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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2010 - China

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 1 July 2010
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2010 - China, 1 July 2010, available at: [accessed 22 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 2009 was the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Chinese government marked the year by consolidating its political power and celebrating its achievements in many areas, while pledging to improve the country's human rights record. With the publication of the first National Human Rights Action Plan (NHR plan 2009-10) on 13 April 2009, 'The government admitted that "China has a long road ahead in its efforts to improve its human rights situation"', as reported by the official Xinhua news agency. The NHR plan includes a section on the protection of the rights of ethnic minorities and promised Chinese citizens better living standards, greater political rights and additional legal protection. On 3 December, the Xinhua news agency disseminated a speech by the Minister of the Information Office of the State Council Wang Chen on the successful implementation of the NHR plan, stating:

'From what had been observed in the appraisal process, the National Human Rights Action Plan was well or relatively well implemented up to date.... For most of the targets and tasks which are expected to be finished in two years, 50 per cent, or even 65 per cent for some, have been accomplished so far.'

The government further stated how during the year:

'the rights of ethnic minority groups have been further protected with the adoption of various measures to boost social and economic development in regions inhabited by ethnic groups. The State Council convened the first national conference on ethnic minorities' cultures and promulgated regulations and policies to promote the development of ethnic minorities and their cultures.'

The speech was supported by government statistics referring to central government investments of 1.24 billion yuan in infrastructure construction, housing projects and improvements in the standard of living and incomes of minorities in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). However, while the official statistics seem to record significant percentage increases in employment rates and per capita disposable income in these geographic areas, they failed to provide any disaggregated data proving that minority groups inhabiting those 'autonomous' regions had been the primary beneficiaries of such funding, when the areas are increasingly populated by an overwhelming number of Han Chinese.

In practice, China's human rights record remains a matter of serious concern, with economic growth and development not translating into improved minority rights protection. In February 2009, the Chinese government showed that its human rights commitment is less than whole-hearted when it rejected many of the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which called for greater democracy, an improvement in the human rights situation and greater adherence to the rule of law.

In reality during the year, ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities faced severely discriminatory practices in mainstream society. With regard to religious minorities, there were numerous examples of human rights violations, including: abuses of freedoms of expression, speech and press; denial of other civil and political rights; an insufficiently independent and effective judiciary; as well as many cases of arbitrary arrest, detention and inadequate access to remedy. Respect for the fundamental rights of some ethnic minorities, notably freedom of religion, conscience and movement remained closely monitored and severely restricted. Moreover, systematic failure to implement basic labour standards and address labour rights infringements gained China bottom place out of the 196 countries in the Labour Rights and Protection Risk Index – Human Rights at Risk Atlas 2010, a human rights risk assessment tool produced by the UK-based research company Maplecroft.

During 2009, the Chinese government's authoritarian tendencies continued to weaken the rule of law. It did, however, take a number of positive steps, most especially in the area of legislation. There were attempts to draft a refugee law, revise the Law on the Protection of State Secrets of the People's Republic of China, and reform the extra-judicial administrative form of punishment for minor offences operating outside China's Criminal Procedure Law (CPL), known as Re-education Through Labour (RTL), with the newly drafted Illegal Behaviour Correction Law (IBCL). However, these initiatives were marred by other restrictive measures affecting key human rights. Legal barriers affected the implementation of China's minorities policy. For example, no significant progress was made to include a definition of racial discrimination and a prohibition of discrimination in domestic legislation. In August 2009, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), in its Concluding Observations, commended China for adopting a series of policies and programmes aimed at the advancement of minorities, including protecting the rights of special groups in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) through mechanisms such as the Women's Commission and the Ethnic Minorities Forum, and the entry into force of the Race Discrimination Ordinance. Nevertheless, in practical terms a number of rights obligations remained unfulfilled. In its report, CERD expressed concerns regarding the Chinese authorities' lack of disaggregated statistical data regarding the socio-economic status of members of ethnic minorities. CERD also criticized obstacles to the effective public participation of minorities and particularly minority women. And the UN body criticized the incentives system that grants the right to work and settle in autonomous minority areas 'that might substantially alter the demographic composition with negative impact on customary traditions and cultures'. CERD also urged the Chinese government to improve its respect for the religious.

Defiance and repression

As indicated in MRG's State of the World's Minorities 2007, the Chinese authorities' classification of 55 national minorities (shaoshu mínzú), neither reflects the self-identification of such groups nor the reality of ethnic diversity within the country's boundaries. While some of China's minority groups may have benefited from such recognition, the system is still fraught with difficulties, and largely used as a comparative exercise to emphasize Han superiority, given that ethnic minorities are discriminated against in all walks of life.

In 2009, the Chinese authorities equated the frustration of ethnic minorities, especially the Tibetan and Uighur populations, with social unrest to be repressed, leaving the underlying factors fuelling their discontent unaddressed. The government brushed aside the root causes of minorities' discontent as well as Han resentment of 'minorities' special treatment'. It also displayed a lack of understanding and intolerance towards the reality of ethnic diversity across the country. While gaining widespread support for its 'corrective' policies in the XUAR and the TAR from the Han majority, the regime implicitly contributed to undermining the frail social fabric and exacerbated the already tense relations between minority communities and those Han who live in the TAR, the XUAR and Inner Mongolia (IMAR). But the disproportionately violent measures adopted by the Chinese government to repress subjugated and discriminated ethnic communities cannot be condoned on the basis of the state's obligations to protect its citizens and to maintain social stability.

The year 2009 was a defining one for Uighurs in the XUAR. The population has long suffered persistent human rights abuses, widespread discrimination and loss of land to the detriment of their ethnic identity and culture. Initially peaceful demonstrations on 5 July 2009 became violent resulting in the deaths of 197 people, mainly Han, with over 1,700 injured, according to the White Paper of the Information Office of the State Council of the PRC, Development and Progress in Xinjiang, published in September 2009. The Chinese authorities have presented the violent incidents of July 2009 in the XUAR merely as an inter-ethnic conflict between Uighurs and Han, rather than admitting that the violence was an expression of the deep frustration felt by Uighurs. The causes are many and include ongoing state-sanctioned or state-instigated repressive measures, the lack of implementation of policies relating to Uighur development, and forced mass assimilation processes.

With the September '100-day' and the November 'strike hard' official campaigns in 2009, and the new regional 'law on education for ethnic unity' threatening 'national unity' on top of the existing national law against secession, the authorities targeted Uighurs across the XUAR. By the end of 2009, the China News Service reported that 34 people had been convicted of committing crimes in connection with the rioting in July. Another 22 had been sentenced to death, with nine executions having already occurred by year's end.

Since the violent clashes in the XUAR in July 2009, the Chinese government has enforced a massive communications shutdown, tightly controlling the flow of information across the region and in neighbouring provinces. Online sources of information and mobile communications remained censored for months following the July incidents.

The treatment of hundreds of Uighur men, women and children in the XUAR followed the same pattern as that which occurred after the March 2008 Tibetan riots, which led to four persons being sentenced to death and hundreds still remaining unaccounted for, according to USCIRF 2009. By the end of April 2009, the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) in its 'Special Topic Paper: Tibet 2008-2009' reported that TAR courts had convicted 84 Tibetans in connection with the 2008 riots to sentences ranging from death, death with a two-year reprieve or life imprisonment. In the same vein, CECC described how the judicial authorities have used the state secrets law and other measures, 'to prevent and punish attempts to share information on protests, the suppression of the protests by security forces, and the government's continuing crackdown in Tibetan areas'. In November 2009, AI called for urgent action to be taken, as there had been sporadic reports following the Tibetan demonstrations of 2008 of Tibetan monks and nuns facing intimidation and harassment. Individuals were being prosecuted in unfair trials and those who were being held in detention centres were enduring cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, torture, or in some cases death. Despite such severe repression, 2009 nevertheless saw renewed political protests against the Chinese policies towards Tibetans continuing in Sichuan province.

In March 2009, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Tibet, pressuring China to resume a dialogue on 'real autonomy for Tibet' on the basis of the Memorandum for Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People, a document presented to Beijing by envoys of the Dalai Lama in 2008. The European Parliament expressed concern over the lack of access to fair trial procedures for convicted Tibetans and Uighurs, and strongly condemned the execution of two Tibetans in September 2009. In a November 2009 resolution, the European Parliament called for the commutation of all pending death sentences related to the Tibet protests of the previous year. It also called on the Chinese government, 'to make efforts to develop a genuine Han – Uighur dialogue, to adopt more inclusive and comprehensive economic policies in Xinjiang aimed at strengthening local ownership, and to protect the cultural identity of the Uighur population'.

In the IMAR, where ethnic Mongols have long been subjected to cultural assimilation, population transfers and political repression by the Chinese authorities, the NGO Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre (SMHRIC) recorded that, during 2009, human rights advocates remained imprisoned while other activists had been jailed for ''attempting to organize a protest' in the regional capital Hohhot in May for the 62nd anniversary of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.'

