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Ethnic minorities in China continue to face discrimination in their access to resources, services, and
political representation

On this page:
Overview

Despite international standards that China has voluntarily assumed requiring nondiscrimination, ethnic minorities in China continue to face discrimination in their access to resources, services, and political representation. In fact, although China's massive economic development strategy has been touted to benefit rural ethnic groups in its western regions, including Mongols, Tibetans, and Uyghurs, in practice this strategy excludes, marginalizes, and masks the increased repression of ethnic minority groups.

Ethnic minorities who voice concerns regarding discrimination and exclusion in the political, social, economic, and cultural spheres are censured, harassed, and even detained. The government's failure to address inequalities, and its overall intolerance of critical views, compounds the vulnerability of ethnic minorities, who are targeted as a result of both their ethnicity and their dissenting opinions.[1]

[Map of China]
Map of China. Click to enlarge.
There are 55 groups designated by the Chinese government as minority "nationalities" or "ethnicities," comprising almost 8.5 percent of China's total population, according to official statistics.[2] The official identification and recognition of minority groups is closely associated with the Communist Party of China's (CPC) political interest in maintaining control. The identification process is mainly state-driven, with little if any input from minorities. As a state construction, the concept of "ethnic minorities" does not reflect the self-identification of the ethnic minority groups; consequently many individuals belonging to these groups do not consider themselves to be minorities. Conflicts arising from such designations are most "visible" where ethnic minorities are particularly active in the fight for self-governance and preservation of their language, culture, and religion, for example, the Mongols in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (IMAR), Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), and Tibetans in Tibet (which includes the Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR] and surrounding Tibetan autonomous areas in neighboring provinces). Their rights, perceived by the PRC as a threat, are especially vulnerable to the mechanisms of repression.

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Identity Recognized, Rights Repressed

Expressions of cultural identity such as religion are often cast as examples of political separatism that can incur harsh punishment.

Ethnic minority rights are unevenly implemented. When aspects of ethnic minority identity are not perceived as a threat, the Chinese authority recognizes and supports their development and preservation; but those aspects deemed to challenge state authority, especially in the XUAR, IMAR, and TAR, are not tolerated.[3] Expressions of cultural identity such as religion are often cast as examples of political separatism that can incur harsh punishment.[4] Minorities thus live under conditions of heightened repression and harsh restrictions on their civil and political freedoms, further undermining their ability to participate in the political arena. Inequalities in basic social services such as education and healthcare, employment discrimination, and inequitable development have contributed to rising tensions between ethnic minorities and the Han Chinese majority. The protection of cultural identity requires measures that actively enable groups to enjoy and develop their culture and language and practice their religion.

Education: In the PRC, the public use of local languages is significantly decreasing, access to education that respects ethnic differences is limited—especially when it comes to religious or cultural education in the autonomous areas—and patriotic and Chinese nationalist education campaigns attempt to reinforce ethnic minorities' sense of loyalty to the state.[5] The education system is implemented in a way that denies Mongolian, Tibetan, and Uyghur children the opportunity and ability to learn their own histories and languages, and to practice their religions and cultures.[6] In fact, PRC regulations and local enforcement measures violate international obligations by depriving minority children of an education that reflects their religious or cultural traditions.[7]

Employment Discrimination: Due to limited access to basic education in ethnic minority areas, many ethnic minorities lack fluency in Mandarin, which prevents them from equal access to work. Such differences in access to education and economic opportunities have contributed to rising tensions, as demonstrated by the March protests in Tibet. Practices such as the posting of signs reading "Uyghurs need not apply,"[8] fuel the perception of an exclusive economic system.
[Map of Western Development Strategy]
Map of WDS. Click to enlarge.

Development Projects: Recognizing that inequalities in education and employment give rise to concerns of social and political stability, the PRC launched the Western Development Strategy (WDS) in 2001,[9] aimed at reducing the disparities between coastal provinces and the interior (including all five autonomous regions) that have resulted from state-driven macroeconomic development efforts.[10] Results show, however, that the WDS has increased migration, strained local resources, and left the allocation of resources even more uneven in favor of Han Chinese.[11]

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Legal Framework: International and Domestic Law

The legal framework for fulfilling the rights of ethnic minorities in China includes both international and domestic law.[12] The government provides some protections in law and in practice for ethnic minority rights, and has established ethnic autonomous governments in regions historically populated by ethnic minority groups. However, the narrow parameters of "ethnic autonomy" and the overriding dominance of the CPC prevent ethnic minorities from enjoying their rights in line with international human rights standards.[13]
The narrow parameters of "ethnic autonomy" and the overriding dominance of the CPC prevent ethnic minorities from enjoying their rights in line with international human rights standards.

