The Trump and Biden administrations have relied on the work of a right-wing religious extremist, Adrian Zenz, for their “genocide” accusation against China. A close review of Zenz’s research reveals flagrant data abuse and outright falsehoods.
Both President Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken have endorsed former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s last-minute accusation of “genocide” against the Muslim Uyghur population in China’s Xinjiang province. But an investigation of published work by the researcher Pompeo relied on to level his genocide allegation reveals a pattern of data abuse and fraudulent assertions that substantially undermines the incendiary charge.
The US government’s accusation of genocide against China stems from a single source: a June 2020 paper by Adrian Zenz, a right-wing German researcher affiliated with the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and neoconservative Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC.
Articles by the Associated Press, CNN, and BBC also relied on Zenz’s article to claim that plunging Uyghur birth rates and the application of birth control measures in Uyghur counties of the Xinjiang region were proof of a policy of “demographic genocide.”
Just days after the publication of Zenz’s paper, Pompeo issued a statement denouncing China’s alleged policy of “forced sterilization, forced abortion, and coercive family planning,” personally crediting “Adrian Zenz’s shocking revelations.”
Biden backed the genocide charge last August when it first appeared in a flurry of media reports. His campaign spokesman told Politico, “The unspeakable oppression that Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have suffered at the hands of China’s authoritarian government is genocide and Joe Biden stands against it in the strongest terms.” Blinken, for his part, declared at his first press conference as secretary of state that he agreed genocide has been committed against the Uyghurs.
While Zenz’s employers describe him as “one of the world’s leading scholars on People’s Republic of China government policies towards the country’s western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang,” he is, in fact, a far-right Christian fundamentalist who has said he is “led by God” against China’s government, deplores homosexuality and gender equality, and has taught exclusively in evangelical theological institutions.
Lyle Goldstein, a China specialist and research professor in the Strategic and Operational Research Department of the Naval War College, told The Grayzone that Zenz’s labeling of the Chinese approach to the Uyghurs as “demographic genocide” is “ridiculous to the point of being insulting to those who lost relatives in the Holocaust.”
Goldstein said the Chinese approach to Xinjiang “is a more repressive posture than we would like, but it sure isn’t genocide.”
Moreover, a careful review of Zenz’s research shows that his assertion of genocide is contradicted by flagrant data abuse, fraudulent claims, cherry-picking of source material, and propagandistic misrepresentations.
Genocide or equal treatment in family planning policy?
In Adrian Zenz’s 2020 paper for the Jamestown Foundation, he boasted that his findings “provide the strongest evidence yet that Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang meet one of the genocide criteria cited in the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”
Zenz was referring Article 2 (d) of that Convention: “Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.” But Article II qualifies the relevant acts as those “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.”
“Preventing births” by itself cannot be evidence of alleged genocide without evidence of intent to destroy the group in question. Otherwise, any birth control program provided to an ethnic group would be prima facie evidence of a policy of genocide against the group.
Zenz argued that population control measures applied to Uyghurs could be branded as “genocidal” because population growth rates fell by 84 percent in the two largest Uyghur prefectures between 2015 and 2018, and declined further in several minority regions in 2019. But more complete statistics that Zenz cited in his report, and data that he conveniently omitted, contradicted his conclusion.
Zenz provided statistics revealing that between 2005 and 2015, Uyghur population growth in Xinjiang was 2.6 times higher than that of Han Chinese in the Xinjiang region. (The chart displayed in his report is below).
Both official Chinese figures and Zenz agree that the Uyghur population in Xinjiang increased significantly between 2010 and 2018.
Zenz’s figures shows an increase in Uyghur population from 10.1 million to 11.8 million from 2010 to 2018, while Chinese government figures demonstrate an even larger increase from 10.1 to 12.7 million. That means the Uyghur population in Xinjiang grew by a staggering 25.04 percent.
Zenz shows the Han Chinese population rising from 8.5 to 9.8 million during the eight-year period, while Chinese government figures show a smaller increase in Han population from 8.8 million to 9 million.
Both the rapid surge in Uyghur population growth rates and the increased margin of the Uyghur majority over the Han population of Xinjiang in recent years are the result of the one-child policy imposed on Han Chinese couples by the Chinese government in 1979.
According to China specialist Martin King Whyte, the one-child policy was accompanied by a long-term pattern of abuses in its implementation, including “intrusive menstrual monitoring, coerced sterilizations and abortions, staggering monetary fines for ‘over-quota’ births, smashing of furniture and housing of those who resist and withholding registration for babies born outside the plan.”
