Among issues on which China is unsparingly criticized in the Western world is the way it treats its minorities. No doubt, China has problems with its minorities, like other countries. And again, like other political systems, Chinese political systems have, over the centuries, tackled the question in a variety of ways with varying degrees of success.
To put the issue in the contemporary context, Human Rights Watch (HRW), has charged that Beijing’s “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Extremism” has entailed mass arbitrary detention, surveillance, indoctrination, and the destruction of the cultural and religious heritage of the Muslim Uighurs in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. It is alleged that about one million Uighurs are being indefinitely held in “political education camps, where they are forced to disavow their identity and become loyal government subjects.”
In Buddhist Tibet, religious freedom, speech, movement and assembly are allegedly highly restricted with the faintest support for the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, inviting the harshest penalties.
There are 56 officially recognized ethnic groups or “nationalities” in China. As per the 2011 Census, the largest ethnic group, the Han, are about 91.51% of the population and 8.49% are minorities. Of the minorities, the Zhuang (17 million) are the largest. Tibetans are 5.4 million, the Mongols 5.8 million, and the Uighurs are 8.4 million. These are concentrated in their own “autonomous” regions. Though very small compared to the Han, the minorities are strategically important because they inhabit the border areas; occupy 60% of China’s land mass, and their areas are extremely rich in minerals.
Historically, Chinese central governments have had problems in keeping the minorities under their control because of cultural differences and the Hans’ deep-seated habit of looking upon non-Hans as “barbarians”, who have to be either subdued or acculturated and absorbed. Over time, various formulae have been used to bring about accommodation or integration.
Basically, the method has been a combination of appeasement and military force with the mix changing with circumstances, says Xiaohui Wu, in his work: From Assimilation to Autonomy: Realizing Ethnic Minority Rights in China’s National Autonomous Regions (in the Chinese Journal of International Law, March 2014). The more effective instrument of China’s imperial expansion has been the superior power of the social and material culture of the Han Chinese, rather than military conquest or coercion, Xiaohui says. The Han dubbed others “barbarians” and yet assimilated them culturally and integrated them politically into the Han Chinese commonwealth, he argues.
Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China (ROC) after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, recognized the existence of four distinct minority groups in China, namely, the Manchus, Mongolians, Tibetans and Huis (which included Muslims) and assured equality of all ethnic groups. Nevertheless, his ultimate goal was to “facilitate the dying out of all names of individual peoples inhabiting China and to unify and fuse all the peoples into a single cultural and political whole”.
In 1931, under the influence of the Soviets, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) adopted a Draft Constitution in which Art 14 explicitly recognized the right to self-determination of the national minorities. This helped the CCP get the support of the minorities in its fight against the Japanese and the Kuomintang right wing nationalists. After they came to power in 1949, the Communists considered nationality policy to be of utmost importance because of the security issue. The Western powers were poised to set the minorities against the Han. The ethnic minorities inhabited 60% of China’s territory and occupied sensitive border areas. Beijing, therefore, barred secession while allowing regional autonomy.
Article 3 of the 1954 Constitution of the PRC said that China is a “unitary multinational state” and that all the nationalities are equal. Discrimination against or oppression of any nationality, and acts which undermined the unity of the nationalities, were prohibited.
“All the nationalities had the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages, and to preserve or reform their own customs and ways. The government engaged in social engineering on a large scale, starting various types of relief work, introducing new technology, tackling illiteracy and disease and constructing energy, communication and transportation projects in minority areas. It is fair to say that nationalities questions were generally handled with sensitivity in the early 1950s. As a result, relations between the Han Chinese and minorities improved,” Xiaohui writes.
However, things changed in 1957, when a radical leftist reform movement was unleashed. The Cultural Revolution, which followed, also sharped the Han-Minorities divide. “Local nationalism” became a “sin”. But when Deng Xiaoping began to introduce liberal economic reforms in the late 1970s, the accent was on economic development. All Chinese, including the minorities, gained.
However, the loosening of political and economic restrictions and the return to pluralistic policies led to increasing political awareness and nationalist impulses among the minorities, Xiaohui points out. But the State responded positively. In 1982 it put in place a system based on political autonomy, economic autonomy and a system of language, cultural and religious rights. New autonomous units were set up. By 1992, there were five autonomous regions, thirty autonomous prefectures, 124 autonomous counties and 1,200 autonomous townships.
National minorities were exempted from the “one child” policy, which was strictly implemented among the Han Chinese. The minorities were granted privileges like tax reduction, preference for admission to institutions of higher education and religious and cultural freedom from government interference. Between the 1982 and 1990 censuses, while the Han population grew by a total of 10%, the minorities increased by 35%.
There was increased representation of national minorities in the National People’s Congress, the government and the CCP. Of the 161 members of the 11th NPC Standing Committee held in March 2009, 25 were from ethnic minorities, accounting for 15.53 percent of the total, according to Xiaohui.
However, a high proportion of government officials in autonomous government agencies were the Han who did not speak or understand minority languages. In the late 1990s, the Han accounted for 40 to 80% of staff in the autonomous government agencies.
Foreign critics point out that many of the benefits generated from economic development in the minority areas are accrued mainly by Han migrants, especially in the higher paying technical and senior positions, and do not proportionally benefit local minority communities. Further, autonomous regions with a large Han immigrant populations got greater resource allocations from the Center. At any rate all key decisions were, and are, made by a Han-dominated small group in the central government.
Emily Hannum of the University of Pennsylvania and Meiyan Wang, of the Chinese Academy of Social Science say in their paper: Ethnicity, Socio-economic Status, and Social Welfare in China say that
while poverty rates were dropping among minorities, in the rural areas, minorities were 1.5 to 2 times more likely to be poor than their Han counterparts. More than one in 10 rural minority children were below the poverty line, compared to about one in 25 in the case of Han children. Rural minority children’s household incomes were just under two-thirds of the figure reported for Han children. In rural areas, minorities had less access to wage employment than in the Han-dominated rural regions. They made less money when they engaged in wage employment.
Xi’s Poverty Alleviation
However, when Xi Jinping came to power, he made removal of poverty a major goal of the government. Recently he announced that in eight years, 100 million Chinese had been uplifted from “extreme poverty” using technology. Presumably, many of the beneficiaries are from the minority communities in remote rural areas.