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Backgrounders> Nation
UPDATED: May 27, 2009
Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities in China
Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China (February 2005, Beijing)

I. A United Multi-Ethnic State, and Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities

Since its founding in 1921, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has made active efforts to solve China's ethnic problems. It successfully formulated and implemented policies concerning ethnic minorities, and united and led the people of all ethnic groups to win the final victory of the New Democratic Revolution. The First Session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) was convened in September 1949, on the eve of the founding of the People's Republic of China. At the suggestion of the CPC, representatives of different ethnic groups and political parties held consultations, and decided to proclaim the establishment of the People's Republic of China as a united multiethnic state. The conference also adopted the Common Program of the CPPCC, which actually served as a provisional constitution of the new republic. A chapter in the Common Program specially expounded on New China's ethnic policies, and clearly defined regional autonomy for ethnic minorities as a basic policy of the state. This major historical decision was made out of consideration for the particular situation of China.

(1) The Long Existence of a United Multi-Ethnic State Is the Historical Basis for Practicing Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities

China is a united multi-ethnic state with long history. As early as 221 BC, the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), the first feudal empire in the history of China, brought about unification to the country for the first time. The subsequent Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) further consolidated the country's unification. Administrative areas known as jun (prefecture) and xian (county) were established across the country, and uniform systems of law, language, calendar, carriage, currency, and weights and measures were adopted. This promoted exchanges between different areas and ethnic groups, and created the fundamental framework for the political, economic and cultural development of China as a united multi-ethnic state over the next 2,000 years or more. Later dynasties - whether they were established by Han people, such as the Sui (581-618), Tang (618-907), Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644), or by other ethnic minority groups, such as the Yuan (1271-1368) and Qing (1644-1911) - all considered themselves as "orthodox reigns" of China and regarded the establishment of a united multi-ethnic state their highest political goal.

Almost all the central authorities of the feudal dynasties adopted a policy of "rule by custom" toward the ethnic minorities. Under this policy, the political unification of China was maintained while the ethnic minorities were allowed to preserve their own social systems and cultures. The Han Dynasty created the Office of Protector General of the Western Regions in what is now the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, and the Tang Dynasty established Anxi and Beiting Office of Protector General in the same area. These organizations administered only political and military affairs. The central authorities of the Qing Dynasty adopted different measures for governing the ethnic-minority areas in accordance with local characteristics. In the areas where Mongolians lived, a league-banner (prefecture-county) administrative system was exercised. In Tibet, the central government sent Grand Ministers Resident in Tibet and exercised a religious-political rule of lamas and nobles by granting honorific titles to the two most important Living Buddhas, namely, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. In the areas where Uygur people lived in compact communities, a Beg (a generic term for chiefs of Muslim groups appointed by the central authorities) system was adopted. In places where ethnic peoples lived in south China, a system of tusi ("aboriginal office" literally) was introduced. Under the old social system it is impossible for all ethnic groups to enjoy equality in the modern sense of the word, and strife, conflicts and even wars among them were inevitable. Still, the long-standing existence of a united, multi-ethnic state in Chinese history greatly enhanced the political, economic and cultural exchanges among different ethnic groups, and constantly promoted the identification of all ethnic groups with the central government, and their allegiance to it.

(2) The Patriotic Spirit Formed During the Fight Against Foreign Invasions in Modern Times Is the Political Basis for Practicing Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities

For 110 years from the Opium War in 1840, China suffered repeated invasions and bullying by imperialist powers, and Chinese people of all ethnic groups were subject to oppression and slavery. At the critical moment when China faced the danger of being carved up, and when the nation was on the verge of being subjugated, the Chinese people of all ethnic groups united as one, and put up the most arduous and bitter struggles against foreign invaders in order to uphold the country's sovereignty, and win national independence and liberation. During the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45), in particular, Chinese people of all ethnic groups, sharing a bitter hatred for the aggressors, rose in united resistance against the Japanese invaders to safeguard their homes. Many anti-Japanese forces whose members were mainly of ethnic minorities, such as the Hui Detachment and the Inner Mongolia Guerrillas, waged heroic struggles against the Japanese invaders, and contributed greatly to the final victory in the war against fascism. While fighting against imperialist invasions, the Chinese people of all ethnic groups also waged struggles against separatist plots to bring about "independence" for Tibet, "East Turkistan" and "Manchukuo" by a small number of separatists with the support of imperialist powers. Through their struggles against foreign invasions, the Chinese people of all ethnic groups keenly realized that the great motherland is the common homeland of them all, and that only when China's sovereignty and territorial integrity are maintained will all ethnic groups truly come to enjoy freedom, equality, development and progress. People of all ethnic groups must further enhance their unity to safeguard the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and make China a prosperous and rich country.

(3) The Population Distribution Pattern of China's Ethnic Groups, in Which They Live Together over Vast Areas While Some Live in Compact Communities in Small Areas, Plus the Disparities Between Different Areas in Access to Natural Resources and Stage of Development Make It Pragmatic to Adopt the Policy of Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities

The history of the evolution of China's ethnic groups is one of frequent contacts and intermingling. In its long historical development, the various ethnic groups moved frequently from one place to another and gradually formed the pattern of living together over vast areas while some live in individual compact communities in small areas. The Han people, with the largest population, are distributed all over China, while the populations of the other 55 ethnic groups are relatively small, and most of them live in the frontier areas. Still, they can be found in all the administrative regions above county level in the hinterland. Given this population distribution pattern, establishing ethnic autonomous areas of different types at different administrative levels based on regions where ethnic minorities live in compact communities is conducive to the harmony and stability of relations between different ethnic groups and their common development.

The regions inhabited by ethnic minorities in compact communities are large, and rich in natural resources. But compared with other regions, particularly with developed regions, the level of economic and social development in these regions is relatively backward. Regional autonomy for ethnic minorities enables them to bring into full play their regional advantages and promote exchanges and cooperation between minority areas and other areas, and consequently quickens the pace of modernization both in the minority areas and the country as a whole and helps achieve common development of all regions and prosperity for all ethnic groups.

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