Uyghur families, however, were exempted from the one child policy. Urban Uyghur couples were allowed to have two children, and rural Uyghur couples three. In practice, moreover, rural Uyghurs often had large families, with as many as nine or ten children in some cases, as even Zenz acknowledged.
In 2015, the Chinese government announced a relaxation of the decades-long one-child limit on urban Han couples, allowing urban couples to have two children and rural families to have three. In Xinjiang, where birthrates routinely exceeded previously established limits, local officials urged the equal application of family planning policy between Han and Uyghur couples.
In July 2017, Xinjiang’s regional government ended the exemption on the old child limits for Uyghurs. Uyghur couples were thus expected to follow the same limitations recently imposed on Han couples: two children in urban areas and three in rural regions.
As the Chinese government has freely acknowledged, a 5 percent decrease in the birth rate in Xinjiang between 2017 and 2018 was the result of the equal enforcement of family planning policy across ethnic lines.
While eliding this point, Zenz also overlooked the fact that China’s overall birthrate has fallen precipitously in recent years across the demographic spectrum as the population ages and contraceptives become more widely available through programs like the government’s annual free distribution of one billion condoms. For example, in the city of Guangzhou, which is far from Xinjiang, the rate of newborn babies has plunged to its lowest point in a decade.
Cherry-picking and distorting source material, framing free healthcare as genocide
Also in 2017, China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission announced a $5.2 billion healthcare investment in Xinjiang, stating its intention to strengthen a brittle health infrastructure in impoverished, rural areas of the region.
According to Chinese government statistics, maternal and infant mortality rates in Xinjiang were nearly halved by 2018, while average life expectancy rose as a result of increased public health investments. A 2019 study by Lancet described China’s improvement of maternal health and infant mortality reduction as a “remarkable success story.” Another study that year by the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences arrived at a similar conclusion. How these positive health indicators could serve as proof of genocide was left unexplained by Zenz, who simply omitted the numbers from his report.
Throughout his paper, Zenz framed the expansion of public healthcare services in Xinjiang as evidence of a genocide in the making. For example, Zenz pointed to a photograph of Uyghur residents of rural regions of Xinjiang receiving medical consultation at a free health clinic as part of an “effort to enforce the thorough implementation of increasing intrusive birth control efforts.”
However, the photograph depicted an elderly couple who were far too old to have children, and was dated May 2017 – months before the Chinese government announced an end to the child limit exemption for Uyghurs.
According to the original source of the photograph, an article in China News, it depicted a regiment from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps deploying to a rural province as part of the government’s poverty eradication program. There, the doctors “measured blood pressure, electrocardiogram, blood sugar, height and weight for poor villagers who came to see the doctor for free… More than 200 poor people were diagnosed and treated, and more than 100 common drugs were distributed on the spot.”
At another point in his paper, Zenz cited an August 2019 document from Xinjiang’s Wenquan County government office as evidence of “greater pressure to implement intrusive birth control methods.” He referred to a single mention of 468 “birth control surgeries,” which could alternately be translated as “family planning operations,” but provided no evidence that the operations were coercive. Revealingly, Zenz omitted the next line, which expressed satisfaction with a birth rate of 8.11 percent.
Zenz proceeded to ignore the rest of the document, which touted the increased provision of free mental health services, polio vaccinations and AIDS prevention treatment as well as poverty alleviation measures and the construction of new hospitals and medical clinics for the population of Xinjiang.
How did a massive investment to improve the health of previously neglected rural communities fit within the framework of a policy of genocide? Once again, Zenz avoided the issue entirely.
Inventing statistics, spinning tales to frame the official enemy
Among Zenz’s “major findings” was the claim that “80 percent of all net added IUD placements in China… were performed in Xinjiang, despite the fact that the region only makes up 1.8 percent of the nation’s population.”
According to the 2019 China Health Statistics Yearbook published by the National Health Commission – the original source of Zenz’s claim – the number of new IUD insertion procedures in Xinjiang in 2018 accounted for only 8.7 percent of China’s total. So Zenz’s “major finding” appeared to be off by a factor of 10, a staggering error that substantially undermined the explosive quality of his argument.
The relevant sections of the statistical yearbook Zenz relied on was translated by a native Chinese speaker and are displayed below. A full translation of the chart can be viewed here, and an archive of the entire statistical yearbook is here.
When Zenz attempted to defend himself against accusations of cooking statistics on birth control surgeries in Xinjiang, he ultimately cast further doubt on the quality of his research. Responding to a Chinese academic critic, he claimed that he had calculated Xinjiang’s 239,457 new net IUD insertions (devices added minus those removed) as 80% of the national total in 2018.
