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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 - China

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 16 July 2009
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 - China, 16 July 2009, available at: [accessed 21 January 2018]
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.

Contributed by Marusca Perazzi

The year 2008 was marked by a spectacular Olympic Games, intended to promote China's prestige and influence, a devastating earthquake in western Sichuan province, and a string of social instability issues, infringements of rights and denial of fundamental freedoms, highlighting the challenges the Chinese authorities face in governing a Han-dominant multi-ethnic China.

Governance and 'Regional National Autonomy'

In 2008, the government announced its ambitious goal of attaining democratic social progress by 2020, through its official articulation of the Chinese 'nation'. China has never recognized any minority as 'indigenous' or as having special rights. The 'autonomous' regions, districts, and counties where most minorities live, and that today cover 64 per cent of China's territory, offer mostly symbolic recognition of 'minority autonomy', as the Han Chinese increasingly dominate even in those areas.

During 2008 mounting turmoil in minority-populated areas revealed the contradicitons of living under national policies that force minorities to forge a closer identification with the 92 per cent Han majority. While the government promoted more non-Han regional governors to work on the implementation of minority policies, it ensured that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) remained firmly in control. It also continued to grant some minorities, including the Dai and Yao, more freedom to promote their cultural heritage. Through permitting expressions of ethnic identity, such as ethnic folklore and music, that do not challenge the state's control over minority affairs, the authorities bolstered the country's self-image as a tolerant and united multicultural society.

Minority rights and fundamental freedoms

Deep-seated issues for both the Han majority and minorities in governance and the rule of law, employment and social welfare, land seizure and expropriation came to a head in 2008. Central and local authorities heavily monitored and circumscribed minorities' activities, disregarding genuine discontent caused by discriminatory national policies that prevent them from fully enjoying their rights. The March 2008 Tibetan protests and riots in Lhasa, fuelled by deep resentment towards Han dominance, spilled over into Tibetan-inhabited areas in Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu, leading to increased tensions, including between Tibetan Buddhists and Hui Muslims.

The authorities relied on emergency measures to ensure stability, to quell rising dissent and to keep dormant frustration from escalating in minority-inhabited areas in Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Hubei, Guangxi, Heilongjiang and Yunnan. Instead of addressing the underlying institutional factors, the state stepped up security in the Tibet Autonomous Republic (TAR) and the strategic Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Republic (XUAR), home to Muslim Turkic-speaking Uyghur and Hui Sunni, and cracked down on protests in Hotan and Kashgar. Some religious minorities were concerned about measures that support atheism in schools; deny the full exercise of rights of belief, freedoms of expression and movement; and fail to tackle discriminatory practices in education and employment. The government continued to subject minority Buddhists, Muslims and Christians to a strict regulatory framework. It also silenced Tibetan and Uyghur voices, by imposing curfews, preventing mass prayers and impeding international pilgrimages. The public security bureau closely monitored minority rights activists and often equated their peaceful activism with social unrest to be repressed. In the TAR, the authorities renewed the 'patriotic education' campaign to convince the masses to 'fight splittism and protect stability'. Across the country, religious leaders were targeted for ongoing state indoctrination and the circulation of religious publications and texts was curtailed.

Harassment of minority communities along the North Korean border intensified, with local authorities preventing unregistered children of mixed ethnic origin from accessing schooling. The administration in XUAR barred minority children from participating in religious activities, and prohibited teachers from publicly expressing their faith, and students from attending services and receiving private religious teaching. Following the September 2008 local ban on headscarves in Hotan, Muslim women were forced to unveil their faces in public, and others were discouraged from fasting during Ramadan. In Sichuan's Tibetan areas, monks were reportedly removed from monasteries, and hundreds of children shifted from the attached schools to public schools to receive compulsory education.

The authorities used 'anti-terrorism' as a justification to crack down on all forms of perceived dissent on the part of minorities in the TAR and the XUAR. This included prohibitions on language use, harassment of defence lawyers, forced disappearances, widespread arrests and sentencing of an unknown number of Tibetans and the indictment of 1,154 Uyghurs charged with 'endangering state security'. Unaffiliated and unregistered religious groups, including Christians in the eastern regions, continued to be subject to government interference and increased police surveillance, arrests, detention and torture. In November 2008, the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) criticized the discriminatory treatment of minority groups in China and the 'alleged reluctance of police forces and the authorities to conduct prompt, impartial and effective investigations into discriminatory or violent practices'.

Language policies, identity challenges, and resistance in minority education

The state's achievements in its endeavour to provide 'free' basic education for all are creditable. However, China's minorities have been mainly treated as a single entity in education reforms, and the cultural, regional and developmental differences that distinguish them have been largely ignored. The implementation of national education policies has produced mixed results and additional challenges for minority groups during 2008. The National Commonly Used Language Law (2000) guarantees standard Chinese (Putonghua) as the national common language in the political, economic, social and education spheres. There are no formal restrictions in using Putonghua and minority languages simultaneously, but there have been increased limitations on the official use of minority languages and access to education and employment have consequently been affected.

The government reiterated its emphasis on the application of minorities' language policies (of over 120 spoken languages, both with and without a written script), while incorporating the mastering of Putonghua, the official form of spoken Chinese. Such policies have worked best to reduce illiteracy in communities without a formal writing system (Dongxiang), or where language use is limited to some social domains (Zhuang). For others with well-established written scripts (Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur and Yi), where minority groups strongly identify with their native language, policies that limit their use in school have been met with increasing resistance. Minority learners and parents increasingly perceive formal schooling to be more about repressing minorities' culture than promoting their education and cultural integration. The 2008 UNESCO Education for All global monitoring report sees this trend as of particular relevance to predominantly pastoralist minority communities. For the Daurs, Ewenkis, Hezhen and Tibetans, in fact, formal education poses further problems, ranging from accessibility of schools to the availability of bilingual teachers qualified to work with pastoralist children. Nomadic Mongolian communities also continued to sacrifice their linguistic and cultural heritage in education. The government has yet to balance policy to support linguistic diversity and also take into account minorities' education needs.

The amended China Compulsory Education Law (2006), adopted to ensure attainment of compulsory education in rural areas, increases central government control over teaching materials in minority classes and advanced further the use of Putonghua. Mongols, Tibetans and Uyghurs in 2008 continued to suffer disproportionately from unequal or restricted access to quality education or the implementation of inappropriate education strategies. In the Tibetans' case, unwanted assimilation imposed through exclusionary education policies and practices, including bilingual teaching, neither serves the aim of communities' self-development, nor does it open the way to better prospects for employment, housing and adequate standard of living.

The government's commitment to invest more financial and human resources to redress discriminatory practices in language use and development of disadvantaged minorities, have yet to impact on the structural and institutional limitations. The 2007-8 increased level of governmental funding has not led to the educational development of minority communities. Additional investment is required to help remove gender-based discrimination towards minority girls affected by power relations in the community and family commitments, including early marriage, and changes in institutional education policies that do not respect their traditional roles. Gender awareness advocacy pilots in Guangxi and education initiatives in the Gansu significantly increased the enrolment of minority girls in schools by providing financial support, teacher training to minority women and community participation in school planning. But commitments such as training of minority teachers and improved school management in minority areas still have some way to go.

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