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Minority Nationalities

Demographic Overview

Approximately 93 percent of China's population is considered Han. Sharp regional and cultural differences, including major variations in spoken Chinese, exist among the Han, who are a mingling of many peoples. All the Han nonetheless use a common written form of Chinese and share the social organization, values, and cultural characteristics universally recognized as Chinese (see Han Diversity and Unity , ch. 3).

Officially, China has fifty-six "nationality" groups, including the Han. The Chinese define a nationality as a group of people of common origin living in a common area, using a common language, and having a sense of group identity in economic and social organization and behavior. Altogether, China has fifteen major linguistic regions generally coinciding with the geographic distribution of the major minority nationalities (see fig. 6). Members of non-Han groups, referred to as the "minority nationalities," constitute only about 7 percent of the total population but number more than 70 million people and are distributed over 60 percent of the land.

Some minority nationalities can be found only in a single region; others may have settlements in two or more. In general, however, the minorities are concentrated in the provinces and autonomous regions of the northwest and the southwest. In Xizang, Xinjiang, and Nei Monggol autonomous regions, minorities occupy large frontier areas; many are traditionally nomadic and engage primarily in agriculture or pastoral pursuits. Minority groups in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces and in the Guangxi-Zhuang Autonomous Region are more fragmented and inhabit smaller areas.

According to the 1982 census, approximately 95 percent of Xizang's civilian population of 1.9 million are Tibetan (Zang nationality). An internally cohesive group, the Tibetans have proven the most resistant of the minority groups to the government's integration efforts. Xinjiang, which is as vast and distant from Beijing as Xizang, is the minority area next in demographic and political significance. Despite a large-scale immigration of Han since the 1950s, in 1985 around 60 percent of Xinjiang's 13.4 million population belonged to minority nationalities. Of these, the most important were 6.1 million Uygurs and more than 900,000 Kazaks, both Turkic-speaking Central Asian peoples (see table 9, Appendix A).

Provinces with large concentrations of minorities include Yunnan, where the Yi and other minority groups comprised an estimated 32 percent of the population in 1985; Guizhou, home of more than half of the approximately 4 million Miao; and sparsely populated Qinghai, which except for the area around the provincial capital of Xining is inhabited primarily by Tibetans and other minority nationality members, amounting in 1986 to approximately 37 percent of the total provincial population. Additionally, in 1986 minority nationalities constituted approximately 16 percent of the population of Nei Monggol Autonomous Region. The Guangxi-Zhuang Autonomous Region contains almost all of the approximately 13.5 million members of what is China's largest minority nationality, the Zhuang; most of them, however, are highly assimilated.

Because many of the minority nationalities are located in politically sensitive frontier areas, they have acquired an importance greater than their numbers. Some groups have common ancestry with peoples in neighboring countries. For example, members of the Shan, Korean, Mongol, Uygur and Kazak, and Yao nationalities are found not only in China but also in Burma, Korea, the Mongolian People's Republic, the Soviet Union, and Thailand, respectively. If the central government failed to maintain good relations with these groups, China's border security could be jeopardized (see Perception of Threat , ch. 14). Since 1949 Chinese officials have declared that the minorities are politically equal to the Han majority and in fact should be accorded preferential treatment because of their small numbers and poor economic circumstances. The government has tried to ensure that the minorities are well represented at national conferences and has relaxed certain policies that might have impeded their socioeconomic development.

The minority areas are economically as well as politically important. China's leaders have suggested that by the turn of the century the focus of economic development should shift to the northwest. The area is rich in natural resources, with uranium deposits and abundant oil reserves in Xinjiang-Uygur Autonomous Region. Much of China's forestland is located in the border regions of the northeast and southwest, and large numbers of livestock are raised in the arid and semiarid northwest. Also, the vast amount of virgin land in minority areas can be used for resettlement to relieve population pressures in the densely populated regions of the country.

In the early 1980s, the central government adopted various measures to provide financial and economic assistance to the minority areas. The government allotted subsidies totaling approximately -Y6,000 million (for value of the yuan, see Glossary) in 1984 to balance any deficits experienced in autonomous areas inhabited by minority nationalities. After 1980 the autonomous regions of Nei Monggol, Xinjiang, Xizang, Guangxi, and Ningxia and the provinces of Yunnan, Guizhou, and Qinghai were permitted to keep all revenues for themselves. The draft state budget written in April 1986 allocated a special grant of -Y800 million to the underdeveloped minority nationality areas over and above the regular state subsidies. The standard of living in the minority areas improved dramatically from the early to the mid-1980s. In Xizang Autonomous Region, annual per capita income increased from - Y216 in 1983 to -Y317 in 1984 (national per capita income was -Y663 in 1983 and -Y721 in 1984). The per capita net income of the minority areas in Yunnan Province increased from -Y118 in 1980 to - Y263 in 1984, for an increase of 81.3 percent. Overall, however, the minority areas remained relatively undeveloped in 1986.

Data as of July 1987

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