• China


    In addition to the Han majority, the Chinese government recognizes 55 peoples of ethnic minorities.

The Indigenous World 2021: China

The People’s Republic of China (PRC or China) officially proclaims itself to be 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 combined 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 for nationalities, setting up their own local governance and giving them the right to practise their own language and culture. These regional national autonomous areas make up approximately 64% of China’s total territory and include, among others, vast territories of Tibet Autonomous Region, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

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

Legislation affecting Indigenous Peoples

China adopted the Yangtze River Conservation Law on 26 December 2020.[1] This is the first national legislation in China on a specific river basin, which covers a large number of regional national autonomous areas in Tibet, Qinghai, Yunnan, Sichuan, Chongqing, Guizhou, Guangxi, Hubei and Hunan provinces. In view of the huge scale of hydropower and water resource exploitation in the river basin, the implementation of this law, which will take effect on 1 March 2021, aims to establish a national coordination mechanism by promoting well-coordinated environmental conservation and avoiding excessive development across the Yangtze River basin. While the law itself is a move in the right direction, there is a need to improve the participatory mechanism and the application of FPIC rule both in the legislative process as well as in further implementation of the law because of the potential effect these initiatives may have on the Indigenous Peoples who live in Yangtze River basin.

In January, the People’s Congress of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) adopted Regulations on the Establishment of a Model Area for National Unity and Progress in TAR, which came into effect on 1 May 2020. The stated aims of this legislation are to consolidate a sense of the Chinese nation’s community and to build TAR into a model area for national unity and progress.[2] However, controversy over the real purpose and function of the regulations, together with the obscure terms of the legislation, were widely raised by Tibetan communities, NGOs, statesmen and observers.[3] International pro-Tibet organisations argue that these regulations will further erode the fundamental liberties of Tibetans and infringe upon their human rights.[4] The largely undefined phraseology in the regulations provide the state with an additional legal tool to suppress Tibetan resistance.[5] The vaguely defined activities of Article 46 provide the grounds for oppressing legitimate claims and freedom of expression. The regulations will further undermine Tibetan national and cultural identity in the region by consolidating the sense that the “Chinese culture is always the emotional support, spiritual destination and spiritual homeland of all ethnic groups in Tibet.” (Article 11).

Relevant legal developments abroad

Internationally, two new pieces of legislation adopted in the USA may affect relevant policies and actions in China, one addressing the situation of the peoples of Xinjiang and the other the situation in Tibet.

The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 condemns gross human rights violations of ethnic Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, and calls for an end to the arbitrary detention, torture and harassment of these communities inside and outside China. It also introduces mechanisms for applying sanctions on those individuals involved in these human rights violations.[6]

The Tibetan Policy and Support Act, among others, establishes a US position on issues surrounding the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama and establishes that, from the US government’s point of view, these matters are exclusively the authority of the current Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhist leaders and the Tibetan people. Any interference by Chinese government officials in these affairs will be met with serious sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, including denial of entry into the United States.[7]

Central work conferences on Tibet, Xinjiang and major programmes

The work conferences convened by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are a special decision-making mechanism that have been convened on an irregular basis since the 1980s to discuss issues in Tibet and Xinjiang.

The Seventh Tibet Work Conference took place on 28 and 29 August in Beijing and summarised the “CCP´s strategy on governing Tibet in the new era”.[8] The concrete policies discussed and decisions made at the conference on Xinjiang, which took place in July, were not made public. [9]

Both conferences signified that China had strengthened its top-down approach on the governance of ethnic affairs, social stability, environmental and economic issues in its border regions. A legislative proposal made by the CCP Committee of TAR on “Construction of Ecological Civilisation in TAR” in November 2020 expressly referred to the decisions of the Seventh Central Tibet Work Conference.[10]

The Fifth Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee of CCP adopted two decisive documents on 29 October 2020: Proposals of the Central Committee of CCP for the Formulation of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) for National Economic and Social Development, and Long-Range Objectives through to the Year 2035. Important decisions in the Proposals are the implementation of the Sichuan-Tibet railway project and the world’s largest hydropower project downstream on the Yarlung Zangbo (Brahmaputra) River. These major programmes have great significance since they will be undertaken in areas inhabited by various Indigenous communities with distinctive cultures.[11]

The Sichuan-Tibet Railway project is a 1,011-kilometre-long railway that will connect Ya'an in Sichuan Province to Nyingchi in TAR. The construction started in 2020 and it is set to be completed in 2030. After the Qinghai-Tibet Railway linking Tibet to Northwest China, it will be the second railway entering TAR. The Central authorities stated that this new construction is a major strategic plan with a long-term perspective. The Chinese media highlighted the significance of the project in developing natural resources in the area, promoting cultural integration, consolidating national unity and border stability.[12] However, the potential environmental, social and cultural impacts on local and Indigenous communities remain unclear. There is no evidence to show that the principle of free, prior and informed consent or due diligence of human rights were applied in the decision-making and project operational processes.

