• China


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  • Peoples

    55 ethnic minority peoples are recognised by the Chinese government in addition to the Han Chinese majority
  • Rights

    The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the Government of China on 13 September 2007.
  • Current state

    Although the Government of China has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it does not recognize the term “indigenous peoples”.


Indigenous peoples in China


Besides the Han majority, the Chinese government recognizes 55 ethnic minority peoples. Although the Government of China has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it does not recognize the term “indigenous peoples”, and the Declaration is thus not implemented in China. Human rights defenders emphasise rising tension and widening cracks in the relationship between the Han Chinese majority and the ethnic minority peoples.

UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the Government of China on 13 September 2007.

However, the Chinese government does not recognize the term “indigenous peoples”, and they rarely participate in international meetings related to indigenous peoples’ issues. Although the Chinese government voted in favour of the Declaration, it is not fully implemented in China.

The Law of the People's Republic of China on Regional National Autonomy is an important basis for the governance of ethnic minority peoples. It includes establishing ethnic autonomous regions, setting up their own local administrative governance and the right to practise their own language and culture. “Ethnic autonomous regions” make up approximately 60 per cent of China's total land area.

Indigenous peoples in China

China proclaims itself to be a unified country with a diverse ethnic make-up, and all ethnic groups are considered equal in the Constitution. Besides the Han Chinese majority, the government recognizes 55 ethnic minority peoples within its borders.

According to the latest government data from the 2010 national census, the ethnic minority population stands at 111,964,901 persons, or 8.4 per cent of the country's total population. There are still “unrecognized ethnic groups” in China, numbering a total of 640,101 persons.

Language of the indigenous peoples

Most teaching of mother-tongue languages in ethnic minority regions in China has been marginalized, due to the primacy of Chinese language education.

The language and education policy focuses on raising the Putonghua, standard Chinese, literacy rate in rural communities and ethnic minority regions.

The government education bureau in Tibet has suggested using only Chinese language textbooks for teaching mathematics in grade schools. According to the bureau, printing the textbooks in Tibetan will only complicate the education process.  

Main challenges for China’s indigenous peoples

The main economic and social policies for ethnic minority peoples in China are covered by the national Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) emphasising economic development to deal with the many complicated issues and different ethno-cultures of minority peoples in China.

Although in some ethnic minority regions, the peoples’ livelihood has improved through the government's economic stimulus programs, ethnic minority peoples still see themselves as living under oppression and discriminatory policies, and political unrest and cultural conflicts continue to take place in Uyghur Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia ethnic autonomous regions.

One of the most protracted and difficult challenges is that between the Chinese authorities and the Muslim Uyghur people of Xinjiang, where the government continues to implement strict controls over the Uyghurs to keep them from practising their religious and cultural traditions.

Another struggle for China’s indigenous people relates to restrictions of their movements. Although the Xinjiang regional government abolished the “personal identification program” keeping track of people's residence and movement and restricting Uyghurs from travelling out of the province, a new decree has been announced. It requires Xinjiang residents to turn in their passports to the public security authorities for “annual review” and to be retained for “safekeeping” after the review.

Further, conflict over the expropriation of land and forcible relocation of inhabitants continues to be a challenge for many indigenous people in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Local residents have protested that their pastureland has been rented out to mining companies and property developers, pointing out that transfer of ownership and renting of land is illegal and the mining activities results in pollution and degradation of the environment.

The conflict over land and natural resources between Mongolians and Han Chinese has been ongoing for many hundreds of years. Now the Mongolians are protesting more, using modern technology to present their case to the outside world. These more vigorous and well-organized actions are turning into civil resistance and a direct challenge to Beijing's rule.

Case: Restricting the Uyghurs’ religious and cultural practices

Aiming to prevent the Uyghurs from fasting or performing other religious rituals during Ramadan, in 2016, the Chinese government initiated programs to promote eating and drinking during Ramadan throughout cities and towns across Xinjiang. In Aksu and other cities of Xinjiang, the local education bureau prohibited school students from fasting during Ramadan, and officials said parents would also be punished if the ban was violated.

Further, a “Mosque Rectification” campaign was launched. It was supervised by the Chinese Central Ethnic-Religious Affairs Department, with the support of local Xinjiang authorities and police units. Within three months of the campaign, 5,000 mosques had been demolished in cities, towns and villages around the region.

China: Plans to end nomadic lifestyles by 2015

"The Chinese Government continues to aggressively pursue and expand its national project for displacing nomadic herders off their traditional lands and resettling them in agricultural and urban areas," the Southern Mongolia Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC) said in an e-mailed statement on Tuesday. Citing a statement posted on the official website of China's central government, the group said it marked "a major and seemingly final step toward eliminating the remaining population of nomad herders and eradicating the thousands of years-old nomadic way of life in China."

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IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

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