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State of the World's Minorities 2008 - China

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 11 March 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2008 - China, 11 March 2008, available at: [accessed 18 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

As the world's 'last great multi-ethnic empire', the People's Republic of China has well over 100 million people belonging to minority nationalities, whose numbers have been increasing at a much faster rate than the Han majority. Most minorities inhabit the outlying areas of China: the north-western plateau and desert, the north-eastern plains and hills, and the south-western remote sacred forests and mountains, where they have lived in a sustainable way for centuries. The country has unique natural resources, cultural heritage, ethnic diversity – and increasingly vulnerable ecosystems. The challenges and complexities of ruling a country that is undergoing extraordinary economic and social change, however, should not distract from the disdain the government has shown for political change, the lack of meaningful and inclusive political participation of minorities, and the intolerant attitude of the authorities towards any public criticism of its human rights record. The international community has expressed great concern over the continuing violations of Tibetans' and Uyghurs' religious rights and Mongols' cultural rights; bilateral human rights dialogues and the EU have also criticized China's human rights practices and raised issues of minority protection. Yet, despite the heightened international scrutiny of the country in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics, the state marked the one-year countdown to the Games without having fulfilled the promise to conform to its human rights obligations.

Cracking down on ethnic minorities and the Ethnic Minorities Affairs 11th Five-year Plan

In February 2007, the State Ethnic Affairs Commission (SEAC) announced the Ethnic Minorities Affairs 11th Five-year Plan (2006–10), aimed at strengthening the protection of the cultural identity of disadvantaged ethnic minorities and bringing about positive change by investing in infrastructure development and the improvement of living standards in minority provinces. However, the plan also includes measures designed to monitor ethnic minority relations and report on 'ethnic strife' in targeted minority areas; thus, while it might foster potentially beneficial developmental reforms for some smaller ethnic groups like the Daur, the Ewenki and the Orogen, larger minority communities, such as Mongol pastoralists and farmers, harbour deep mistrust of what they perceive as Han designs for their subjugation and forced assimilation. They remain suspicious that, under the plan, the government would foster sanctioned or spontaneous 'ethnic swamping', facilitating the resettlement of dominant Han Chinese into minority areas and thereby reducing the minorities' proportion of the population. By and large, minority groups fear that the plan will further prevent them from enjoying their rights as the government retains control over their affairs and the autonomous territories.

During 2007, the government remained very sensitive about ethnic unrest in strategic border areas and kept a tight rein on its national minorities. Freedom of religious expression and association remained highly circumscribed, with surveillance and execution of Uyghurs, persecution of Christians, and the enforcement of new rules for Tibetan Buddhists in the designation of their spiritual leader. The authorities implemented regulations restricting Muslims' religious teaching and activities, for example by confiscating for 'safekeeping' the passports of Uyghurs intending to undertake the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca). Societal discrimination against ethnic minority women remained severe, with the government implementing a highly humiliating policy of forcible relocation of young and unmarried ethnic Uyghur women to work in factories in eastern China.

The government political slogan that advocates building a 'harmonious society', and the 'counter-terrorism' pretext, justified a crackdown on alleged ethnic 'splittism' to safeguard social stability in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and remove the causes of social tensions to ensure national security in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XUAR). In August, violent ethnic clashes occurred between Hui and Han in eastern Shandong, and Tibetan monks and Hui Muslims in north-western Qinghai. Such incidents, although not unknown, point at the growing level of social tension between minority communities segregated by religion and ethnicity in tightly controlled areas, while the dominant Han majority are resentful of the preferential policies favouring minority groups like the Hui, who, in turn, complain about being marginalized and discriminated against on the basis of their religion and customs. Therefore, while the new 11th Five-year Plan may contribute to lifting some ethnic groups out of poverty, it does not envisage the institutional safeguards necessary to protect minorities' traditional languages, customs, livelihoods and group values, which are increasingly threatened by the state's call for social stability, national unity and rampant economic development through a systematic process of devaluing and diluting minority nationalities' identities.