Obligations under International Law

Non-discrimination and equality without distinctions are fundamental principles of international human rights law, and apply to ethnic minorities and all others. This standard is outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (English / Chinese), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and elsewhere. Moreover, these laws afford specific rights to all ethnic minorities, rights that are not privileges, but special measures or positive steps necessary to promote equality. The rights held under Article 27 of the ICCPR—to the enjoyment of one's culture, language, and religion—are not contingent on the state's recognition of groups as minorities. Therefore, the PRC is obligated to ensure that everyone can exercise their rights regardless of their official status. While these rights are conferred on individuals, they also "depend in turn on the ability of the minority group to maintain its culture, language or religion," and as such, states may be required to adopt positive measures to protect the identity and language of a minority group.

Domestic Legal Framework

The domestic legal framework governing ethnic minority rights protection stems primarily from the PRC Constitution and the Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy (LREA). While the Constitution sets out the basic principles and the scope of rights to which ethnic minorities are entitled, the LREA focuses on implementation for the autonomous areas.

Article 4 of the PRC Constitution sets out the fundamental principle of equality of all nationalities and of non-discrimination, while also articulating prohibitions against secessionist instigation:[14]

All nationalities in the People's Republic of China are equal. The State protects the lawful rights and interests of the minority nationalities and upholds and develops the relationship of equality, unity and mutual assistance among all of China's nationalities. Discrimination against and oppression of any nationality are prohibited; any acts that undermine the unity of the nationalities or instigate their secession are prohibited.[15]

The 1984 Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy, amended in 2001 and further clarified by the 2005 Provisions of the State Council, defines the legal framework for autonomous governments. The law prohibits discrimination against and the oppression of any nationality, but also prohibits acts undermining the unity of a nationality or instigating national division, a prohibition that has been used against ethnic minorities seeking to preserve their cultural rights.[16] Although the government has taken steps to refine the legal framework for ethnic minority autonomy, by focusing mainly on economic development rather than human rights, it has maintained the fundamental features of the system that deny ethnic minorities meaningful control over their own affairs.[17]
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Lack of Meaningful Political Participation

The Constitution lays out the basic structure of a regional autonomous regime for ethnic minorities, including guarantees for political representation by ethnic minorities in the government and People's Congresses. Articles 117-119 of the Constitution provide autonomous governments authority over a variety of areas, such as culture, economic development, education, finance, public health, and science.[18] However, despite the legal guarantee of autonomy under the PRC laws, minorities are not able to affect legislation or exercise significant self-governance in their own communities. Given the government's intolerance of critical views and rejection of political reforms, the prospects for meaningful political participation of minorities are limited. In fact, very little authority is left to the autonomous regional level, and even legislation on self-governance in autonomous regions is subject to stringent review by the central government, which in reality gives the provinces more legislative autonomy than autonomous regions.[19] While the high levels of local participation by minorities in People's Congresses may suggest that ethnic minorities have significant influence in policymaking, their political participation is often relegated to enforcing policy rather than formulating it. The lack of participation by minorities in development projects and the lack of avenues for expressing concerns have created significant discontent.
Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (IMAR): Mongols have been left out of major initiatives such as the Ecological Migration Project, the Livestock Grazing Ban, the East-West Gas Pipeline project, and the Western Electricity to the East project.

Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR): Locals have limited say in major development initiatives, such as the Golmud-Lhasa Railway, which drastically impacts the demography and geography of TAR.

