NEW RELEASES – China is a vast country and the home of one of the world’s most ancient civilizations. Today, many ethnicities coexist in one of the largest countries in the world. However, are they treated as equals? Are their human rights fully respected? This article will seek to explore the condition of minorities in China, whilst looking at the particular case of the Hui Muslims, who are unexpectedly tolerated by the central government.
A uniform population?
According to the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China at the United Nations, “The People's Republic of China is a united multi-ethnic state founded jointly by the people of all its ethnic groups. So far, there are 56 ethnic groups identified and confirmed by the Central Government.”1 Currently, it’s the Han ethnicity the most prominent one since there are 1.2bn Han in mainland China alone. However, minorities also include large groups of people such as the Zhuang (16.2 million) or the Manchu (10.7 million.)2 Effectively, in China, many ethnic groups live together and they can be found in areas inhabited prominently by Han people or in other contexts, like autonomous provinces where they represent the majority (namely Guangxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Tibet and Xinjiang.)3
As The Economist reported, James Leibold (La Trobe University of Melbourne, Australia) has explained that “ethnicity is central to China’s national identity”4 and, notably, ethnicity and nationality have become interchangeable for China’s Han. This particular conflation of Han, uniformity and coherence, and national identity can underpin the coexistence between the Han majority and the other ethnic groups. However, according to the Chinese government, “equality among ethnic groups means that […] every ethnic group is a part of the Chinese nation, having equal status, enjoying the same rights and performing the same duties in every aspect of political and social life.”5 The principle of equality among all groups is even enshrined in the Chinese Constitution. However, is this principle of equality effectively respected? Are minorities fully protected and efficiently represented in China?
Human rights issues
According to human rights groups, the current situation in China is not as idyllic as it may seem to be. First of all, the definition of “ethnic minorities” itself is vitiated since it has been defined by the state and does not truly reflect the self-identification of each ethnic group. Up to this date, there are many “mínzú” (the Chinese term used to identify the non-Han undistinguished ethnic groups) that remain unrecognised or that have been classified wrongly.6 For instance, the Mosuo are officially classified as Naxi, and the Chuanqing are classified as Han, but they recognise themselves as separate ethnicities.7
These issues of identification and recognition of minorities have led to the creation of a complex relationship between the Chinese government and non-Han ethnic groups. Riots and upheavals have been organised in several autonomous regions such as Tibet and Inner Mongolia.8 Hence, the central government has tried to control and contain the most restive minorities through propaganda. Moreover, Beijing has culturally restricted the non-Han ethnic groups through mechanisms such as by limiting the use of their languages.9 Stopping a community from using their language leads to serious difficulties of access to education and employment for minorities. Furthermore, a particular strategy is to depict the minorities “in government-produced media as harmless entertainers who twist and twirl in bright costumes and hats”10 in contrast with the technological superiority of the Han. According to Dru Gladney (Pomona College, California) “Minorities get exoticised, somewhat like the noble savage […] On the one hand they are seen as backward and on the other hand they are romanticised.”11
Moreover, Amnesty International12 reported that the Chinese government has started a campaign targeting “violent terrorism and religious extremism” in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Whilst the authorities claim to fight terrorist groups and violent acts, Amnesty found out that many human rights violations were perpetrated against the Uighurs, an ethnic group of Muslim Turkic origin. The Uighurs have been subjected to discriminatory practices for many years. For instance, women are not allowed to wear their veils in the capital of the region and Muslims in official positions have been forced to break the Ramadan fast.
Hui Muslims: an exception
The condition of minorities in China is clearly not an easy one. Moreover, “China has a richly deserved reputation for religious intolerance.”13 The ruling Communist Party of China “has long had a fraught relationship with religion, with harsh restrictions in regions like Xinjiang and Tibet, where religious identity is seen as a conduit to separatism.”14 The government has always been particularly sensitive towards religion. Now, in particular, Beijing seems even more alert toward Muslims. Nevertheless, there is an exception to this rule: the Hui.
As Foreign Policy has reported, “China has built a sprawling Hui “culture park” in Ningxia, enshrining Hui Islam’s status as an exemplary form of Chinese religion.”15 Essentially, the Hui are preserving Islam in China by integrating their religious beliefs with Chinese traditions. Their peaceful life and coexistence with the central government can be explained by this adaptation to Chinese cultural traditions, which is highly favoured by Beijing.16 But what does really save the Hui? The Economist has pointed out that “the Hui are counted as an ethnic minority only because it says so on their hukou (household-registration) documents.”17 In fact they also speak Mandarin and look like the Han. Moreover, they represent a definite economic resource for the country and they have taken the “path of assimilation.”18 Being the face of Chinese multiculturalism, the Hui represent a unique reality that is tolerated and manipulated by the central government at the same time. Nevertheless, even in the case of the Hui, the question on the treatment of minorities in China remains open. What is not uniform, coherent and loyal towards the authorities is put under strict controls and rules in China and this issue should be discussed more often in the international panorama.
1 Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China at the United Nations (1999) “National Minorities Policy and Its Practice in China”, Beijing. Available at: http://www.china-un.ch/eng/bjzl/t176942.htm
2 Minorities Rights Group International, “China”, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. Available at: http://minorityrights.org/country/china/
4 The Economist (2016) “Who is Chinese? - The upper Han.” Available at: http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21710264-worlds-rising-superpower...
5 Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China at the United Nations, Op.Cit.
6 Minorities Rights Group International, Op.Cit.
8 The Economist (2016), Op.Cit.4
9 MONTEFIORE Clarissa Sebag (2013) “How China distorts its minorities through propaganda”, BBC Culture. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20131215-how-china-portrays-its-minorities
12 Amnesty International (2015/2016) “Annual report on China 2015/2016.” Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/asia-and-the-pacific/china/report-c...
13 The Economist (2016) “China’s other Muslims.” Available at: http://www.economist.com/news/china/21708274-choosing-assimilation-china...
14 SU Alice (2016) “Meet China’s State-Approved Muslims” Foreign Policy. Available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/11/02/meet-chinas-state-approved-muslims-h...
17 The Economist (2016), Op.Cit.13
MR – Research Assistant at CIPADH
Amnesty International (2015/2016) “Annual report on China 2015/2016.” Available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/asia-and-the-pacific/china/report-c...
Constitution of the People’s Republic of China 1982. Available at: http://en.people.cn/constitution/constitution.html
Minorities Rights Group International, “China”, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. Available at: http://minorityrights.org/country/china/
MONTEFIORE Clarissa Sebag (2013) “How China distorts its minorities through propaganda”, BBC Culture. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20131215-how-china-portrays-its-minorities
Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China at the United Nations (1999) “National Minorities Policy and Its Practice in China”, Beijing. Available at: http://www.china-un.ch/eng/bjzl/t176942.htm
SU Alice (2016) “Meet China’s State-Approved Muslims” Foreign Policy. Available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/11/02/meet-chinas-state-approved-muslims-h...
The Economist (2016) “China’s other Muslims.” Available at: http://www.economist.com/news/china/21708274-choosing-assimilation-china...
The Economist (2016) “Who is Chinese? - The upper Han.” Available at: http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21710264-worlds-rising-superpower...