China has vowed not to damage indigenous arts and traditions in its efforts to raise the standards of living of ethnic minorities through economic development.
Li Dezhu, minister of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, said education of ethnic minority children must be improved and called for projects that create new generations of artists.
"Attention must be paid to the retrieval, protection and proper utilization of ethnic minorities' cultural resources," Li told China Daily.
"An ecological environment for folk culture should also be established during economic construction and development."
Apart from the Han majority, China has 55 ethnic minorities who boast unique cultural heritage and mostly live in the remote inland or border regions.
These areas are characterized by dire natural conditions, poor transportation and inadequate education which have severely hindered economic development.
In an effort to narrow the gap between the nation's vast western regions and its thriving east coast, China has launched an ambitious plan to spark economic development in the west.
"Under the condition that it is properly protected, the culture of ethnic groups can be developed into a major engine for local economic development," said Li.
"But blind, excessive or even destructive development of ethnic culture must be guarded against."
The distinctive culture and traditions of ethnic groups have become a new tourist attraction in China, with many visitors seeking out ethnic art performances when touring scenic spots.
Li said priority should be given to bringing up ethnic artists, raising education standards of the ethnic population and incorporating the evolution of ethnic culture into the overall initiative to develop the nation's western regions.
Official statistics reveal China has put in nearly 6.4 billion yuan (US$771 million) in the cultural development of its ethnic minorities along its border so far.
In addition to the preservation and development of ethnic cultural heritage, Li said exchanges with other cultures, including those in other countries are encouraged.
"Exchanges are helpful to the development of ethnic culture and conducive to foreigners' understanding of the ethnic groups in China," said Li.
Efforts to expand the incomes of the ethnic population will continue to occupy an important part of Li's work this year.
"Now that we are in a new century, there are two things that I am really worried about," said Li. "One is how will ethnic minorities fare in face of the challenges and competition from home and abroad now that China has joined the World Trade Organization.
The other is how can ethnic minorities gain more through the western development initiative."
But the minister has already found part of the solutions to these two questions.
Ethnic minorities in border regions will receive assistance in infrastructure construction, economic restructuring and promotion of frontier trade, said Li.
Particular attention will be paid to the 22 ethnic groups which each have only a population of under 100,000 with efforts to provide them with better living conditions such as access to electricity, clean drinking water and basic medical care.
Major projects going on now in China involving the regions inhabited by ethnic groups include the Qinghai-Tibet railway connecting Lhasa in the Tibet Autonomous Region with Golmud in Qinghai Province, the natural gas transportation project that will supply the nation's economically-advanced but resource-lacking eastern regions with natural gas in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
(China Daily January 17, 2002)