Are there indigenous peoples in China


Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer

To person

Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer, born in 1947, Professor of East Asian Politics at the Institute for East Asian Studies and at the Institute for Political Science at the University of Duisburg-Essen. His research interests: political and social change in China, the political cultures of China, questions of nationality politics and various aspects of political and social development.

At first glance, Chinese society is ethnically very homogeneous. More than 90 percent of the population are Han Chinese. The other 10 percent are the 55 recognized national minorities. However, their regions make up two thirds of the total area of ​​the country.

Tibetan monks stand on a road above the Dongzhuling Monastery, in the southwest of the Chinese province of Yunnan, in the mountains. (& copy AP)

At first glance, Chinese society is ethnically very homogeneous. More than 90 percent of the population are Han Chinese. In addition, there are 55 national minorities according to the official census. According to the 2000 census, they made up only 8.4 percent of the population with 106 million people, but the "autonomous" regions they inhabit cover almost two thirds of the total area of ​​the country. In many cases, however, the Chinese, who call themselves Han, also make up the majority of the population there.

However, the homogeneity of this Han must be questioned. They are the result of the mixing of different peoples throughout history; This also includes groups that show considerable differences in terms of language, clothing, customs and way of life, such as the Hakka, the Cantonese and the residents of Fujian.

Due to the 2000-year continuity of the Chinese central authority and culture, traditional ideas shape the behavior towards the non-Chinese peoples to this day. Imperial China saw itself as the cultural center of the world. The farming Han already despised the nomadic and hunter peoples around them, who were culturally and technologically inferior to them.
Confucianism, the ideology that supported the state over the centuries, formed the ideological basis of the contempt for the "barbarians". Nonetheless, Confucianism was not aimed at the annihilation of these peoples, but demanded their subordination to the emperors and their inclusion in the overall structure of the Chinese empire. The sinologist Wolfgang Franke wrote: "Even a barbarian could become a Chinese emperor, but only by integrating himself into the Chinese system and largely giving up his own character." Confucianism lacked the missionary activism that characterized European Christianity. It offered a certain acceptance of other cultures, even if this acceptance was not linked to the idea of ​​equality or equality.
In the Chinese nationality policy, peculiarities such as language, writing and customs are in part tolerated or encouraged. When it comes to birth planning and access to higher education, there are special quotas for members of ethnic minorities. Rather, the assimilation takes place in the "Confucian" way: via the mass settlement of Han Chinese, penetration with Han Chinese education and culture, integration into the party and state structures dominated by Han, the prohibition of "unhealthy" manners and customs, which do not correspond to the moral of the Han, interference with religion, "modernization" and approximation.

Central areas of conflict

There are currently four main areas of conflict:

Political conflict

They were mainly formed around the lack of real autonomy: Autonomous areas in the PRC are defined according to the principles of territory and nationality (s). They enjoy certain special rights, but are strictly controlled by the headquarters.
The Chinese nationality policy after 1949 also had destructive elements. As part of a forced assimilation policy, ethnic minorities were deliberately persecuted and discriminated against under Mao: During the Cultural Revolution, for example, the scripts and customs of many minorities were banned, and only Chinese was allowed in schools. Mosques and Buddhist temples were closed and religious dignitaries and believers were persecuted.

At the beginning of the 1980s, the Chinese leadership was forced to adopt a more moderate policy due to the discontent in the areas of the non-Han peoples and in the interests of economic development and "modernization" of these regions. The 1982 constitution upgraded the minorities accordingly, and an "Autonomy Act" of 1984 formally granted them the most far-reaching freedoms since the founding of the People's Republic. The autonomous regions were given extended rights for economic development, for the protection and management of their resources, in foreign trade, education and in the cultural field. Furthermore, there are written and percentage-based representation rights for the ethnic minorities in parliaments (people's congresses) at all levels.
Despite this legal upgrading of the ethnic minorities, there is no real autonomy. First, the party (especially with its organizations in the autonomous areas) is superior to the autonomous administrative institutions. Second, the Constitution and the Autonomy Act are "soft" laws because there are no instruments to enforce these provisions due to a lack of legal certainty, a lack of constitutional and administrative courts, and the fact that the party has jurisdiction over the law. Thirdly, the Autonomy Act does not provide for a say in important issues.

Economic conflicts

Since a large part of the minority areas are among the poorest and least developed areas, the prerequisites for self-government are more difficult. Since the founding of the People's Republic of China, considerable subsidies have flowed into these areas, but largely for projects that were not appropriate for the local and regional conditions or that were exclusively in the interests of the Han areas (development of raw material sources for the industry of East China). 80 percent of the people below the poverty line lived in minority areas at the end of the 1990s. Despite all the growth rates for the autonomous areas as well, the development differences between the settlement areas of ethnic minorities and the Han areas have increased in the course of the reform era.

Cultural conflicts

Dissatisfaction with political, social and economic developments increases through interference with customs, traditions and religious beliefs. The core problem of China's cultural policy is the distinction between "healthy" and "unhealthy" customs since the 1950s. "Unhealthy" should be eliminated or reformed, "healthy" preserved. Since a clear definition for "healthy" or "unhealthy" was never given, arbitrary interventions were and are always possible. For example, sacrificing large cattle for ancestors at funeral ceremonies or weddings is considered a waste, shamans have long been considered cheaters, song festivals were abolished because they disrupted "production" or "obscene texts" were sung.

Social conflict

As a result of social and spatial mobilization, the Chinese are increasingly migrating to minority areas in order to cut down forests, dig for precious metals or mine coal without considering the local population. At the same time, skilled workers (technicians, scientists, doctors, teachers) are migrating to the prosperous coastal areas. The high level of corruption (often blamed on the Han and its party, the CCP) or crimes by criminal Han such as kidnapping local girls who are kidnapped abroad as prostitutes or sold as wives to Han farmers, as well as fraud and defraudation Han traders increase discontent in the minority areas.
An important moment of discontent is the rising unemployment in the minority areas. Han are given preference in state-run companies. This is done with the argument that minority members have a low level of education, are lazy or unwilling to work and that they speak Chinese poorly. Employees who belong to an ethnic minority are often less paid, do inferior jobs and have fewer opportunities for further training than Han. The credit requirements for businesses in minority areas and for private entrepreneurs belonging to an ethnic minority are considerably stricter than for others.

The introduction of market economy structures also favors the marketing and commercialization of minority cultures. This applies, for example, to the "nationality villages", in which an artificial exotic is produced for tourists. Funeral customs such as the Tibetan heavenly burial are made available to tourists at high prices without consulting those affected; alleged "perverse" sexual practices are marketed literarily or journalistically; Youth houses, in which young people meet for free love, are offered to Han tourists in the form of prostitution as a "visiting program"; important cultural sites are simply turned into tourist attractions as "development zones".
Modernization processes and social change create a feeling of subliminal threat, because the associated immigration of Han, the emigration of members of one's own ethnic group, the industrial development of minority areas and the decline of one's own culture (disdain for one's own costumes, customs and languages, especially under the Youth) weakens the unity and well-being of the individual ethnic groups. The Go West program launched in 2000, with which the western part of China - in which the majority of the ethnic minorities live - is to be developed, further fueled these feelings of threat.