II. The Political Status of Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities and the Establishment of Ethnic Autonomous Areas
(1) The Political Status of Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities
The first National People's Congress, convened in 1954, included
the system of regional autonomy for ethnic minorities in the Constitution
of the People's Republic of China (hereinafter referred to as the "Constitution").
All subsequent revisions to the Constitution reaffirmed the implementation
of this system. The Law of the People's Republic of China on Regional
Ethnic Autonomy (hereinafter referred to as "Law on Regional Ethnic
Autonomy"), which was amended and issued in 2001, explicitly stipulates
that "the system of regional autonomy for ethnic minorities is a
basic political system of the state."
As early as 1952, the Chinese government issued the Program for the
Implementation of Regional Ethnic Autonomy of the People's Republic of
China, which included clear provisions on such important issues as the
establishment of ethnic autonomous areas and the composition of organs
of self-government, as well as the right of self-government for such organs.
On May 31, 1984, on the basis of summarizing the experience of practicing
regional autonomy for ethnic minorities, the second session of the Sixth
National People's Congress (NPC) adopted the Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy,
and decided to put it into effect on October 1 of that year. To meet the
need for faster economic and social development of ethnic autonomous areas
in the era of the socialist market economy and on the basis of fully respecting
and representing the will of the people living in those areas, in 2001
the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress made revisions
to the Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy, thus making the law more complete
The Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy, the content of which covers
all aspects, including politics, economy, culture and society, is a basic
legal document for implementing the system of regional autonomy for ethnic
minorities as provided in the Constitution. It defines the relationship
between the central government and the ethnic autonomous regions, as well
as the relationship between different ethnic groups in ethnic autonomous
regions. Its legal effect is not limited to the ethnic autonomous regions
only; every individual in China and all state organs must abide by and
implement this law.
(2) The Establishment of Ethnic Autonomous Regions
Under the leadership of the Communist Party, China's first provincial-level
ethnic autonomous region - the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region - was
established in 1947 in the liberated areas inhabited by Mongolians before
the founding of the People's Republic of China. After New China was established
in 1949, the Chinese government began to introduce the system of regional
autonomy for ethnic minorities to all regions where ethnic minorities
lived in compact communities. In October 1955, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous
Region was established; in March 1958, the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region
was established; in October 1958, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region was
established; and in September 1965, the Tibet Autonomous Region was established.
By the end of 2003, China had established 155 ethnic autonomous areas.
Of these, five are autonomous regions, 30 autonomous prefectures and 120
autonomous counties (banners). According to the fifth national census,
conducted in 2000, of the 55 ethnic minorities, 44 have their own ethnic
autonomous areas. The population of ethnic minorities practicing regional
autonomy accounts for 71 percent of the total population of ethnic minorities,
and the area where such regional autonomy is practiced accounts for 64
percent of the entire territory of China.
In places where ethnic minorities live in compact communities but
where the establishment of autonomous areas is not feasible, because the
populations of the ethnic minorities and the areas they live in are relatively
small, or because the populations are scattered, the Constitution provides
that ethnic townships be established, so that the minority peoples there
can also exercise the right to administer the internal affairs of the
ethnic group and be the masters of their own areas. In 1993, the Chinese
government issued the Regulations on the Administrative Work of Ethnic
Townships to guarantee the implementation of the system of ethnic townships.
By the end of 2003, China had established 1,173 ethnic townships in areas
equivalent to townships where ethnic minorities live in compact communities.
Ethnic townships have been established for nine of the 11 ethnic minorities
where the regional autonomy policy is not implemented because the populations
and areas of the ethnic minorities are relatively small.
Areas where the system of regional autonomy for ethnic minorities
is practiced can be divided into three levels, namely, autonomous regions,
autonomous prefectures and autonomous counties, according to how big the
population of the ethnic group is and how large the area it occupies.
All areas where the system of regional autonomy for ethnic minorities
is practiced are inseparable parts of the territory of the People's Republic
of China. Organs of self-government of autonomous areas must safeguard
the unification of the country and guarantee that the Constitution and
laws are carried out and implemented in those areas. State organs at higher
levels and organs of self-government of autonomous areas should safeguard
and develop a relationship of equality, unity and mutual assistance between
In places where ethnic minorities live in compact communities, after
due consideration has been given to the relationships among the ethnic
groups and the economic development of those localities, as well as to
historical situation, an autonomous area based on one ethnic group can
be established, such as the Tibet Autonomous Region, Sichuan Liangshan
Yi Autonomous Prefecture and Zhejiang Jingning She Autonomous County.
Or an autonomous area based on compact communities of two or more ethnic
groups may be established, such as the Qinghai Haixi Mongolian-Tibetan
Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Jishishan Bao'an-Dongxiang-Salar Autonomous
County, and so on.
If other ethnic groups live in compact communities within the autonomous
area of one bigger ethnic group, the former may establish their own autonomous
areas or ethnic townships. For example, the Yili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture
and Yanqi Hui Autonomous County have been established in Xinjiang Uygur
Autonomous Region. Depending on the actual situation of each locality,
ethnic autonomous areas may include communities, cities or towns where
Han people or people of other ethnic groups live.
If communities of one ethnic group of various sizes occupy several
areas, they may establish several autonomous areas of different administrative
status. Take the Hui ethnic group for example. There are the Ningxia Hui
Autonomous Region, Gansu Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture and Hebei Mengcun
Hui Autonomous County.
Except for special cases, the name of an ethnic autonomous area normally
consists of the name of the place, name of the ethnic group and the word
indicating the administrative status, in that order. Take the Guangxi
Zhuang Autonomous Region for example. Guangxi is the name of the place;
Zhuang is the name of the ethnic group and Autonomous Region indicates
its administrative status.
The establishment of an ethnic autonomous area, the delimiting of
its boundaries and what name this autonomous region is to assume shall
be decided after these matters are fully discussed among state organs
at a higher level, the state organs of the locality concerned and the
representatives of the relevant ethnic group(s), and then their decision
shall be submitted for approval in accordance with the procedures prescribed
by law. The establishment of an autonomous region is to be approved by
the National People's Congress. The delimiting of the boundaries of an
autonomous region, the establishment of an autonomous prefecture or county
and the delimiting of their boundaries are to be decided by the State
Council. Once an ethnic autonomous area is established, it shall not be
dissolved or amalgamated without going through the procedures prescribed
by law. Once the boundary lines of ethnic autonomous areas are determined,
they shall not be altered without going through the procedures prescribed
by law. If an ethnic autonomous area really needs to be dissolved or amalgamated,
or if its boundaries really need to be altered, the matter shall be fully
discussed by the relevant departments of the state organs at higher levels
and the organs of self-government of that autonomous area, and their decisions
shall be submitted for approval in accordance with the procedures prescribed
(3) The Composition of Organs of Self-Government of Ethnic Autonomous