Marginalization in education and employment

Employment and education discrimination are interlinked, and while the Chinese government has made great strides in providing compulsory primary education to ethnic children, many are still marginalized, abused and exploited, forced to work long and gruelling hours for low wages at the expense of their education. China's minority nationalities therefore continued to be de facto discriminated against in the fields of employment, social security, use and teaching of minority languages, culture and housing. They resent the discriminatory practice that favours Mandarin-fluent Han seizing employment opportunities and taking up better-paid jobs, which results in their own exclusion and economic disempowerment. The government claims that the Employment Promotion Law (EPL, 2007), enacted to combat employment discrimination on the base of ethnicity, race, age, gender or religious beliefs, will contribute to tackling such bad practice. Yet the existing China Labour Law (1994) already contained such provisions but was not effectively enforced and, on paper, the EPL does not seem to offer any concrete measures of enforcement, penalties for employers or means for those discriminated against to seek redress and compensation. In order to improve education and preserve minority languages, the government responded with substantial financial commitment to support the education of minorities, expanding the enrolment of ethnic students into schooling, increasing the number of ethnic minority cadres, and dispatching more bilingual teachers to ethnic areas. In the past, however, achieving such targets has proved elusive; for example, measures passed in the TAR promoting literacy in Tibetan as a working language have rarely been implemented or have been withdrawn. Some minorities, such as the Shui in Guangxi, responded positively to the educational measures offered by the state, but others, like the Yi in Sichuan, have long been alienated from institutionalized education that fostered few ethnically related incentives for their participation. The reality is that minority children in China are still largely at a structural disadvantage in comparison to Han children, as, rather than instil respect for their own language, values and cultural identity, education is often used to convey a sense of inferiority in comparison to dominant Han culture and values. In this context, only limited optimism is warranted, as the government has yet to provide institutional incentives to promote the learning and use of ethnic minority languages, and internal displacement and resettlement plans put these languages at further risk of extinction.

Environmental challenges

China's environmental challenges are daunting and, in spite of the official commitment (the ambitious National Climate Change Programme, 2007) and the comprehensive set of laws, the state has been slow to support sustainable ecological construction and environmental protection of autonomous areas inhabited by disempowered ethnic minorities. Minorities have largely been excluded from the planning and implementation of environmental regulations that would impact greatly on their lives. They have also been intimidated and silenced by local authorities that substantially curtailed any opposition to economic development programmes. Local officials have also turned a blind eye to serious environmental threats, ignored or not enforced the high targets set by the central government policies and diverted allocated protection funds to other endeavours.

In 2007 there was some progress with the adoption of the Ethnic Minorities Development Plans (EMDPs) in provinces such as Guangxi and Sichuan; the plans ensured minorities some sense of 'ownership' through consultation processes to assess the social and cultural impacts of large projects on groups inhabiting those areas, and sought ways to minimize adverse effects through the identification of appropriate mitigation measures. By contrast, other initiatives led to a host of adverse consequences in the dry northern areas and in southern grasslands and forest reserves. In north-western Ningxia, ethnic groups have accumulated great experience in checking sand erosion by means of afforestation in their struggle against desertification. But local attempts undertaken to establish communal range management systems have been challenged by large-scale digging for medicinal herbs in the grasslands, creating serious conflicts between Han and Hui. In Guizhou, having held an over-optimistic view of tourism development as a 'quick investment return', the Miao lost control over their own resources due to lack of power and capital and ended up marketing their culture. Environmental neglect, industrial pollution and massive resource extraction continued throughout the year, leaving much of the north-west seriously degraded, which has had a major impact on the traditional livelihoods of minorities. In summer, the impact of climate change and environmental degradation on subsistence-based communities challenged the existence of minority communities in the mountainous south-western areas of Yunnan , while north-western Gansu saw the forcible relocation of hundreds of thousands of Tibetan herders. The vicious cycle of climate change and pastoral poverty affected the fragile ecosystem and livelihoods of 33 minority groups on the pastoral Qinghai Plateau in the north-west. Impoverished minority communities along the Yangtze River in Hubei, in Sichuan and Chongqing Municipality have been badly affected by floods and landslides that destroyed thousands of homes, livestock and hundreds of thousands of hectares of land. This combination of high exposure to natural disasters, increasing livestock diseases, decline of pastoral productivity and resources exploitation inhibited both minorities' and the government's capacity to take preventive measures and to protect the environment at local and provincial level. More crucially, the environmental degradation and the economic exploitation of resources has prompted not only growing political disaffection, increasing protest and social unrest, but has also paved the way to eco-conflict for Han and non-Han alike. China's grand-scale urbanization plans aggravated matters in many areas, particularly in the TAR, where the discriminatory allocation procedures to resettle and house Han Chinese meant land seizure and expropriation, as well as forced evictions and the demolition of thousands of traditional Tibetan homes and neighbourhoods, often with little or no compensation. This practice in turn is generating internal and cross-border displacement, and migration of ethnic communities. This is alarming because, if minorities do not maintain their numerical majority status in significant contiguous areas, and are not guaranteed fair representation, the government risks undermining the delivery of a workable framework of genuine autonomy as articulated in the laws. The 'great leap forward to modernization' is steadily eroding the environments, cultures and social values of China's ethnic minorities, depriving them of their traditional means of subsistence and survival. The country faces enormous challenges – water scarcity, severe soil erosion, high rates of desertification, massive floods, and excessive levels of water and air pollution – which impose enormous burdens on China's people and jeopardize long-term progress.

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