China Table of Contents

Demographic Overview

Approximately 93 percent of China's population is considered Han. Sharp regional and cultural differences, including major variations in spoken Chinese, exist among the Han, who are a mingling of many peoples. All the Han nonetheless use a common written form of Chinese and share the social organization, values, and cultural characteristics universally recognized as Chinese.

Officially, China has fifty-six "nationality" groups, including the Han. The Chinese define a nationality as a group of people of common origin living in a common area, using a common language, and having a sense of group identity in economic and social organization and behavior. Altogether, China has fifteen major linguistic regions generally coinciding with the geographic distribution of the major minority nationalities. Members of non-Han groups, referred to as the "minority nationalities," constitute only about 7 percent of the total population but number more than 70 million people and are distributed over 60 percent of the land.

Some minority nationalities can be found only in a single region; others may have settlements in two or more. In general, however, the minorities are concentrated in the provinces and autonomous regions of the northwest and the southwest. In Xizang, Xinjiang, and Nei Monggol autonomous regions, minorities occupy large frontier areas; many are traditionally nomadic and engage primarily in agriculture or pastoral pursuits. Minority groups in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces and in the Guangxi-Zhuang Autonomous Region are more fragmented and inhabit smaller areas.

According to the 1982 census, approximately 95 percent of Xizang's civilian population of 1.9 million are Tibetan (Zang nationality). An internally cohesive group, the Tibetans have proven the most resistant of the minority groups to the government's integration efforts. Xinjiang, which is as vast and distant from Beijing as Xizang, is the minority area next in demographic and political significance. Despite a large-scale immigration of Han since the 1950s, in 1985 around 60 percent of Xinjiang's 13.4 million population belonged to minority nationalities. Of these, the most important were 6.1 million Uygurs and more than 900,000 Kazaks, both Turkic-speaking Central Asian peoples (see table 9, Appendix A).

Provinces with large concentrations of minorities include Yunnan, where the Yi and other minority groups comprised an estimated 32 percent of the population in 1985; Guizhou, home of more than half of the approximately 4 million Miao; and sparsely populated Qinghai, which except for the area around the provincial capital of Xining is inhabited primarily by Tibetans and other minority nationality members, amounting in 1986 to approximately 37 percent of the total provincial population. Additionally, in 1986 minority nationalities constituted approximately 16 percent of the population of Nei Monggol Autonomous Region. The Guangxi-Zhuang Autonomous Region contains almost all of the approximately 13.5 million members of what is China's largest minority nationality, the Zhuang; most of them, however, are highly assimilated.

Because many of the minority nationalities are located in politically sensitive frontier areas, they have acquired an importance greater than their numbers. Some groups have common ancestry with peoples in neighboring countries. For example, members of the Shan, Korean, Mongol, Uygur and Kazak, and Yao nationalities are found not only in China but also in Burma, Korea, the Mongolian People's Republic, the Soviet Union, and Thailand, respectively. If the central government failed to maintain good relations with these groups, China's border security could be jeopardized. Since 1949 Chinese officials have declared that the minorities are politically equal to the Han majority and in fact should be accorded preferential treatment because of their small numbers and poor economic circumstances. The government has tried to ensure that the minorities are well represented at national conferences and has relaxed certain policies that might have impeded their socioeconomic development.

The minority areas are economically as well as politically important. China's leaders have suggested that by the turn of the century the focus of economic development should shift to the northwest. The area is rich in natural resources, with uranium deposits and abundant oil reserves in Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region. Much of China's forestland is located in the border regions of the northeast and southwest, and large numbers of livestock are raised in the arid and semiarid northwest. Also, the vast amount of virgin land in minority areas can be used for resettlement to relieve population pressures in the densely populated regions of the country.

In the early 1980s, the central government adopted various measures to provide financial and economic assistance to the minority areas. The government allotted subsidies totaling approximately -Y6,000 million in 1984 to balance any deficits experienced in autonomous areas inhabited by minority nationalities. After 1980 the autonomous regions of Nei Monggol, Xinjiang, Xizang, Guangxi, and Ningxia and the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, and Qinghai were permitted to keep all revenues for themselves. The draft state budget written in April 1986 allocated a special grant of -Y800 million to the underdeveloped minority nationality areas over and above the regular state subsidies. The standard of living in the minority areas improved dramatically from the early to the mid-1980s. In Xizang Autonomous Region, annual per capita income increased from - Y216 in 1983 to -Y317 in 1984 (national per capita income was -Y663 in 1983 and -Y721 in 1984). The per capita net income of the minority areas in Yunnan Province increased from -Y118 in 1980 to - Y263 in 1984, for an increase of 81.3 percent. Overall, however, the minority areas remained relatively undeveloped in 1986.


Since 1949 government policy toward minorities has been based on the somewhat contradictory goals of national unity and the protection of minority equality and identity. The state constitution of 1954 declared the country to be a "unified, multinational state" and prohibited "discrimination against or oppression of any nationality and acts which undermine the unity of the nationalities." All nationalities were granted equal rights and duties. Policy toward the ethnic minorities in the 1950s was based on the assumption that they could and should be integrated into the Han polity by gradual assimilation, while permitted initially to retain their own cultural identity and to enjoy a modicum of selfrule . Accordingly, autonomous regions were established in which minority languages were recognized, special efforts were mandated to recruit a certain percentage of minority cadres, and minority culture and religion were ostensibly protected. The minority areas also benefited from substantial government investment.

Yet the attention to minority rights took place within the larger framework of strong central control. Minority nationalities, many with strong historical and recent separatist or anti-Han tendencies, were given no rights of self-determination. With the special exception of Xizang in the 1950s, Beijing administered minority regions as vigorously as Han areas, and Han cadres filled the most important leadership positions. Minority nationalities were integrated into the national political and economic institutions and structures. Party statements hammered home the idea of the unity of all the nationalities and downplayed any part of minority history that identified insufficiently with China Proper. Relations with the minorities were strained because of traditional Han attitudes of cultural superiority. Central authorities criticized this "Han chauvinism" but found its influence difficult to eradicate.

Pressure on the minority peoples to conform were stepped up in the late 1950s and subsequently during the Cultural Revolution. Ultraleftist ideology maintained that minority distinctness was an inherently reactionary barrier to socialist progress. Although in theory the commitment to minority rights remained, repressive assimilationist policies were pursued. Minority languages were looked down upon by the central authorities, and cultural and religious freedom was severely curtailed or abolished. Minority group members were forced to give up animal husbandry in order to grow crops that in some cases were unfamiliar. State subsidies were reduced, and some autonomous areas were abolished. These policies caused a great deal of resentment, resulting in a major rebellion in Xizang in 1959 and a smaller one in Xinjiang in 1962, the latter bringing about the flight of some 60,000 Kazak herders across the border to the Soviet Union. Scattered reports of violence in minority areas in the 1966-76 decade suggest that discontent was high at that time also.

After the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976, policies toward the ethnic minorities were moderated regarding language, religion and culture, and land-use patterns, with the admission that the assimilationist policies had caused considerable alienation. The new leadership pledged to implement a bona fide system of autonomy for the ethnic minorities and placed great emphasis on the need to recruit minority cadres.

Although the minorities accounted for only about 7 percent of China's population, the minority deputies to the National People's Congress made up 13.5 percent of all representatives to the congress in 1985, and 5 of the 22 vice chairmen of its Standing Committee (23 percent) in 1983 were minority nationals. A Mongol, Ulanhu, was elected vice president of China in June 1983. Nevertheless, political administration of the minority areas was the same as that in Han regions, and the minority nationalities were subject to the dictates of the Chinese Communist Party. Despite the avowed desire to integrate the minorities into the political mainstream, the party was not willing to share key decision-making powers with the ethnic minorities. As of the late 1970s, the minority nationality cadres accounted for only 3 to 5 percent of all cadres.

Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese government in the mid-1980s was pursuing a liberal policy toward the national minorities. Full autonomy became a constitutional right, and policy stipulated that Han cadres working in the minority areas learn the local spoken and written languages. Significant concessions were made to Xizang, historically the most nationalistic of the minority areas. The number of Tibetan cadres as a percentage of all cadres in Xizang increased from 50 percent in 1979 to 62 percent in 1985. In Zhejiang Province the government formally decided to assign only cadres familiar with nationality policy and sympathetic to minorities to cities, prefectures, and counties with large numbers of minority people. In Xinjiang the leaders of the region's fourteen prefectural and city governments and seventy-seven of all eighty-six rural and urban leaders were of minority nationality.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress