China is, like all large states, multiethnic; but one ethnic
Han Chinese (see Glossary)
--dominates the politics,
government, and economy. This account focuses on the Han, and it
considers the minority peoples only in relation to the Han ethnic
(see Minority Nationalities
, ch. 2).
Over the centuries a great many peoples who were originally not
Chinese have been assimilated into Chinese society. Entry into Han
society has not demanded religious conversion or formal initiation.
It has depended on command of the Chinese written language and
evidence of adherence to Chinese values and customs. For the most
part, what has distinguished those groups that have been
assimilated from those that have not has been the suitability of
their environment for Han agriculture. People living in areas where
Chinese-style agriculture is feasible have either been displaced or
assimilated. The consequence is that most of China's minorities
inhabit extensive tracts of land unsuited for Han-style
agriculture; they are not usually found as long-term inhabitants of
Chinese cities or in close proximity to most Han villages. Those
living on steppes, near desert oases, or in high mountains, and
dependent on pastoral nomadism or shifting cultivation, have
retained their ethnic distinctiveness outside Han society. The
sharpest ethnic boundary has been between the Han and the steppe
pastoralists, a boundary sharpened by centuries of conflict and
cycles of conquest and subjugation. Reminders of these differences
are the absence of dairy products from the otherwise extensive
repertoire of Han cuisine and the distaste most Chinese feel for
such typical steppe specialties as tea laced with butter.
Official policy recognizes the multiethnic nature of the
Chinese state, within which all "nationalities" are formally equal.
On the one hand, it is not state policy to force the assimilation
of minority nationalities, and such nonpolitical expressions of
ethnicity as native costumes and folk dances are encouraged. On the
other hand, China's government is a highly centralized one that
recognizes no legitimate limits to its authority, and minority
peoples in far western Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region, for
example, are considered Chinese citizens just as much as Han
farmers on the outskirts of Beijing are.
Official attitudes toward minority peoples are inconsistent, if
not contradictory. Since 1949 policies toward minorities have
fluctuated between tolerance and coercive attempts to impose Han
standards. Tolerant periods have been marked by subsidized material
benefits intended to win loyalty, while coercive periods such as
the Cultural Revolution have attempted to eradicate "superstition"
and to overthrow insufficiently radical or insufficiently
nationalistic local leaders.
What has not varied has been the assumption that it is the
central government that decides what is best for minority peoples
and that national citizenship takes precedence over ethnic
identity. In fact, minority nationality is a legal status in China.
The government reserves for itself the right to determine whether
or not a group is a minority nationality, and the list has been
revised several times since the 1950s. In the mid-1980s the state
recognized 55 minority nationalities, some with as few as 1,1000
members. Minority nationalities are guaranteed special
representation in the National People's Congress and the
Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (see Glossary).
where minorities form the majority of the population may be
designated "autonomous" counties, prefectures, or regions, subject
to the authority of the central government in Beijing rather than
to provincial or subprovincial administrations. It is expected that
local administrations in such regions will be staffed at least in
part by minority nationals and that application of national
policies will take into account local circumstances and special
needs. In the early 1980s, for example, minority peoples were
exempted from the strict limitations on the number of children per
family dictated to the Han population.
Most Han Chinese have no contact with members of minority
groups. But in areas such as the Xizang (also known as Tibet) or
Xinjiang autonomous regions, where large numbers of Han have
settled since the assertion of Chinese central government authority
over them in the 1950s, there is clearly some ethnic tension
(see Minority Nationalities
, ch. 2). The tension stems from Han
dominance over such previously independent or semi-autonomous
peoples as the Tibetans and Uygurs, from Cultural Revolution
attacks on religious observances, and from Han disdain for and lack
of sensitivity to minority cultures. In the autonomous areas the
ethnic groups appear to lead largely separate lives, and most Han
in those areas either work as urban-based administrators and
professionals or serve in military installations or on state farms.
Since the late 1970s, the central authorities have made efforts to
conciliate major ethnic minorities by sponsoring the revival of
religious festivals and by increasing the level of subsidies to the
poorest minority regions. Because of these efforts, other moderate
government policies, and the geographic distribution and relatively
small size of minority groups in China, the country has not
suffered widespread or severe ethnic conflict.
Data as of July 1987