State Council White Paper on Regional Autonomy Reviews Minority Policies

March 29, 2005

China’s State Council issued a white paper on February 28, 2005, entitled "Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities in China," that highlights the progress the Chinese government has made in minority nationality areas.

Divided into five sections, the report outlines why regional autonomy is necessary in China, describes the process of establishing autonomous governments, and lists the rights these territories hold. The white paper also describes the preferential policies that the central government has adopted to promote development in minority regions, and lists the primary achievements of the regional autonomy policy over the last 50 years.

The Communist Party began promoting a system of regional autonomy in 1922, decades before it gained political control of China. Under this system, all minorities living in a concentrated community were allowed to establish autonomous governments, thus becoming "the master of their own homes." By the end of 2003, China had established five provincial-level autonomous areas, 30 autonomous prefectures, and 120 autonomous counties. The head of the government in each of these areas must be a member of the ethnic group practicing regional autonomy. A body of law protects the minorities’ rights on paper (for example, the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law promulgated in 1984 and revised in 2001), though in practice minorities often have problems asserting these rights. The law permits autonomous governments to adapt central government policies that conflict with local ethnic customs, and to use their own languages. The law also permits these governments to promote their own customs, to practice their own religions, to manage and protect their natural resources, and to develop economic plans suitable to local conditions.

The White Paper traces the evolution of minority policy, highlighting the economic advances made in minority territories as a result of central government support. It lists an array of infrastructure projects in minority territories, and notes that the disparity has decreased in recent years between minority territories, which are concentrated in Western China, and territories in Eastern China, where the majority is Han Chinese.

But the report fails to note that the government calculates few socioeconomic statistics based on ethnicity, but rather only on place of residence. Rising per capita income figures for Xinjiang, for example, fail to shed light on the income discrepancies between Han Chinese in Xinjiang and the Uighurs. Most independent analyses agree that ethnic Han Chinese dominate Xinjiang’s urban areas economically, while both urban and rural Uighurs lag behind in income, education, and access to services.

The State Council has issued several white papers on minority affairs over the last ten years, including papers specifically on Tibet and Xinjiang.