Further, building the world’s largest hydropower station on the Yarlung Zangbo River (Brahmaputra River), as proposed by the CCP during the 14th Five-Year Plan period, has evoked concerns inside and outside China because of its potentially massive environmental destruction, negative social impacts and downstream water shortages.[13]

The dam will impact downstream seasonal hydrological cycles, which hold important cultural and economic significance and impact Indigenous and local communities in India and Bangladesh. In China, although the relocation of Indigenous communities in this project may be relatively small, compared to other similar constructions, it could result in a significant influx of Han Chinese into Tibet.

Educational reform affecting Mongolian language learning

In accordance with the Central authority's requirements, in August the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region’s (IMAR) government issued the directive “Implementation Plan for the Use of Nationally-Compiled Chinese Textbooks in the First Grade of Primary School and the First Grade of Secondary School with Ethnic Language Teaching in the Region”. Following the plan, starting from September the IMAR bilingual (Mongolian and Chinese languages) education schools will use the nationally-compiled “Chinese” textbook in the first grade of primary school and first grade of secondary school. Furthermore, from 2021, the first grades of primary and secondary schools will use the nationally-compiled “Ethics and Rule of Law” (politics) textbook while, from 2022, the first grade of secondary school will use the nationally-compiled “History” textbook.[14]

This new plan changes the established mode of bilingual education in the IMAR. The changes include not only that the former Chinese language textbook used in bilingual schools is now replaced with the nationally-compiled Chinese language textbook, which does not reflect the cultural reality of IMAR, but also that Chinese language education is now starting a year earlier. This nationally-compiled textbook is the same as the one used in Chinese-medium schools and is much more demanding than the one currently used in Mongolian bilingual schools, where most children come from families that use Mongolian in their private life. Children with Mongolian mother-tongue will therefore be assessed and learn the same content as their Chinese mother-tongue peers. In addition, the course named “Language and Literature”, referring to Mongolian language and literature, has been replaced with “Han Chinese language and literature”.

These changes are sensitive because they mean a noticeable reduction in Mongolian language teaching in bilingual schools. Protests erupted in several cities and areas in the IMAR and outside China against this attack on Mongolian language and culture in public schools and moves to impose Han culture. The resistance did not prevent the authorities from implementing the plan.

International concerns and China's responses

In 2020, international media and human rights organisations continued to report on the massive human rights violations against Uyghurs and other minority nationalities in China, including internment of citizens in “re-education” camps, forced labour, mass sterilisation, forced abortions, religious oppression, travel restrictions and restrictions on the use of ethnic minority languages.[15] These reports raised grave concerns among UN experts, human rights officials, treaty bodies and member states, as well as global civil society.

In June 2020, nearly 50 UN Special Procedure mandate holders issued a letter of concern, calling on China to “abide by its international legal obligations” and respect human rights.[16] They expressed severe concerns regarding the repression of “fundamental freedoms”, including the collective repression of the population, especially religious and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet.[17]

More than 300 NGOs signed an open letter to the UN Secretary-General, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (HCHR), and the UN Member States calling for an international human rights monitoring mechanism on China.[18] The UN HCHR, Michelle Bachelet, raised concerns over rights violations in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in her inaugural statement at the 45th session of the Human Rights Council on 14 September. In a declaration drafted by Germany and presented at the UN General Assembly in the Third Committee General Debate on 6 October in New York,[19] 39 predominantly Western countries denounced China for gross human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.

During its 101st session in 2020, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reviewed China’s follow-up report responding to its 2018 Concluding Observations and considered that the response to its recommendations was “unsatisfactory”. Based on multiple sources, the Committee repeated its concerns regarding the following issues: (1) The current legal framework and practice has created a restrictive environment preventing NGOs from documenting and investigating violations of the Convention. These NGOs working on human rights issues, including those working on issues relating to the Convention, have not been able to register or re-register as required in order to be able to conduct their work. Staff members of these NGOs have been subjected to arbitrary detention, disappearances and torture. (2) Large numbers of Uyghurs and members of other minorities are being arbitrarily detained in extrajudicial detention facilities operating as education and training centres and in forced labour camps, in contravention of any recognised legal process with fair trial rights. (3) Children of those detained Uyghurs have been placed in state-run institutions, even when their parents have not given consent or where other close relatives are willing to care for the children. (4) Government controls over day-to-day life in Xinjiang primarily affect members of Uyghur, Kazakh and other Muslim minorities, which would amount to violations of international legal prohibitions against discrimination, in particular the Convention. (5) Government restrictions on the use and teaching or preservation of ethnic minority languages have continued or become more stringent in some cases, and language rights advocates continue to face persecution. (6) Travel restrictions.[20]

The Committee requested that China disclose the current location and status of Uyghur students, refugees and asylum seekers who disappeared upon returning to China from abroad. It also recommended that China take steps to ensure that public discussions of education issues can be held without threat of reprisals. The Committee requested that comments and responses on actions taken by the State party on these issues be included in its next periodic report to be submitted by 28 January 2023.

