Upon coming to power in 1949, the Chinese Communist government proclaimed that its stance toward ethnic minorities – who comprise approximately nine percent of China’s population – differed from that of previous regimes and that it would help preserve the linguistic and cultural heritage of the fifty-five official “minority nationalities.” However, minority culture suffered widespread destruction in the early decades of the People’s Republic of China, and minority areas still lag far behind Han (majority) areas economically. Since the mid-1990s, both domestic and foreign developments have refocused government attention on the inhabitants of China’s minority regions, their relationship to the Chinese state, and their foreign ties, but in reality, how much has changed?
China has made several efforts towards protecting the cultures and identities of its minority groups. Many minorities reside primarily in autonomous areas set up for them by the Chinese government. The groups are usually allowed to practice their religion, marriage customs and other aspects of their culture as they please and have some degree of control over their own affairs as long as they respect Beijing’s ultimate authority. Ethnicity has even been incorporated into views about Chinese nationalism. Pioneering, early 20th century, Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen described China’s main ethnic groups—the Han, Manchu, Hui, Mongolian and Tibetans—as the “five fingers” of China. With one of these five fingers missing the Chinese feel their nation is not whole—a view aggressively promoted today by the Communist Party.
The great importance of these autonomous regions to China as a whole, is the reason why they have not been granted full independence. Although small in number, the peoples of the various minority ethnic groups inhabit 64% of the country covering 5 autonomous regions, 30 autonomous prefectures and 120 autonomous counties as well as 1,256 ethnic townships. It certainly is obvious that China would not be the same without some of these regions, especially because as a whole, they are vastly rich in important natural resources, such as timber, water and petroleum. The five great natural grazing grounds of China’s are located in minority areas. Minority area’s wood totals 46.57% of the national total and water resources make up 65.93% of the country’s energies. Besides, there are abundant metal and mineral resources in these areas. Despite this abundance of natural resources there are extremely unbalanced levels of economic development, which further aggravates the divide between Han Chinese and China’s ethnic minorities.
Although the country’s policy toward minorities involves official recognition, limited autonomy and unofficial efforts at control, China’s rapid economic transformation has not improved the lives of ethnic minorities overall. Instead, there continue to be sharp inequalities in basic social services, such as education and health, while income and unemployment comparisons show that persons belonging to ethnic groups fall behind national averages and those for Han Chinese. The costs of inequitable development are high for those living in rural areas, and political exclusion from the process means that solutions are not necessarily made in the best interest of local ethnic minorities. Han Chinese settlers now dominate the urban public sphere in autonomous regions, making it difficult for minorities to maintain distinct cultural identities. Decreased use of local languages in the public sphere, as well as the imposition of Mandarin, means that ethnic minority children have limited access to their native language or cultural education. Political leaders of many minority regions are usually Han Chinese that cannot speak the language of their ruling area, and therefore minorities are excluded from the political sphere as well as many other domains of the public sector.
Despite several efforts to assimilate ethnic minorities in China, there is a fine line between assimilation and exclusion, something which the Chinese government has not quite figured out. The preservation of different cultures whilst simultaneously incorporating ethnic minorities into the dominant culture (Han) has not been completely successful, as assimilation is not simply a one-way street. The immersion of Han culture in regions of minorities has been warmly welcomed and even encouraged by the government, yet the reverse has not occurred. Ethnic minorities in China still remain ostracised, and until true assimilation occurs, China will always be recognised as having an ethnic minority problem, rather than being a multicultural society.