Freedom of religion

While China is officially atheist and religious activities remain a very sensitive subject, freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution and regulated by a body of national and regional laws that oversee the 'normal religious activities' of all religious groups. Only officially sanctioned religions – Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism and Taoism – are protected under PRC law. While Buddhism is implicitly supported by the government, Roman Catholicism is officially ostracized and Catholic adherents can only be involved in religious activities through the state-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches of China and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Associations. Under the Regulations on Social Organizations (RSO), 'patriotic religious associations' of Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism are regulated by the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) and control the scope of the registered and unregistered religious groups. According to a Chinese government White Paper published in 1997, China had over 100 million followers of various faiths. In May 2008, the international National Geographic magazine reported that the country was composed of 41.5 per cent atheists, 27.5 per cent Chinese folk believers, 8.5 per cent Buddhists, 8.4 per cent Christians and 1.5 per cent Muslims. Government statistics refer to 20 million Muslims, 16 million Protestants and 5 million Catholics, although unofficial figures are higher.

The issue of religious freedom remained very sensitive during 2009, with citizens mostly unable to uphold their right to freedom of religion through any legal recourse. Practitioners of 'illegal' faiths were often subjected to harassment, beatings and detention. The US CECC in its 2009 'China Human Rights and Rule of Law' update pointed out how an unknown number of unregistered religious groups experienced major difficulties in registering and had been subjected to informal oppressive administrative measures at the hands of local authorities, the Religious Affairs Bureau (RAB) and the Public Security Bureau (PSB).

In 2009, the Chinese leadership pointed to the need for religious affairs to be governed by law rather than by administrative means, 'through a correct understanding and proper handling of key and difficult religious affairs', to ensure China's social harmony and stability. In a March 2009 Special Press Summary upon the opening of the Second Session of the 11th National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislative organ, the Xinhua news agency reported Premier Wen Jiabao as saying, 'We will fully implement the Party's basic principles on work related to religions and enable religious figures and people with religious beliefs to play a positive role in promoting economic and social development.' The government remained wary of religions regarded as a contributing to social unrest, but there was official tolerance of religious groups seen as non-threatening, such as those associated with Buddhism and Taoism, like the Zhuang followers of the Sue Gong in the provinces of Guangdong, the Guangxi Autonomous Region, Guizhou and Yunnan.

Some Han followers of Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism or Taoism have faced religious restrictions and detentions in 2009. Among the Tibetan Buddhist (Lamaism) sects, the powerful Gelug – with the Dalai Lama as spiritual leader – remained the most persecuted and discriminated against in the TAR and the IMAR, enduring rigorous restrictions of religious practices. In contrast, Ben, Kagyu, Nyingma and Sakya Buddhist devotees from Lhobas, Monbas, Tus and Yugurs enjoyed greater religious freedom and less official scrutiny. The same went for Achang, Bai, Blang, Dai, De'ang, Gin and Lahu ethnic minorities practising Hinayana or Pali Buddhism in Yunnan province. Most Muslims, including Bonan, Dongxiang, Hui, Kazaks, Kirgiz, Salar, Tajiks, Uighurs, and Uzbeks who live in Gansu, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Qinghai and the XUAR could exercise their religious rights. At the end of October 2009, the China Daily, for example, reported that 2,250 pilgrims from north-west China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region set off for the hajj to Mecca. However, Freedom House noted in its 2009 Freedom in the World report that the religious activities of Muslims in the XUAR were increasingly curtailed. Freedom of assembly, association and movement were severely restricted, and there were reports that young Uighurs and Tibetans had been forcibly indoctrinated by the People's Liberation Army. Official exploitation of religion and suspicion towards certain religious communities have made society as a whole, and minorities in particular, vulnerable and fearful about the future.

Despite concerted governmental efforts to prevent the spread of Christianity through restrictions on activities, as well as intimidation and imprisonment of religious leaders and activists, the number of Catholics and Protestants continued to grow, mainly in large cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Wuhan, and in certain rural areas. A considerable number of Miao, Yao and Yi minorities also practise Catholicism or Protestantism, with no reports of religious rights infringements during 2009.

The ban on the practice of those beliefs which the state has designated to be 'evil cults', including the Falun Gong, remained in place. Through central government directives, like the 'Strike Hard' campaign, the authorities increased coercive and punitive measures against these communities. The US CECC's 2009 report found that Falun Gong adherents had died after beatings. Falun Gong followers had also been exposed to electric shocks and force-feeding during 2009, while being detained in RTL camps or in police custody, where there were reports of physical abuse and other forms of inhuman treatment.

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