• China


    In addition to the Han majority, the Chinese government recognizes 55 peoples of ethnic minorities.
  • 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 World 2020: China

Officially, the People’s Republic of China (PRC or China) proclaims itself a unified country with a diverse ethnic make-up, and all nationalities are considered equal in the Constitution. Besides the Han Chinese majority, the government recognises 55 minority nationalities within its borders. According to the latest national census in 2010, the minority nationalities’ population stands at 111,964,901, or 8.49% of the country’s total population. There are also “unrecognised ethnic groups” in China, numbering a total of 640,101 persons. Minority nationalities are socially marginalised in the Chinese context.

The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Regional National Autonomy is a basic law for the governance of minority nationalities in China. It includes establishing autonomous areas of nationalities, setting up their own local governance and the right to practice their own language and culture. These regional national autonomous areas make up approximately 64% of China’s total territory.

The Chinese government does not recognise the existence of Indigenous Peoples in the PRC despite voting in favor of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Unbalanced reactions towards the global governance of climate change, biodiversity and Indigenous Peoples

China – the world largest carbon dioxide emitter1 – has expressed its political ambition as a global leader on climate action through multilateralism, especially after the US decided to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Together with New Zealand, China developed the Nature-Based Climate Solutions Manifesto and a compendium of nature-based solution (NBS) contributions for the UN Climate Action Summit in September 2019.2 Of the 196 initiatives and best practices presented on the NBS contributions platform of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) webpage by over 70 governments, private sector, civil society and international organisations, about 36% initiatives are from China.3

In 2019, climate change has continuously been among the priority issues addressed in the Head of States’ communications between China and other countries. There were also significant activities in building the momentum for enhancing the authority and effectiveness of the multilateral mechanisms on climate change in 2019. In April, the 8th China-EU Energy Dialogue resulted in a Joint Statement on the China-EU Energy Cooperation for the implementation of the Paris Agreement. During the G20 summit in Osaka in June, a press communique was jointly issued by the China-France-UN Tripartite Conference on Climate Change to reaffirm commitment to full and effective implementation of the Paris Agreement. In October, China discussed issues of climate change challenges and future cooperation during the third China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum. The same month, China chaired the BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) Ministerial Meeting on the global climate governance situation. In December, at the 25th Conference of Parties (COP 25) in Madrid, China expressed its commitment to completion of negotiations on the remaining issues of the implementation rules of the Paris Agreement.

In contrast to the active involvement and leadership in global climate governance, the Chinese government’s contribution to the recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ rights globally and domestically was less imposing. The stand on non-recognition of Indigenous Peoples in China prevents their meaningful participation and contributions to climate change and biodiversity conservation actions in China and does not allow them to voice their concerns over the threats to their lands, sacred sites and access to natural resources. While actions on climate change or conservation of biological diversity in China are mainly undertaken on lands and waters traditionally occupied and used by Indigenous Peoples, little to no consideration has been made regarding the impact of these actions on Indigenous Peoples populating these areas.

In June 2019, China submitted the Second Biennial Update Report on Climate Change4 and the Third National Communication on Climate Change5 under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Neither of the two documents mentions concerns and impacts of climate change on Indigenous people or minority nationalities. Meanwhile, a “Conserving Biodiversity for a Beautiful China” project presented by China to the UN NBS contributions platform as a good practice does not recognise the dependency of Indigenous and local communities on biological diversity and the unique role of Indigenous and local communities in conserving life on Earth.6

Domestic institutional framework, climate change action and Indigenous Peoples

China has developed a massive normative framework on climate change. A policy study completed in 2019 revealed that in a decade China has implemented more than 100 policies related to lowering its energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.7

The Outline of the 13th Five Year Plan8 for National Economic and Social Development (FYP), among others, includes chapters on renewable energy, greenhouse gas emission control, minority nationalities, etc. These are the frameworks for governmental agencies to take relevant actions. Unfortunately, the wording on targets and measures in the Promoting Development of Minority Nationalities and their Regions section of the FYP are vague and lacking clear operational plans on climate change.9 Moreover, fragmented institutional and normative frameworks affects climate change governance and Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Institutionally, the State Ethnic Affairs Commission of China (SEAC) is responsible for supervising the implementation of regional national autonomy systems and protecting rights and interests of minority nationalities.10 However, despite the fact that many climate change-related initiatives are implemented in ethnic minority areas, SEAC is not part of the National Leading Group on Climate Change, Energy Conservation and Emission Reduction, an authoritative body composed of 24 ministries and offices under the State Council responsible for comprehensive coordination of climate change policies and measures in China.

