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

An ethnic group is defined as a shared identity, and while the nuances are often argued, it can be accepted that members of an ethnic group share a common history and origin and are defined by a culture that is perceived to be comparatively different from the “others”. Aspects of this culture to be taken into consideration are linguistics, religion, ritual behaviour, forms of expression etc. Ethnic groups can exist as an identity feature on the scale of small groups of minor villages, to entire nations of a billion people. The Han Chinese ethnic group is one of the latter, with about 91.11% of the population belonging to the singular cultural identity according to the population census of 2020. Han Chinese share a set of cultural values, customs, and beliefs, and are said to be the descendants of the agricultural societies that dominated central China. The modern version of the languages they speak are descended from a common early language. The influence of this proto language remains visible today as the characters used in the Chinese language group are referred to as Hanzi, “Han Characters”. The Han ethnic group makes up the majority population of almost all provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions in mainland China, except for the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, where the Tibetan and Uyghur groups are a majority.

The Tibetan and Uyghur groups are of the 56 recognised non-Han ethnic groups. Members of China’s non-Han ethnic groups are called ‘minority nationalities’ and they account for about 8.89 % of the population, with more than 124 million people that are distributed over 60% of China’s territory. In general, minority groups are concentrated in one particular province such as the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, but some are spread over two or more provinces such as the Mongols. Ethnic minorities have distinct religious and linguistic traditions but also overlapping identities with each other and the Han majority. For example, the Tibetan minority is identified by a linguistic distinctiveness, differing from the Han languages as the common languages of the Tibetan Autonomous Region derive from an indigenous Tibetan alphabet developed in the 7th Century. Similarly, the Tibetan Buddhist belief system of Lamaism, where a Lama or mentor figure guides disciples to enlightenment, differs from Chinese Buddhism due to the method by which Buddhist beliefs were assimilated eastwards to Tibet as opposed to the Han imperial dynasty. While certain sectors of the Han ethnic group follow Buddhism, the origin of the two branches of Buddhism differ entirely, leading to a historical convergence of the groups which make them religiously distinct.

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

 

The need for homogenization existed long before modern powers took over. The political disunity associated with the weakening and downfalls of dynasty after dynasty in China point to the cultural belief of power associated with true Monarchy. 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. These policies are a continuity in a long history of coercive homogenization of the ruled and the criticism of the non-homogenised who resisted rule. These actions were and continue to be justified by the stabilization attributed to unity brought about by the ruling.

Policy Initiatives for the Sinicization of Ethnic Minorites

A major objective of ethnic policy in China is to cultivate a unified national identity and singular idea of China. The process of cultural homogenization to assimilate into Han culture is Sinicization: the cultivation of a unified national identity and a singular idea of China by manipulating social, cultural, language and education policies. The identity markers of religion, language, customs and norms and the disunity caused by a diversity of these has been the basis for sinicization policies through Chinese history. The Sinicization of China and its population is the result of a mix of organic assimilation and coercive homogenization and has been a historically prevalent aspect of Chinese social structure.

Organic assimilation occurred over time as ethnic groups interacted and connected through trade and social connections. A historical example is the case of the Hui ethnic group of China. The Muslim populations of merchants, sailors and soldiers arriving by sea or through Central Asia initially spoke Persian and Arabic, till a shift in their linguistic tradition led to them adopting the Sinitic language of Mandarin. While still religiously distinct from the Han ethnicity due to the Hui group continuing Islamic rituals and beliefs, they linguistically assimilated into central Chinese society as a result of social Sinicization. Intermarriage between the Muslim travellers and Han Chinese women or the need for understanding the Han language to communicate trades is presumed to be a factor in the adaptation of Mandarin and other facets of Chinese life into the Hui people’s culture.

The homogenization of communicative patterns was not always a social decision. The coercive policies of language standardization can be traced back to the bureaucratic governing bodies of the Qin (221 – 206 BCE). This historical policy was a coercive one that made use of the monarch’s absolute power. The king ordered the homogenization of the writing system of the time to ensure smoother commerce and unity, and the pictographic ancestor of modern Sinitic languages became the standard. Language has been a consistent concern of Chinese power throughout history, as having communication limited to a single common language streamlines the process of political discussion, education and national unity among other requirements for the country’s stability.

