China Table of Contents

China is, like all large states, multiethnic; but one ethnic group--the Han Chinese --dominates the politics, government, and economy. This account focuses on the Han, and it considers the minority peoples only in relation to the Han ethnic group.

Over the centuries a great many peoples who were originally not Chinese have been assimilated into Chinese society. Entry into Han society has not demanded religious conversion or formal initiation. It has depended on command of the Chinese written language and evidence of adherence to Chinese values and customs. For the most part, what has distinguished those groups that have been assimilated from those that have not has been the suitability of their environment for Han agriculture. People living in areas where Chinese-style agriculture is feasible have either been displaced or assimilated. The consequence is that most of China's minorities inhabit extensive tracts of land unsuited for Han-style agriculture; they are not usually found as long-term inhabitants of Chinese cities or in close proximity to most Han villages. Those living on steppes, near desert oases, or in high mountains, and dependent on pastoral nomadism or shifting cultivation, have retained their ethnic distinctiveness outside Han society. The sharpest ethnic boundary has been between the Han and the steppe pastoralists, a boundary sharpened by centuries of conflict and cycles of conquest and subjugation. Reminders of these differences are the absence of dairy products from the otherwise extensive repertoire of Han cuisine and the distaste most Chinese feel for such typical steppe specialties as tea laced with butter.

Official policy recognizes the multiethnic nature of the Chinese state, within which all "nationalities" are formally equal. On the one hand, it is not state policy to force the assimilation of minority nationalities, and such nonpolitical expressions of ethnicity as native costumes and folk dances are encouraged. On the other hand, China's government is a highly centralized one that recognizes no legitimate limits to its authority, and minority peoples in far western Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region, for example, are considered Chinese citizens just as much as Han farmers on the outskirts of Beijing are.

Official attitudes toward minority peoples are inconsistent, if not contradictory. Since 1949 policies toward minorities have fluctuated between tolerance and coercive attempts to impose Han standards. Tolerant periods have been marked by subsidized material benefits intended to win loyalty, while coercive periods such as the Cultural Revolution have attempted to eradicate "superstition" and to overthrow insufficiently radical or insufficiently nationalistic local leaders.

What has not varied has been the assumption that it is the central government that decides what is best for minority peoples and that national citizenship takes precedence over ethnic identity. In fact, minority nationality is a legal status in China. The government reserves for itself the right to determine whether or not a group is a minority nationality, and the list has been revised several times since the 1950s. In the mid-1980s the state recognized 55 minority nationalities, some with as few as 1,1000 members. Minority nationalities are guaranteed special representation in the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Areas where minorities form the majority of the population may be designated "autonomous" counties, prefectures, or regions, subject to the authority of the central government in Beijing rather than to provincial or subprovincial administrations. It is expected that local administrations in such regions will be staffed at least in part by minority nationals and that application of national policies will take into account local circumstances and special needs. In the early 1980s, for example, minority peoples were exempted from the strict limitations on the number of children per family dictated to the Han population.

Most Han Chinese have no contact with members of minority groups. But in areas such as the Xizang (also known as Tibet) or Xinjiang autonomous regions, where large numbers of Han have settled since the assertion of Chinese central government authority over them in the 1950s, there is clearly some ethnic tension. The tension stems from Han dominance over such previously independent or semi-autonomous peoples as the Tibetans and Uygurs, from Cultural Revolution attacks on religious observances, and from Han disdain for and lack of sensitivity to minority cultures. In the autonomous areas the ethnic groups appear to lead largely separate lives, and most Han in those areas either work as urban-based administrators and professionals or serve in military installations or on state farms. Since the late 1970s, the central authorities have made efforts to conciliate major ethnic minorities by sponsoring the revival of religious festivals and by increasing the level of subsidies to the poorest minority regions. Because of these efforts, other moderate government policies, and the geographic distribution and relatively small size of minority groups in China, the country has not suffered widespread or severe ethnic conflict.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress