East Asia is in demographic collapse and the media have been covering it left, right and centre. South Korea’s record breaking, lowest-in-the-world fertility rate keeps approaching zero. China is being overtaken by India for the first time in millennia in terms of population. It is safe to say that the world has finally realised the depth and scale of East Asia’a population crisis.
Are there any East Asian groups who continue to have above-replacement fertility rates or even high rates of population growth. If so, what are their secrets to success and survival?
Scanning the demographic wastelands of East Asia, it seems like such exceptions hardly exist at all. Most Chinese provinces, even rural ones who have historically had higher than average fertility than the provinces which are more urban or had the one child policy strictly enforced, are losing their birth rate advantages. Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong are on a race to Number 1 for the world’s least fertile societies. All of them “enjoy” total fertility rates below 1.0, when 2.1 is needed to maintain population growth.
To find East Asian ethnic groups with healthy demographic profiles we need to take a trip to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, nestled deep in Central Asia. In this article, we will take a look at the Dungan people, a Chinese Muslim ethnic group in Central Asia. They might become the last growing East Asian ethnic group in the 21st century.
The Dungans are a demographic and historic anomaly. Physically and linguistically indistinguishable from northwestern Han Chinese from Shaanxi and Gansu provinces in China’s arid northwest, the Dungans are descendants of Chinese Hui Muslims who engaged in a bloody and long religiously motivated rebellion against the Qing dynasty and their Han Chinese neighbours in the late 19th century. From 1862 to 1877, Muslims from China’s southwest and northwest engaged in riots, rebellions and massacres seeking to establish an Islamic state. The Han Chinese majority and the ruling Manchu Qing dynasty responded with massacres, battles and ruthless suppression. This roughly coincided with the Taiping rebellion, which was also a religiously themed civil war in late 19th century China launched by a pseudo-Christian cult.
Millions of Han Chinese and Hui Muslims perished in the decade-long war. In 1877, following the defeat of the Muslim rebels, a few thousand Hui Muslims managed to flee China and enter what was then part of the Russian Empire and what is now Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
Settling in the Chüy Valley close to the Chinese border, the Dungans — who have always called themselves Hui or Huimin (回) in Chinese, which is still how non-Turkic Chinese speaking Muslims in China are called — established villages and settlements.
Interestingly, the Dungan language, which is similar to the Shaanxi and Gansu dialects of Mandarin Chinese, became the only Sinitic language to be written completely in the Cyrillic alphabet. Created and promoted by the Soviets, it is fascinating for the writer himself going through how a variety of Mandarin Chinese can be written entirely in an alphabet when it has always traditionally been written in Chinese characters.
Reports from modern day Chinese speakers who have visited the Dungans have reported high levels of mutual intelligibility between each other, with those from the northwest’s biggest city, Xi’An, reporting the highest level of mutual understanding.
However, the Dungans’ story does not end here. Unlike their counterparts in China, including Hui Muslims of China today, they have astonishingly high rates of population growth, unheard of in East Asia today.
Originating in a few thousand in the late 19th century, Dungans today number around 78,000 people in Kazakhstan and 75,400 in Kyrgyzstan, with scattered populations in the rest of the former Soviet Union, coming to a total of around 160,000. Between the 2009 and 2021 censuses of Kazakhstan, the Dungan population grew from 51,944 to 78,817, a 51.7% growth in a little over a decade. In 2022, out of a total population of 78,000, Dungan mothers gave birth to 2,284 children in Kazakhstan, which this writer estimates translates to a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.5.
Birth rate statistics for Dungans in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are hard to come by, compounded by the fact that most information is in Kazakh, Russian or Kyrgyz.
However, a report by the UNFPA regarding Kazakhstan stated that in 2009, Dungans had a TFR of 2.32, higher than the 2.03 of the majority Kazakhs. Since then Kazakhstan’s TFR has bucked the global trend and increased from 2.55 in 2009 to 3.05 in 2022, meaning that it is highly likely that the Dungan fertility rate has increased in that same period of time.
Judging by the population growth rate of the Dungan people in the time periods between 1999-2009 and 2009-2019, it is highly likely that such is the case, as Dungans’ growth rate increased substantially in the latter decade and even grew in percentage nationwide from 0.3% to 0.4% of Kazakhstan’s total population.
With a TFR of 2.3-2.5, the Dungan people have the highest fertility rate amongst any Chinese speaking population in the entire world, bar perhaps the Kokang people in northern Myanmar, about whom this writer wrote an article several years ago in MercatorNet. Their closest brethren, the Mandarin speaking Hui Muslims in China, had a TFR of 1.51 in the 2020 Chinese Census, way below replacement fertility and heading towards the same rapid ageing and demographic decay of other East Asian societies.
In that same census, China had a TFR of 1.33, the majority Han Chinese 1.31, and ethnic Koreans in China had their South Korean cousins’ fertility with a TFR of 0.92. Kazakhstan’s healthy fertility situation also encourages the Dungan to maintain such fertility levels for the foreseeable future, meaning their long-term demographic future is all but guaranteed to be a much healthier one than any other Chinese people.
What explains the stubbornly higher birth rates of this particular group of people, compared to all the other ethnic groups of East Asian origin?
Well, the first reason might be that they are now a completely Central Asian ethnic group. Having escaped from China a century ago, the Dungans never had to deal with a one-child policy or the aggressive family planning movements in other East Asian countries. They also avoided the materialistic and competitive lifestyle of today’s China.
Another reason is their faith — Islam. These people left China because they lost a jihad against the Qing dynasty and the Han majority. Islam is their core identity and to this day almost the entire ethnic group follows Hanafi Sunni Islam, which encourages procreation and is highly conservative. Even during Soviet times, Dungans managed to cling to Islam and in today’s Central Asia, where both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have Muslim majorities, it is highly unlikely that the Dungans will be persecuted for their faith.
What does this mean for China?
Interestingly, despite historical grievances, the Chinese government views the Dungan people favourably. There are programmes which annually recruit hundreds of Dungans to study tertiary education in China’s northwest, where the Dungans originated. Bursaries are provided by the Chinese government, and ceremonies have even been held by the local Xi’an municipal government, where some of the students are studying, to welcome back students to their ancestral land.
This infuriates ethnic Han nationalists, who point out that the Dungans’ ancestors massacred millions of Han during their decade-long rebellion before fleeing China. Welcoming the descendants of these genocidal rebels is outrageous and disrespectful to the history and the people of northwestern China, they grumble. However, in China online protest can easily be quashed.
China clearly wants to use the historical links with the Dungan, however bloody that may be, to promote its strategic goals in the “One Belt One Road” and “Silk Road” trade initiatives, as the Dungans live right in the middle of Central Asia, next to Xinjiang and the persecuted Uyghurs.
Interestingly, the CCP’s courtship of the Dungans is in stark contrast to its treatment of the Uyghurs.
The Dungans are a surprisingly blessed people in terms of demography and may well be the only fertile Chinese-speaking ethnic group in the 21st century (except perhaps the Kokang). What that means for China and Central Asia’s future is anyone’s guess.