However, Henan province registered 206,281 new net IUD insertions, or 69%, in 2018. Hebei, meanwhile, registered 61%, amounting to a total of 210% of national net insertions. These numbers only make sense when calculated alongside provinces like Jiangsu and Yunnan that had more removals (-60% and -54%, respectively) than total national net insertions. By relying on such a bizarre metric, Zenz appeared to have attempted a cynical statistical sleight of hand to paint Xinjiang as a hotbed of birth control surgery.
In perhaps the most unintentionally absurd assertion in an article filled with them, Zenz asserted that the Chinese government inserted between 800 and 1400 IUDs per capita each year in Xinjiang. Which meant that each woman in the province would have had to have undergone anywhere from 4 to 8 IUD surgeries every day. With so much time spent on the operating table every day, it’s a wonder that anyone in Xinjiang could find time to work, or eat.
Wait what? Zenz claims 800+ IUDs placed *per capita* per year, which must be about 1,600 IUDs per female per year, and even more per females at birth age per year? 🤯🤯🤯 pic.twitter.com/8mvwJRO6xb
— MonkeyKing (@abovetheclouds) September 22, 2020
Elsewhere in his paper, the daffy data diver asserted that 73.5 percent of married women of childbearing age in Xinjiang’s Kuqa County had IUDs fitted between 2017 and 2018. In a footnote, Zenz claimed, “This data comes from a cache of over 25,000 local government files obtained by the author in 2019.” The article he provided as accompaniment, however, was written by himself for the Jamestown Foundation and contained no data on IUD operations in Kuqa County.
Zenz attempted to pad his shaky statistics with dramatic testimony from US-based Uyghur exiles who have been cultivated by the US State Department. The narratives of these exiles have been vehemently challenged by family members in Xinjiang, as well as by vocational center graduates and local doctors, who produced official hospital documents purporting to disprove their allegations.
In his paper, Zenz cited a September 2019 article in the US government-run outlet Radio Free Asia, containing testimony by a US-based exile, Tursunay Ziyawudun, who claimed she was forcibly sterilized and physically tortured in a Chinese internment center.
However, in February 2020, Ziyawudun changed her story entirely, telling Buzzfeed: “I wasn’t beaten or abused. The hardest part was mental. It’s something I can’t explain — you suffer mentally. Being kept someplace and forced to stay there for no reason.”
Ziyawudun changed her story again after being relocated to the US and cultivated by the US government-funded Uyghur Human Rights Project. This February, she told the BBC and CNN that she was gang raped by guards in an internment camp. The BBC report relied on none other than Zenz as its expert voice on China’s supposed policy of “systematic rape.”
Zenz’s propagandistic framing, cherry-picking of original source materials, and cooking of statistics fit a pattern of misrepresentation on display in a December 2019 paper he authored for a NATO-linked publication alleging a Chinese policy to force members of the Uyghur minority into “slave labor.”
As Ajit Singh reported for The Grayzone, Zenz painted an article about a government program providing Uyghur women with free childcare as evidence of forced family separation – a “shocking example of this ‘liberation’ of women from their children,” he called it. Zenz conveniently omitted a quote in the article from a Uyghur woman who said the free childcare “solved [her] problem, now there are people who take care of my children, I can in peace go to work… very convenient.”
Because Zenz’s papers are published by a neoconservative think tank that has functioned as a US intelligence cut-out, they are not peer reviewed by credentialed academics. But they do not appear to have undergone much fact-checking either. This has left Zenz exposed to embarrassing scrutiny from the internet, and forced him to edit out errors after questioning from random Twitter users:
For the last report published by Zenz before this, it took me five minutes to find a glaring error, of which I informed him. Got blocked after I made it public. pic.twitter.com/gdBvygJ2kJ
— MonkeyKing (@abovetheclouds) December 16, 2020
While it’s hard to understand how Zenz has gotten away with so much statistical malpractice, a look at his background helps explain his ideological motivations, and provides important context on his negative focus on the application of birth control. He is an anti-abortion, anti-feminist Christian fundamentalist captivated by End Times theology, and has said that god has led him on a mission against the Chinese government.
An anti-gay, anti-abortion Christianist dedicated “led by god” against China
The BBC based its June 2020 report alleging “forc[ed] birth control to suppress population” on Zenz’s work, referring to him as a “China scholar” without mentioning his employment by right-wing institutions in Washington or his own hyper-ideological views.