Shifting the energy structure towards prioritisation of renewable energy and increasing forest carbon sinks are the main actions that affect Indigenous Peoples in China. The FYP on renewable energy reiterated an earlier announced goal of a 15% share of non‐fossil energy in total primary energy consumption by 2020, and 20% by 2030. Hydropower development plays the key role in reaching the goal. Mega dam projects on all the major rivers in Tibet, such as Brahmaputra, Salween, Jinsha and Yellow River, were either already under construction in 2019 or in stages of preparation. The implementation of these projects may lead to the relocation of local Indigenous communities as well as some likely irreversible damage to biodiversity hotspots. Two main projects – Baihetan and Longpan hydropower stations – for example, each may result in the relocation of about 100,000 people, including Indigenous communities of Tibetans, Naxi and Yi peoples in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.11

Moreover, expanding the long‐distance hydropower transmission capacity for the “west-to-east electricity transfer” project and “transfer Tibet electricity out” project in 2019 also affects local Indigenous communities.12 The world´s highest altitude high-voltage power grid was established in 2019 which links to the ongoing construction of a new Sichuan-Tibet railway line from Chengdu to Lhasa.13 These large-scale infrastructure projects have been undertaken without appropriate cultural and social impact assessment of local Indigenous communities. In 2019, the Ministry of Water Resources in China proposed “water conservation”,14 “maintaining healthiness in river and lakes”,15 and “constructing green small hydropower” initiatives to the UN NBS contributions platform.16 The impacts of these policy initiatives to Indigenous communities remains to be assessed.

In 2019, China continued to implement a number of major forestry ecology protection and restoration projects, including “protecting natural forest resources”, “restoring arable land to nature”, “building forest shelter belt systems”, “wetland protection and restoration”, “comprehensive treatment of stony desertification and sandstorm source control” and “accelerating afforestation”.17 While the state report concluded that “forestry carbon sinks functionality [were] steadily strengthened” by these measures, the involvement of Indigenous Peoples in planning and executing these projects has not been considered and the impact on their livelihood has not been assessed. For example, Oroqin hunters in northeast China were not invited to participate in developing forest resources and afforestation projects, while their access to the material basis of their life as hunting and gathering people in their own autonomous territory has been obstructed.18 A similar situation is observed in Inner Mongolia, where the Ar Horqin grassland nomadic system listed as one of the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems in 201919 has been restricted.

Special focus on climate change governance in Tibet Plateau – the Third Pole of the Earth

Recognising the special vulnerability of the Tibet plateau to climate change, the Chinese government has undertaken a number of initiatives targeting this region. Unfortunately, many of these are undertaken with little consideration of the rights of Indigenous Peoples living in Tibet.

In 2019, authorities continued working on establishing the Sanjiangyuan (source of three rivers) National Park (SNP) set to open in 2020. The park will cover an area of 123,100 km2 of the Tibetan plateau in Qinghai Province.20 The establishment of the SNP is a more advanced measure than previous ‘converting pastures to grasslands’ programmes and preceded by the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve (SNNR), where Indigenous communities were resettled and nomadic herding practices were banned or restricted. Tibetan nomads contend the notion that they are responsible for the grassland degradation of the Tibetan Plateau as suggested by the government, suggesting that Indigenous stewardship and herd mobility are essential to both the health of rangelands and the mitigation of climate change.21 While establishment of the new National Park may effectively prohibit potential mining activities in the area, Indigenous communities are likely to be excluded from the management of the park and development initiatives, such as eco-tourism, and their traditional way of life will be constrained.22

In June 2019, the Ministry of Science and Technology of China submitted the “Initiative of the International Big Science Research Plan: Three Poles Environment and Climate Change” to the UN NBS platform with the idea of promoting scientific and technological innovation and cooperation across various sectors, as well as internationally. Among its objectives, the initiative suggests to “encourage and support Indigenous Peoples to participate in the assessment and definition of  three

poles research priorities, and enhance the ability of Indigenous communities to adapt to three poles changes”.23 Such research, if it finally takes place, could be helpful in bringing Indigenous Peoples’ rights into the Chinese government’s initiatives around climate change in accordance with best practices globally.

New tendencies in 2020

In October 2020, China will host the 15th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The expected result is to adopt the “Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework” as a stepping stone towards the 2050 vision of “living in harmony with nature”. Various stakeholders including Indigenous Peoples from different parts of the world are expected to participate in the event.

It is highly significant to observe any kind of participation of Indigenous Peoples from China in this conference. Among various challenges of implementing CBD in China is ensuring the full involvement of Indigenous communities in the assessment of cultural, environmental and social concerns, and interests of Indigenous communities of proposed developments in the benefit-sharing from the use of biological resources by the Art. 8 (j) of CBD.


