Backgrounders October 10, 2023

ETHNIC GROUPS IN CHINA

by Rahul Karan Reddy

Summary

China has promoted the participation of ethnic minorities in Party and State politics by co-opting elites from ethnic minorities across various provinces. Managing the political participation of minority groups is increasingly important for social stability in China as well as China’s international image.

 
 

Overview of Ethnic Groups in China

China’s population largely belongs to the Han ethnic group, accounting for 91.11% of the country’s population, according to the population census of 2020. Members of China’s non-Han ethnic groups are called ‘minority nationalities’ and the Chinese government recognises 56 such ethnic groups. Non-Han ethnic groups account for about 8.89 % of the population, number more than 124 million people and are distributed over 60% of China’s territory. In general, minority groups are concentrated in one particular province, but some are spread over two or more provinces. Ethnic minorities have distinct religious and linguistic traditions but also overlapping identities with the Han majority. The integration and development of ethnic groups in China has broad implications for national unity and security. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has initiated numerous policies since 1949 to integrate ethnic minorities into national development and construct a unified national identity.


China’s ethnic minorities are: Achang, Bai, Baonan, Blang, Buyi, Dai, Daur, Deang, Derung, Dong, Dongxiang, Ewenki, Gaoshan, Gelao, Han, Hani, Hezhe, Hui, Jing, Jingpo, Jino, Kazak, Kirgiz, Korean, Lahu, Lhoba, Li, Lisu, Manchu, Maonan, Miao, Monba, Mongol, Mulao, Naxi, Nu, Oroqen, Pumi, Qiang, Russian, Salar, She, Shui, Tajik, Tatar, Tibetan, Tu, Tujia, Uygur, Uzbek, Va, Xibe, Yao, Yi, Yugur, and Zhuang. The table below details the ethnic groups, the provinces in which they reside, their language and religion.

Table 1: Ethnic Groups in China

Ethnic Policies

Ethnic minority policy in China follows a model of national coordination, which means that economic and social development of ethnic minorities is determined by the central government/Party. This model is sanctioned by the constitution of China, which declares that state assistance to ethnic minorities is an integral part of economic and social development of the entire country. Through a variety of tools: legislation, policy initiatives and administrative measures, the state has intervened in the development and integration of ethnic minorities. Assisting economic, cultural and political development has been China’s stated position on the treatment of ethnic minorities since 1949. Though China has improved the economic, cultural and political development of ethnic minorities, their standards of living and integration into the PRC continues to pose a challenge to national development and unity, according to the Party.

Geographic location, development history and cultural barriers have ensured that poverty was acute among ethnic minority groups in China. Of the 592 counties designated by China in 2012 as poverty-stricken regions, 299 (50.5%) were located in ethnic minority areas and of 680 counties classified as impoverished regions, 421 (62%) were located in ethnic minority regions. Reflecting the emphasis of poverty alleviation campaigns on minority groups, the economic development of ethnic minority groups has steadily improved since 2013, marginally outpacing the national average. Per capita disposable income of minority groups grew at a rate of 6.34% annually, 0.47% higher than the national average growth rate. Similarly, per capita consumption expenditure of ethnic minorities grew at 5.91%, higher than the national average by 0.48%. Health status and other development indicators also reveal that the economic development of ethnic minorities improved steadily over the last two decades.

Several special policy initiatives targeting ethnic minorities have been put in place to alleviate poverty. For instance, to target China’s border areas, where 50% of residents are ethnic minorities, policies like the Program to Revitalize Border Areas and Enrich Residents’ Lives under the Developing West China strategy focused on improving physical infrastructure of towns and villages, increasing income of citizens in border areas, enhancing public services for education, healthcare, culture etc, promoting ethnic unity through
trade with foreign countries and developing local industries based on distinctive resources and practices.  Similarly, the Program to Support Ethnic Minority Groups with A Small Population launched in 2001 targeted 22 ethnic groups with a population less than 100,000. In 2011, this was expanded to 28 groups with populations less than 300,000. In 2018, China initiated the Three-Year Action Plan for poverty alleviation which emphasised 6 severely poverty-stricken regions: Three areas (Tibet, southern Xinjiang and counties in Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai with large Tibetan populations) and three prefectures (Liangshan, Nujiang and Linxia). These areas and regions are highly populated by ethnic minorities and have received extensive state support.

