Human Rights and ethnic-regional autonomy in China

May 7, 2023
Guilin, Li River and Karst mountains. Located near Yangshuo County, Guilin City, Guangxi Province, China.

When the western media and politicians speak of China’s treatment of minorities it is always taken for granted that such treatment is a violation of the minority’s human rights. I would venture to differ. China has a complex framework of ethnic-regional autonomy enshrined in its constitution that is poorly understood in the West. Having worked extensively in China, I have found that the two aspects that the Government are most concerned about are internal stability and territorial integrity.

The topography varies from west to east with mountainous areas to the west and fertile planes to the east. All counties designated by the government as poverty-stricken in 2013 are located in western and central areas. This gives rise to income disparity between eastern and western provinces. To maintain stability, China has developed preferential policies for minority areas. These policies and targeted poverty alleviation efforts have served to lift twenty percent of the world’s population out of extreme poverty.

The Chinese Communist Party’s (CPC) concern over territorial integrity has a historical background dating back to the founding of the Chinese Republic. This occurred in 1911 and started an era of Chinese nation-building and integration. As soon as the revolutionaries came to power, they felt the double-edged effect of nationalism. Many ethnic groups wished to follow their example and form separate nations and the concept emerged of a Chinese Republic of Five Nations, the five nations being Manchu, Mongol, Muslim Chinese, Tibetan and Han. The Chinese Communist Party, founded in 1921, initially saw no threat from self-determination within this framework and made attractive promises to ethnic minorities even to the point of recognition of separate states, as occurred in the case of their recognition of the independence of Outer Mongolia under the Soviet umbrella. However, the Long March, which generally followed the demarcation line between China proper and the ethnic frontier, educated the CPC to the extent of ethnic diversity in China and they saw the need for a more cautious stance towards separatism. Thus in 1947, they turned away from the Soviet model of union republics and denied the Inner Mongolian request for a separate republic, proposing instead a framework of ethnic-regional autonomy. This laid the foundation for the current structure for governance of ethnic affairs. The system stresses national political integrity, i.e., military and diplomatic centrality, but provides a degree of autonomy to ethnic minority units. Ethnic-regional autonomy was originally provided at the provincial level, but has been progressively extended downwards to prefecture, county, and even township levels. The determination as to whether a province, county or township has minority status is a highly competitive process, since the Constitution promises ethnic equality, representation in the National People’s Congress and many preferential policies. The process of establishing official minorities occurred in three phases cover the period 1949 to 1982. Initially 400 groups applied for registration and eventually the 400 were reduced to 114 including the original “authentic” official nationalities (100 groups were lumped into a single Yi nationality).

The system of ethnic regional integrity is reflected in the Constitution and references to ethnic minorities are frequent throughout the body of the Constitution generally covering:

  • Equal rights of minorities;
  • The governor of an autonomous region, prefecture or county should be an ethnic citizen from the group implementing local autonomy
  • The right of ethnic autonomous localities to substantial legal and administrative autonomy in numerous areas;
  • The rights of minorities to utilise and develop their own oral and written languages

These provisions are further elaborated in the Ethnic Minority Law of the People’s Republic of China (1984) and legislation down to the lowest levels. But at the lower levels, the legislation and regulation are devoted to affirmative action policies specific to each region.

When Western diplomats and media refer to violation of human rights, it is in relation to Xinjiang. I have visited there several times and have seen no evidence of such practices. Moreover. I have read several articles of people that have lived there who have reached the same conclusion. As has been noted by many contributors to Pearls and Irritations, numerous independent authoritative visitors to Xinjiang reached the same conclusion.

All of China’s disputes with its neighbours in modern times are aimed at preserving territorial integrity and China’s claims in each case have a historical basis usually extending hundreds sometimes thousands of years, I am grateful to the erudite Barry Jones (and more recently Professor Mackerras) for detailing conflicts that China has had with its neighbours over the course of history. I emphasise the term neighbours. But it should be emphasised that the US is not a neighbour of China nor is Australia.

Another area where China in the human rights context is criticised is Hong Kong. The criticism often comes from British commentators or institutions who haven’t come to terms with the fact that Margaret Thatcher returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, after it was ceded to Britain in this shameful period in colonial history referred to in China as the “century of humiliation” and that the fifty years of “one country two systems’ is only half way through and could well be extended. The Chinese mainland and Hong Kong have become inextricably linked over 25 years and after another 25 years the border line may not be perceptible.

To conclude, when commentators in the West speak of China’s treatment of ethnic minorities and human rights – including in Xinjiang and Hong Kong – it should be recognised that a complex framework of ethnic-regional autonomy exist in China’s constitution, informed by the twin concerns over internal stability and territorial integrity. China’s approach to human rights also extends to their entire population. These include the right to have a reasonable standard of living clean environment, healthcare, education, retirement. In 2021 China issued a document detailing its plans for the year 2021-2025 covering all of these areas. In each case, China is exceeding expectations.


This article on China’s treatment of minorities is largely based on a summary written by Professor Zhang Hiyang, Department of Ethnology, Central University of Nationalities, Beijing for the World Bank financed Hubei in Poor Areas Project. China – Hubei Hydroelectric Development in Poor Areas Project (English)

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