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR): Uyghurs have had limited participation in the design, formulation and implementation of the state-driven East-West Gas Pipeline project.[20]



This lack of real participation by ethnic minorities in the policymaking structure of the government corresponds with the inability of civil society organizations to effectively reflect and promote the concerns and priorities of ethnic minorities at the grassroots level. In order to operate, civil society organizations are required to affiliate themselves with a government unit and register with the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The government can therefore prevent civil society organizations from venturing into more sensitive political areas, undermining the essential contribution of civil society organizations towards a participatory and inclusive political dialogue.[21] Despite being entrenched in both the PRC Constitution and the LREA, the right to assembly for minorities is in practice non-existent due to the lack of respect for individual civil and political rights. Both tight controls on dissemination of information and the systemic violations of the fundamental freedoms of opinion and expression undercut the development of robust debate and discussion necessary for more inclusive policymaking. Websites and online discussion forums serving ethnic minorities are constantly shut down by the central government, often for allegedly hosting "separatist" content or carrying messages that "harm ethnic relations."[22]

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HRIC's Work on Minority Rights
Below is a listing of HRIC advocacy and media work, including press statements, reports, and articles. To subscribe to HRIC's press list, please e-mail communications@hrichina.org with "SUBSCRIBE" as the subject heading.

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ENDNOTES

[1] Human Rights in China and Minority Rights Group, China: Minority Exclusion, Marginalization and Rising Tensions (Minority Rights Group, February 2007), 7, http://hrichina.org/public/contents/36055.

[2] The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, CECC Annual Report 2007, October 10, 2007, p.105, http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=110_house_hearings&docid=f:38026.pdf.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Human Rights in China and Minority Rights Group, China: Minority Exclusion, Marginalization and Rising Tensions (Minority Rights Group, February 2007), 2, http://hrichina.org/public/contents/36055.

[5] Ibid., p.26.

[6] Ibid., p.2.

[7] Ibid., p.29.

[8] Bruce Gilley, "Uighurs Need Not Apply," Far Eastern Economic Review, August 23, 2001.

[9] Tian Qunjian, "China Develops its West: motivation, strategy and prospect," Journal of Contemporary China, vol. 13, no.41, 2004, pp.611-36.

[10] Human Rights in China and Minority Rights Group, China: Minority Exclusion, Marginalization and Rising Tensions (Minority Rights Group, February 2007), 22, http://hrichina.org/public/contents/36055.

[11] The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, CECC Annual Report 2007, October 10, 2007, p.106, http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=110_house_hearings&docid=f:38026.pdf.

[12] Human Rights in China and Minority Rights Group, China: Minority Exclusion, Marginalization and Rising Tensions (Minority Rights Group, February 2007), 10, http://hrichina.org/public/contents/36055.

[13] The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, CECC Annual Report 2007, October 10, 2007, p.105, http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=110_house_hearings&docid=f:38026.pdf.

[14] Human Rights in China and Minority Rights Group, China: Minority Exclusion, Marginalization and Rising Tensions (Minority Rights Group, February 2007), 11, http://hrichina.org/public/contents/36055.

[15] Constitution of the People's Republic of China, adopted 4 December 1982, amended in 1988, 1993, 1999 and 2004, Art.4. Available at: http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/constitution/constitution.html.

[16] Human Rights in China and Minority Rights Group, China: Minority Exclusion, Marginalization and Rising Tensions (Minority Rights Group, February 2007), 11, http://hrichina.org/public/contents/36055.

[17] The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, CECC Annual Report 2007, October 10, 2007, p.105, http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=110_house_hearings&docid=f:38026.pdf.

[18] Constitution of the People's Republic of China, adopted 4 December 1982, amended in 1988, 1993, 1999 and 2004, Art.4. Available at: http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/constitution/constitution.html.

[19] Lobsang Sangay, "China's national autonomy law and Tibet: a paradox between autonomy and unity," Harvard South Asia Journal, Vol.4, Issue 1, 2006, http://www.tibet.net/en/tibbul/2006/0506/focus.html.

[20] Human Rights in China and Minority Rights Group, China: Minority Exclusion, Marginalization and Rising Tensions (Minority Rights Group, February 2007), 14, http://hrichina.org/public/contents/36055.

[21] "Without a Say: Exclusion from Political Participation," China Rights Forum No.4 2008, http://hrichina.org/public/PDFs/CRF.4.2006/CRF-2006-4_Exclusion.pdf.

[22] Ibid.

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