Over the past two decades, China has initiated several
policies to improve the conditions of ethnic minorities: “West Development Program”, “Vitalizing Border Areas and Enriching the People Living There”, “Supporting Smaller Ethnic Minorities”, “Re-construction of Villages with Outstanding Ethnic Cultural Features”, “Poverty Alleviation Focusing on Contiguous Poor Areas”, “Water Cellar for Mothers” etc. Although the economic development of ethnic minorities has improved steadily since early 2000s, the gulf between Han and non-Han groups is narrowing at a glacial pace. One estimate indicates that at the current growth rates, it would take about 50 years for ethnic minorities to catch up with the Han in per capita disposable income levels.


Sinicization

A major objective of ethnic policy in China is to cultivate a unified national identity and singular idea of China. China is attempting to assimilate the identities of its ethnic minorities into one Chinese identity by manipulating cultural, language, education and social policies. The enforcement of policies that influence ethnic culture, languages, religions, customs and norms to assimilate minorities into Han culture has been termed Sinicization. These ethnic policies have come under fire especially in Xinjiang and Tibet, but are in place across the country to make ethnic minorities resemble the Han Chinese majority.

Chinese government officials have implemented language and educational policies that prioritise Mandarin Chinese over ethnic languages as a medium of instruction in schools and other public arenas. For instance, the Ministry of Education in 2021 initiated a plan to make Mandarin the medium of instruction in preschools all over the country. In Inner Mongolia, a new language policy has been initiated to make Mandarin the only language to be used for teaching literature, history and ethics. Besides education policy, the Party has also initiated policies to influence the livelihoods and lifestyles of ethnic minorities. Party officials in Inner Mongolia and Tibet have discouraged minorities from engaging in animal husbandry and practicing traditional livelihoods. Besides language and education, Sinicization policies target religion and other customary practices of ethnic minorities. Local governments, under the direction of the State Council, have heightened restrictions on religious schooling, religious institutions and celebrations as well. For instance, in 2019, local authorities in Sichuan were given control of the Larung Gar study center, one of the world’s largest Buddhist education institutions, and they eventually demolished nearly half the center.

China’s ethnic policies have taken a hard-line approach in provinces like Xinjiang and Tibet, deploying “re-education” camps and AI-powered surveillance systems to monitor local populations in minority dominated provinces. The Party has attempted to systematically marginalise the cultural expression of minority groups and promote Han language and culture.

 

Political Participation

China has promoted the participation of ethnic minorities in Party and State politics by co-opting elites from ethnic minorities across various provinces. The Party has considered it necessary to appoint Han Chinese leaders to top posts in ethnic minority autonomous regions as well as include ethnic minority cadres to party positions in order to promote the perception that the political system contains opportunities for minority groups. Ethnic minority leaders appointed to party positions have been thoroughly scrutinised and vetted to ensure that they are loyal to the Party and the leadership. Managing the political participation of minority groups is increasingly important for social stability in China as well as China’s international image. In the 20th Central Committee (CC) of the CPC, only 33 members (8.78%) are from non-Han ethnic groups, while only 10 members (4.88%) out of 205 members of the Full CC are from minority groups. In the 14th National People’s Congress, 442 members (14%) out of 2977 delegates are from ethnic minority groups, a marginal increase from the 13th National People’s Congress.

Conclusion

Ethnic minorities are increasingly important for social stability in China and its international image. The Party carefully manages their political participation and economic development to ensure that they are sufficiently represented and co-opted in the national political, economic and social system in China. At the same time, the Party has undertaken a massive campaign to Sinicize and integrate minority groups and their cultures into the national mainstream through various policies and hard-line strategies. These assimilation strategies are most visible in China’s ethnic minority autonomous regions like Xinjiang and Tibet, where re-education camps have sought to sinicize ethnic minority cultures.

 

Thumbnail image source: China Global Television Network (CGTN)
Content image source: China Daily

Author

Rahul Karan Reddy is an international relations analyst with a Masters degree from O.P Jindal Global University in Diplomacy, Law and Business. He is the author of ‘Islands on the Rocks’, a monograph detailing the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute between China and Japan. His research focus is China and East Asia. He was a research analyst at the Chennai Center for China Studies (C3S) and an intern at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), writing articles and reports on China’s foreign policy and domestic politics. His blog, Asian Drama, follows the rise of India and China as they navigate the Asian Century. He can be reached on rahulkaran.reddy@gmail.com

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