Notes and references

  1. Rapier, Robert “China Emits More Carbon Dioxide Than The S. and EU Combined”. Forbes, 1 July 2018: https://www.forbes.com/sites/rrapier/2018/07/01/china-emits-more-carbon-dioxide-than-the-u-s-and-eu- combined/#4d356456628c
  1. United Nations Environment Programme. The Nature-Based Solutions for Climate Manifesto Developed for The UN Climate Action Summit 2019. Accessed 2 March 2019: https://wedocs.unep. org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/29705/190825NBSManifesto. pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
  1. Nature-based Solutions (NBS) contributions platform, Accessed 10 January 2020. https://www.unenvironment.org/nbs-contributions-platform
  2. The People’s Republic of China Second Biennial Update Report on Climate Change, Submission date25 June 2019, https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/ resource/China_BUR2_Chinese.pdf; The People’s Republic of Chi-na Third National Communications on Climate Change, Submission date 25 June 2019, https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/China_NC3_Chinese_0.pdf
  3. “The People’s Republic of China Third National Communication on Climate Change”. Accessed 2 March 2020: http://en.ccchina.org.cn/archiver/ ccchinaen/UpFile/Files/Default/20190920153532866874.pdf
  4. Conserving Biodiversity for a Beautiful China, project implemented by The Ministry of Ecological Environment and local ecological environment Accessed 2 March 2020: http://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/ handle/20.500.11822/29442/BioChina.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
  5. Gallagher, Kelly Sims, and Xiaowei Titans of the Climate: Explaining Policy Process in the United States and China, The MIT Press, 2019.
  6. 2016-2020
  7. Notice of the State Council on Printing and Distributing the “Thirteenth FiveYear Plan” to Promote the Development of Ethnic Regions and Small Ethnic Groups. 24 January 2017: http://www.gov.cn/zhengce/content/2017-01/24/htm
  8. The State Council, The People’s Republic of State Ethnic Affairs Commission. 20 August 2014. http://english.www.gov.cn/state_ council/2014/08/23/content_281474983035926.htm
  9. The specific numbers of relocated populations with Indigenous origins are not
  10. International Campaign for “Damming Tibet’s Rivers New Threats to Tibetan Area Under UNESCO Protec-tion”. Accessed 2 March 2020: https:// savetibet.org/damming-tibets-rivers-new-threats-to-tibetan-area-under- unesco-protection/
  11. Ibid
  12. Persisting in Water Conservation and Strengthening Water Resources Management, Ministry of Water Resources (MWR), People’s Republic of China, https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/28918/Water_pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
  13. Ministry of Water Resources (MWR ), the People’s Republic of China. Strengthening protection of river and lakes, maintaining healthiness in river and lakes. Accessed 2 March 2020: https://wedocs.unep. org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/28922/Protection_of_Rivers. pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
  14. Ministry of Water Resources (MWR), the People’s Republic of China. Constructing green small hydropower of eco-friendly environment, social harmony, standardised management and economic rationality. Accessed 2 March 2020: https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/28914/ pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
  15. The People’s Republic of China, Second Biennial Update Report on Climate Change. Submission date 25 June 2019, https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/ resource/China_BUR2_Chinese.pdf
  16. Liu, Xiaocun ed., Economic and Social Report of the Minority Nationalities´ Region in China Oroqin Autonomous Beijing: China Social Science Publishing House, 2019.
  17. Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) and FAO “Ar Horqin grassland nomadic system in Inner Mongolia”. Accessed 2 March 2020: http:// fao.org/giahs/giahsaroundtheworld/proposed-sites/asia-and-the-pacific/ ar-horqin-nomadic-system/en/
  18. National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC),People´s Republic of China. Master Plan of Sanjiangyuan National Park. Accessed 2 March 2020: https://www.ndrc.gov.cn/xxgk/zcfb/ghwb/201801/W020190905497947574114.pdf
  19. International Campaign for Tibet report, “Chinese policies increase risk of climate emergency for Tibetan nomads, UN panel says”. 12 August 2019: https://savetibet.org/chinese-policies-increase-risk-of-climate-emergency- for-tibetan-nomads-un-panel-says/.
  20. Australia Tibet Council. “An Iron Fist in a Green Glove: Emptying pastoral Tibet with China’s national parks”. Ac-cessed 2 March 2020: https://www.atc.org.au/ report-tibetan-nomads/ 
  21. Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), the People’s Republic of China. Initiative of the International Big Sci-ence Research Plan: Three Poles Environment and Climate Change. Accessed 11 January 2020: https:// wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/28915/Big_Science. pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y


Due to the sensitivity of some of the issues covered in this article, the author prefers to remain anonymous.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



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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