In modern times, this sentiment is carried forward by the Han majority government. 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, despite at least 6 other languages being used in the region.

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.

Policy Initiatives for the Economic Development of Ethnic Minorities

Despite the cultural homogenization carried out through the cultural policies of Sinicization, the constitution of China declares that state assistance to ethnic minorities is an integral part of economic and social development of the entire country. 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. 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. The Chinese government first addressed the issue of unequal resource distribution soon after the founding of the Peoples’s Republic of China in 1949. Surveys were carried out to resolve issues prior to the 1949 government’s rule, such as incorrect or outdated data on population distribution and unclear historical records. The 1954 constitutional policy of reserved seats in the National People’s Congress guaranteed political representation of the ethnic groups that were previously overshadowed. The progress from less developed societies to inclusion in the socialist People’s Republic had countless positive effects on the elimination of disparity between the ethnic minorities and the Han people.

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. The various plans developed between 1949 and the present include several policies for financial support. These policies ensured that the minority governments retained profits and the fiscal allocation was higher than in Han-dominated regions. Poverty-stricken areas received significant funds and taxes were reduced to encourage loans and the development of local taxation systems to pointedly benefit the community.

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.

The issue of minorities and national diversity was labelled a national unity issue to be solved by the alleviation of social inequality and environmental protection which would lead to greater social and national stability. Under the Western Development Plan (WDP), the ethnic minority dominated non-coastal areas, including Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, etc. were prioritized in terms of infrastructure and national resource allocation. The portrayed goal of the project was to improve education systems and create employment opportunities under large-scale state-sponsored projects; however, the Han majority was greatly incentivized to migrate to the western provinces, intentionally creating disparity between the Han and ethnic minority groups.

This is visible in the case of Xinjiang, at the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). The organisation was established in the 1950s to control economic development and politics in the Uyghur dominated area and has been responsible for the Han population migrating and settling in Xinjiang. The corporation employed 90 per cent Han nationality workers into managerial positions, thus ensuring the government allocated resources trickle down to the Han population and not the minority Uyghurs. Similar racial discrimination has been reported in Tibet, as the Han migrants are prioritized in the state-sponsored projects, leading to economic diversity within the regions. The reality of the consequences of the policy begs the question of whether the approach is to assist ethnic minorities economically, or to garner political control in Han-minority regions by increasing Han populations. 

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. Despite the steady improvement of the economic status of ethnic minorities since early 2000s, the gulf between Han and non-Han groups is narrowing at a glacial pace, likely due to the double-edged nature of the economic development projects. 

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 offers 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.

The National Ethnic Affairs Commission is the government body responsible for policies regarding China’s 55 ethnic minority groups and the collective Chinese population of the ethnic minorities and the Han majority. The commission was established as a means of implementing regional autonomy to the minority groups and had been headed by a member of a minority group until 2020. Chen Xiaojiang was the first Han official to be elected to the position of director. The sudden shift to Han officials taking the positions traditionally reserved for minority spokespeople points to a political shift from encouraging and supporting diversity to coercive assimilation into oneness. Pan Yue’s election to Chen’s position in 2022 further cemented ideas of Chinese national unity and common consciousness into policymaking. As the second Han ethnic group head of the National Ethnic Affairs Commission, Pan’s perspective on the question of ethnic diversity is that of assimilation, as he calls for “ethnic fusion” by dissolving differences between the 56 groups. This proposal identifies the organic assimilation that occurs when foreign cultures enter China, but additionally calls for a reformation for religions such as Tibetan Buddhism and Islam due to their refusal to follow political authority. Pan has been outspokenly critical of Islam, associating societal unrest to the presence of high Muslim populations. For example, tensions in Xinjiang are entirely attributed to the Uyghur presence, despite the unrest being a complex issue, partially caused by structural inequalities and repression faced by the minority ethnic group.

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 policies range from economic development programs to alleviate poverty to standardization policies to homogenize the cultural identities of ethnic minorities. 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.

Updated by Aditi Dash on 22nd May 2024

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

Subscribe now to our newsletter !

Get a daily dose of local and national news from China, top trends in Chinese social media and what it means for India and the region at large.

Please enter your name.
Looks good.
Please enter a valid email address.
Looks good.
Please accept the terms to continue.