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China and its ethnic minorities

By Jieh-Yung Lo - posted Thursday, 20 March 2008

For a country that inhabits 56 different ethnic minority groups, China could be classified as one of the most diverse and successful multicultural and multinational societies in the world. Some of the most popular ethnic groups that reside in China known to the general public include the Manchu, Miao, Mongols, Tatars, Tibetan and Uyghurs.

As a point of interest, the combined population of the 123.33 million ethnic minorities comprises 9.44 per cent of China’s overall population and its population growth is about seven times faster than that of the majority Han Chinese.

Ethnic minority groups in China enjoy a number of key rights and responsibilities compared to the Han Chinese, such as being exempted from the infamous One Child Policy. They are also well represented in the National Peoples’ Congress and at all governmental levels. This has ensured a high level of political, cultural and educational exchanges among all ethnic groups in China.


While we witness unfortunate tragic stories from individuals and groups, let us keep in mind all the positive and progressive work the Chinese Government is currently doing to ensure that its ethnic minorities can participate equally and share in China’s economic prosperity. One such example that has been booming both economically and socially is the autonomous region of Tibet.

According to sources from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Tibet has maintained an economic growth rate of more than 12 per cent for the past six consecutive years. In 2006, the GDP of the region reached 29.1 billion Yuan (approximately US$3.93 billion), which is 89 times greater than it ever was back in 1965.

There are currently six universities, 118 secondary schools, seven intermediate vocational schools and 880 elementary schools, together with a total enrolment of 540,000 students and a participation rate of 96.5 per cent of the school age population. A further 60 per cent of the population received at least nine years of compulsory education with the illiteracy rate among the young people reducing to 15 per cent.

Upon the completion of the Qingzang Railway in July 2006, the first railway to connect the autonomous region of Tibet to China proper, Tibet received more than 2.5 million tourists in 2006 both from overseas and domestic China. These initiatives are all covered under the China Western Development policy implemented by the PRC Government.

In addition, the lives of the Tibetan people have improved significantly in the past four decades with an increased investment in social society, infrastructure and employment. For example, in 2005, the Chinese Government reported that the per capita disposable incomes of urban and rural residents in Tibet averaged 8,411 Yuan (US$1,051) and 2,075 Yuan (US$259) respectively. These figures were an increase of 30.4 per cent and 55.9 per cent since the year 2000.

Between 2001 and 2005, the south-western autonomous region created 64,000 new jobs for urban dwellers and the registered urban unemployment rate was kept within 4.3 per cent.


Further improvements include that by the end of 2005 at least 85 per cent of the local population had gained access to radio and television.

More importantly, by granting ethnic minorities these autonomous regions, they have the opportunity to maintain their cultural customs, the freedom to practice their religion and develop institutions to maintain their native languages. A large proportion economic development funds is also being allocated and invested in these regions to ensure continuing prosperity, opportunity and growth. The Chinese Government exempts Tibet from all taxation and provides 90 per cent of Tibet’s government expenditure.

Ethnic minority representatives are also invited to participate in the discussion and planning processes of these development plans. Their involvement has benefited the Chinese Government in highlighting a number of risk factors relating to these development projects. This includes the loss of farmland and animal grazing grounds, damages to irrigation and drainage networks, the relocation of residential accommodations and the increase in pollution. Development and improvement is not just progressing economically, but socially as well.

For a nation with a population over 1.3 billion people, it is very difficult to ensure that all individuals have an opportunity for a decent education, a roof over their heads and jobs to cover their expenses. We all agree that there is still much work to be done for China’s autonomous regions and ethnic minorities such as improving infrastructure, employment opportunities, science and technology.

More importantly, the wealth gap in China between its urban and rural citizens is now one of the largest in the world. Farmers pay their own health care and education costs, meaning their real incomes are a sixth of China’s urban residents. Bridging the wealth gap would be a priority for the Chinese Government in the next decade.

However, with the example of the recent achievements and improvements in Tibet, there is every reason to believe that the people of China, regardless of their ethnic or cultural background, will be entering an age of unprecedented prosperity and happiness.

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About the Author

Jieh-Yung Lo is a Melbourne based writer and Associate Producer of the upcoming documentary film New Gold Mountain - Your Chinese Australia.

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