China responded with a statement that it “categorically rejects the accusations”.[21] China accused the CERD Committee's Observations of repeated lies and slander fabricated by anti-China separatist forces, and that it was maliciously smearing China through Xinjiang and Tibet-related issues. The Chinese statement reiterates that the essence of Xinjiang and Tibet-related issues is China’s determination to safeguard national sovereignty, security and unity and protect the rights of people of all ethnic groups to live in peace and contentment. China denies all allegations and insists that reported issues in Xinjiang and Tibet are not human rights issues by any definition.[22]


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 35th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of the Indigenous community of Kawemhakan, Suriname, where they blocked their airstrip to prevent outsiders from arriving into their villages and potentially bringing COVID-19 with them. This photo was taken by the Mulokot Foundation in Kawemhakan and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2021 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2021 in full here


Notes and references

[1] Xinhua News Agency. “Yangtze River Protection Law of the People's Republic of China.” 27 December 2020. http://www.xinhuanet.com/legal/2020-12/27/c_1126911654.htm

[2] 西藏统一战线. Regulations on the Establishment of a Model Area for National Unity and Progress in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Article 1. 10 April 2020. http://www.xztzb.gov.cn/ziliao/1586505437655.shtml

[3] Finney, Richard. “New Law Requiring 'Ethnic Unity' in Tibet Raises Concerns.” Global Security, 15 January 2020. https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/news/2020/01/mil-200115-rfa03.htm

[4] International Campaign for Tibet. “New regulations on ethnic unity officially depart from preferential ethnic policies, threaten Tibetan culture and violate international human rights norms.” February 2020.


[5] Desal, Tenzin. “Rule by Law: China’s New “Ethnic Unity” Regulation in “TAR”.” Central Tibetan Administration, 12 February 2020. https://tibet.net/rule-by-law-chinas-new-ethnic-unity-regulation-in-tar/

[6] Authenticated U.S Government Information, GPO. “UYGHUR HUMAN RIGHTS POLICY ACT

OF 2020.” 17 June 2020. https://www.congress.gov/116/plaws/publ145/PLAW-116publ145.pdf

[7] Central Tibetan Administration. “US President Trump signs Tibetan Policy and Support bill; CTA is recognized and funding for Tibet provided.” 28 December 2020. https://tibet.net/us-president-trump-signs-tibetan-policy-and-support-bill-cta-recognized-and-funding-for-tibet-provided/

[8] Tibet.cn. “Xi Jinping Attends the Seventh Central Tibet Work Symposium and Delivers an Important Speech.” 2020. http://www.tibet.cn/cn/zt2020/xzzth/

[9] Zhang, Hui and Liu Xin. “Xi calls for law-based governance, unity via long-term efforts at Xinjiang meeting.” Global Times, 26 September 2020. https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1202150.shtml

[10] 刘倩茹. “Luosangjiangchun Chairs the 23rd Conference of the 11th Session of the Standing Committee of the TAR People’s Congress.” China Tibet News, 26 November 2020. http://www.vtibet.cn/xw_702/sz_704/202011/t20201126_1060298.html

[11] Xinhua News Agency. “Article 19 of the Proposals of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China for the formulation of the 14th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development and the Long-Range Objectives Through the Year 2035.” Chinese Government, 3 November 2020. http://www.gov.cn/zhengce/2020-11/03/content_5556991.htm

[12] Fan, Anqi and Li Qingqing. “Construction of Sichuan–Tibet railway to boost local development and border stability.” Global Times, 31 October 2020. https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1205235.shtml

[13] Pandya, Jay. “China Reveals Plan To Build The World's Largest Hydropower Project On Brahmaputra River.” Republic World, 30 November 2020. https://www.republicworld.com/world-news/china/china-reveals-plan-to-build-the-worlds-largest-hydropower-project-on-brahmaputra-river.html

[14] From the autumn semester, the national language teaching schools in our district use nationally compiled Chinese textbooks https://mp.weixin.qq.com/s/LT7jaG_RgDsusj1WVmNcpg

[15] The report of Australian Strategic Policy Institute reveals on “Re-education”, forced labour and surveillance beyond Xinjiang. See Xu, Vicky Xiuzhong et al. “Uyghurs for Sale.” Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), 2020. https://www.aspi.org.au/report/uyghurs-sale; Zenz, Adrian. “China’s Own Documents Show Potentially Genocidal Sterilization Plans in Xinjiang.” Foreign Policy, 1 July 2020. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/01/china-documents-uighur-genocidal-sterilization-xinjiang/

[16] OHCHR. “UN experts call for decisive measures to protect fundamental freedoms in China.” 26 June 2020. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26006

[17] Ibid.

[18] Human Rights Watch. “Global call for international human rights monitoring mechanisms on China.” 9 September 2020. https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/09/09/global-call-international-human-rights-monitoring-mechanisms-china

[19] Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Germany to the United Nations. “Statement by Ambassador Christoph Heusgen on behalf of 39 Countries in the Third Committee General Debate.” 6 October 2020. https://new-york-un.diplo.de/un-en/news-corner/201006-heusgen-china/2402648

[20] OHCHR. “CERD/101st session/FU/MK/ks.” 24 November 2020.


[21] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China. “Press Release by the Permanent Mission of China to the UN Office at Geneva.” 25 November 2020. Accessed 16 December 2020. http://www.china-un.ch/eng/dbdt/t1835662.htm

[22] Ibid.



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