Like the BBC, an AP report relied entirely on an advance copy of Zenz’s paper, but provided no background and whitewashed his right-wing politics or institutional affiliations. A CNN story published a month later and a CNN follow-up in September 2020 on alleged Chinese forced sterilizations in Xinjiang also relied on Zenz without mentioning his political background.
As The Grayzone has reported, Zenz is a far right Christian fundamentalist who claims to have been “led by god’ to defeat the Communist Party of China. While he is almost invariably touted in Western media as a leading scholar on China, he described himself in 2015 as “a lecturer in empirical research methods at a Christian university.” As late as 2018, in fact, Zenz was listed as a faculty member of the European School of Culture and Theology at Columbia International University in Korntal, Germany.
Zenz’s first published book, “Worthy to Escape: Why all believers will not be raptured before the Tribulation,” he and his co-author, Marlos Sias, urged Christian believers to subject unruly children to “scriptural spanking,” condemned homosexuality as “one of the four empires of the beast,” and argued that Jews who refuse to convert to evangelical Christianity during the End Times would either be “wipe[d] out” or “refined” in a “fiery furnace.”
Adrian Zenz, the primary source of western media reports on Uyghur "concentration camps", is a German anti-Semite who believes Jews that refuse to convert to Christianity will be "wiped out" and put into a "fiery furnace".https://t.co/4iMObYmEzC pic.twitter.com/Unc7rvprCN
— Dan Cohen (@dancohen3000) August 10, 2020
In the End Times tome, Zenz predicted that the coming fall of capitalism would bring to power the Antichrist within a “few decades.” He identified the force that “will usher the Antichrist into power” as “the economic and financial fall of ‘Babylon,’ with ‘Babylon’ symbolically representing the world’s global economic system (capitalism).”
Like other born-again evangelicals, Zenz is also fiercely anti-abortion and opposed to gender equality. “Another important God-given authority structure that Satan is attacking through the postmodern spirit is that of gender authority structures,” Zenz wrote. “Through notions of gender equality […] the enemy is undermining God’s unique but different role assignments for men and women.”
Zenz currently serves as a fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a Washington DC-based right-wing lobbying front born out of the National Captive Nations Committee. The latter group was founded by Ukrainian nationalist Lev Dobriansky to stifle any efforts at diplomacy with the Soviet Union. Its co-chairman, Yaroslav Stetsko, was a leader of the OUN-B militia that fought alongside Nazi Germany during its occupation of Ukraine in World War II.
In April 2020, Zenz’s employer listed all global deaths from Covid-19 as “victims of communism,” blaming each of them on the Chinese government.
Victims Of Communism Memorial Foundation Adds Global Coronavirus Deaths To Its Tally Of Historical Victims Of Communism #CCPCoverup https://t.co/h7tMrp16Wq https://t.co/P88k9YmM9o
— Victims of Communism (@VoCommunism) April 11, 2020
Zenz is also employed by the Jamestown Foundation, a neoconservative think tank in Washington DC founded as the outcome of efforts by Ronald Reagan’s CIA Director, William J. Casey, to establish an extra-governmental channel to pay Soviet dissidents. In the past, Jamestown leadership has spearheaded lobbying efforts to support separatism in Chechnya.
In their apparent zeal for escalation with China, mainstream Western outlets like the AP, BBC and CNN have accepted Zenz’s dubious research as absolute fact, while ignoring his background as a religious extremist who is ideologically committed to regime change in Beijing. If Biden and Blinken formally adopt the Trump administration’s “genocide” designation, they will have effectively endorsed Zenz’s shoddy and propagandistic research as well.
The genocide accusation may appeal to the Biden administration as a useful geopolitical cudgel, as well as a defense against right-wing Republic attacks painting the new president as “soft on China.” But it will only strengthen the hand of hardliners determined to provoke a dangerous and potentially catastrophic confrontation with a fellow nuclear-armed power.
“The United States has set out to vilify China,” former US Deputy Chief of Mission in Beijing and Assistant Secretary of Defense Chas Freeman told The Grayzone, and the accusation of Uyghur genocide “is the perfect issue with which to do so.”
Freeman opined that the Chinese “seem to be doing many cruel and counterproductive things in Xinjiang.” However, he cautioned against taking the genocide accusation at face value: “In the current atmosphere, we should be especially skeptical about any and all assertions by people who have become part of the current anti-China campaign in the West. Before we condemn, we should be sure of our facts.”
The Jamestown Foundation did not respond to a request for comment on Zenz’s research.