The population in China’s far western province of Xinjiang grew more than 18 per cent over the past decade, one of the fastest growth rates among the nation’s 31 provincial level jurisdictions, according to the latest national census. The number of people living in Xinjiang was 25.9 million last year, up 2.5 per cent from a year earlier and a jump of 18.3 per cent from 2010, census data showed. Over the past decade, Xinjiang ’s population growth fell just behind the provinces of Zhejiang and Guangdong – two economic powerhouses home to a large number of migrants – as well as Tibet, which has the highest birth rate in the country. The census data released on Tuesday did not include a breakdown by ethnic group for each province, which is expected to be published by provincial governments in coming months and included in a national census database later this year. In the decade to 2020, the population of China’s ethnic minorities grew 10.3 per cent, while the Han majority expanded at just below 5 per cent, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Last year, Han people accounted for 91 per cent of China’s 1.412 billion people. Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said it was hard to tell whether Xinjiang ’s population grew because of migration or local fertility, as authorities have not yet revealed the age structure of the population there. “Minorities used to give more births than the Han ethnic group. And of course, the tightened grip over minorities in Xinjiang did have an impact on the fertility rate but I don’t think there were drastic drops within a short period of time,” Yi said. Xinjiang is home to Uygur Muslims and other minority groups, which according to human rights groups and a United Nations committee have been detained in “re-education centres” and subjected to indoctrination, torture and forced labour. An Associated Press investigation in June last year found that authorities were also carrying out forced birth control on Uygur women. Beijing has aggressively denied that any human rights abuses have occurred in Xinjiang. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a quasi-military organisation that dominates the province’s economy and has been accused of using forced labour by minorities , has been a major driver of population growth over the past decade. Between 2016 and 2019, Xinjiang’s population increased by 1.25 million people, about a third of which came from XPCC, based on government data. From 2016 onwards, the number of people employed by the entity grew at a much faster rate than the region’s total population. At the end of 2019, the total population of XPCC was 3.25 million, a 4.6 per cent increase from 2018, according to official data. After Beijing launched its Great Western Development Strategy in 2000, a flood of migrants were attracted to the region for work on infrastructure or in the industrial and service sectors. The Chinese government has in the past applied a more flexible birth policy to ethnic minorities compared to the Han majority in Xinjiang. Under China’s one-child policy that ended in 2016, Uygur couples could have two children and the families of farmers or herdsmen were allowed three. But in 2017, the provincial government scrapped exemptions for ethnic minorities as part of the country’s revised two-child policy . In 2019, Xinjiang’s birth rate was 8.14 births per 1,000 people, below the national average of 10.5 births per 1,000 and down from 15.3 in 2016, according to official data. By comparison, Tibet’s birth rate in 2019 was 14. 6 per 1,000, the highest among all provinces. Both the birth rate and the growth rate for minority groups in Xinjiang, who accounted for about 60 per cent of the provincial population in 2010, decreased significantly in 2018, especially among Uygurs, thanks to strict implementation of family planning policies, said Li Xiaoxia, a researcher from the Xinjiang Development Research Centre, a think tank established in 2019. “This transformation is not simply a matter of a population increase or decrease, but an overall improvement in the quality of people, and it is a voluntary choice by ethnic minority groups,” she wrote in an article published in January by the state-run China Daily .