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Does China Have Indigenous Peoples?

Published: July 19, 2021, Author: Adam Hinden
Does China Have Indigenous Peoples?

China is the largest country in the world by population and the third-largest by land area. It is also home to the largest ethnic group in the world – the Han people. Despite numbering about 1.5 billion, the Han are far from the only group to inhabit the territory of the People’s Republic of China. According to the Chinese Communist Party, 55 different ethnic minority groups (少数民族 – shaoshu minzu) inhabit Chinese territory. However, these groups, along with other unrecognized nations, are not conceptualized as “indigenous”. Even though China voted in favor of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the government has not implemented the plan.

Historically, the concept of nationhood in China did not correspond with ethnicity or language. Instead, nationhood was defined almost exclusively by imperial and cultural control. One could be considered a member of a different group entirely if they resided outside of the Chinese cultural sphere, regardless of ethnic similarity. However, this non-ethnic conceptualization of nationhood shifted as the Communist Party took power in 1949. Namely, the Chinese government, influenced by Soviet understandings of ethnic nationalities, established several ethnic autonomous zones throughout the following decades. These included the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (established in 1955), the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (established in 1958), the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region (established in 1958), the Tibet Autonomous Region (established in 1965), as well as the pre-existing Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (Established in 1947). In 1984, these zones were granted special provisions to self-governance through the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law (REAL). Such protections, however, only gave nominal sovereignty to the different groups they applied to and ultimately served to maintain Han political and economic hegemony. As stated in article 7 of the REAL: “Institutions of self-government in ethnic autonomous areas shall place the interests of the state as a whole above all else and actively fulfill all tasks assigned by state institutions at higher levels” (民族自治地方的自治机关要把国家的整体利益放在首位,积极完成上级国家机关交给的各项任务). The full Chinese text of law can be found here in the George Manuel Library.

The traditional Han concept of nationhood does not necessarily correspond with ethnic minority self-identification or make such groups any less “indigenous”. The unwillingness of the Communist Party to classify indigenous groups as such reflects this historical concept, as well as the fear that any recognition would preclude Han ties to the land. At the same time, in the words of Dr. Ryser, recognition of ethnic minority groups at all illustrates Han efforts to “present themselves as a superior government”. This superiority is maintained in part through ongoing linguistic and cultural reeducation initiatives that aim to “Han-ize” the diverse cultures of the PRC. For example, the Inner Mongolia Department of Education recently announced a new, bilingual curriculum that replaces Mongolian with Mandarin in several subjects. Similarly, assimilationist policies have been implemented in Xinjiang, Tibet, and other indigenous lands. The Chinese government is by no means unique in its colonial relationship with ethnic minorities, but the closed nature of Chinese society has allowed for accelerated and often uncontested assimilation.

The lack of recognition of indigenous groups in China does not mean that such groups do not exist. Instead, this phenomenon reflects the tension between traditional Han conceptions of identity and nationhood, Soviet tenets of ethnic confederate equality, and Western categories of indigeneity. To find out more about the relationship between the Han government and China’s ethnic minorities, check out my interview with Dr. Rÿser.

Chief George Manuel Memorial Indigenous Library

The library is dedicated to the memory of Secwepemc Chief George Manuel (1921-1989), to the nations of the Fourth World and to the elders and generations to come.

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