighur regions,” said China scholar and the report’s author Adrian Zenz. “But then the shocker came when I dug deep and found plans to reduce natural birth or natural population growth to near zero by 2020.”

Zenz began researching the allegations described in the report after Chinese documents, leaked earlier this year, revealed that the most cited reason for forced internment was “having too many children.”

“I started to collect data on population growth in the area,” Zenz told ABC News in an interview Monday. “To be honest, I did not expect this to be such a revolutionary report … until I stumbled upon finding after finding, and things became far more dramatic.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry called the accusations “simply groundless and false” during a media briefing Monday. ABC News has not independently confirmed the report’s details. Previous reporting trips to the region were met with stonewalling by local officials.

“Xinjiang is enjoying sustained economic growth, social stability, better living standards, unprecedented cultural development and harmonious coexistence of religions,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian. “The Uyghur population in Xinjiang has reached 11.65 million or 46.8% of the region’s total.”

The Trump administration has seized on the accusations, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a vocal critic of Beijing, calling them “part of a continuing campaign of repression” against Uighurs and other minorities.

The report’s “revelations are sadly consistent with decades of (Chinese Communist Party) practices that demonstrate an utter disregard for the sanctity of human life and basic human dignity. We call on the Chinese Communist Party to immediately end these horrific practices and ask all nations to join the United States in demanding an end to these dehumanizing abuses,” he added.

Women have come forward in recent years and recounted being forced to take birth control or undergo sterilization, particularly while in one of the detention facilities for the region’s Muslim population. But the study found widespread use of IUDs, sterilizations and forced family separations since the mass detention campaign began in 2017.

Government documents lay out plans for mass female sterilization in rural Uighur regions, according to the report, complete with target numbers of the female population and budgetary figures for performing hundreds of thousands of tubal ligation procedures, a surgical procedure to permanently prevent pregnancy.

“What’s happening in Xinjiang is unprecedented,” Zenz told ABC News. “Essentially, the Chinese government is putting itself in a position where it’s able to turn population growth on and off like a faucet.”

The report said 80% of all new IUD placements in 2018 in China were performed in Xinjiang province, which has only 1.8% of the country’s overall population.

The measures have achieved huge drops in birth rate. Population growth in the two districts with the largest Uighur populations fell by 84% between 2015 and 2018 and even further in 2019. One Uighur region had an unprecedented near-zero population growth target for 2020, according to the report.

Uighur families that defied birth control measures would be punished by detention in the “training” facilities, the report said, citing Chinese government documents.

For the first time in his reporting, Zenz used the term “demographic campaign of genocide” to describe what is happening in the Xinjiang region — a profound allegation that he had resisted, given its legal implications for Beijing.

“I’ve been one of the strongest advocates to not use the term genocide without an adjective,” said Zenz. “However, the suppression of births is one of the criteria of literal genocide per the U.N. convention — so it’s appropriate to start to talk about this moving into an aspect of genocide.”

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