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'Go West' Boon for Ethnic Groups
To China's ethnic minority population, the year 2000 is one that will remain significant in their lives.

Starting from then, China officially launched the initiative to develop its vast western region, a project as important as the one nearly two decades ago to open up the country's coastal regions.

"The most pressing issue we are faced with now in the regions of ethnic minorities is economic development," said Mou Benli, vice-minister of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, during an interview with China Daily.

"Quite a number of favorable policies have been adopted in recent years to help with the economic and social development of the ethnic minorities."

Most of China's 55 ethnic minorities live in the country's resource-rich but economically backward western region.

Efforts to help them shake off poverty started long ago but have been given a shot in the arm in the past three years.

With a total expected investment of more than 400 billion yuan (US$48 billion), more than 20 major projects have so far been officially launched in the nation's west.

Among them are the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, to link "the roof of the world" with other parts of China, and the building of pipelines to send natural gas to China's energy-thirsty coastal regions.

"These projects have provided job opportunities for ethnic minorities, facilitated transportation in the regions where they live and boosted local economies," said Mou, who is responsible for the economic development of China's ethnic minorities.

Commission statistics show that in 2001, the gross domestic product (GDP) of the five autonomous regions and Yunnan, Guizhou and Qinghai provinces - home to various ethnic groups - reached 915.7 billion yuan (US$110 billion) compared with 163.4 billion yuan (US$19.7 billion) in 1989.

The GDP of the autonomous regions - Xinjiang, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, Tibet and Guangxi - and provinces contributed to almost 10 per cent of China's total GDP last year.

The central government has pumped more than 43 billion yuan (US$5.1 billion) into the regions and provinces between 1994 and 2000 to help lift the ethnic minorities out of poverty.

Mou said although economic development is the focus of his commission's work, it is not achieved at the cost of the environment.

"Most of China's ethnic minorities live in the western part of the country and they are the origins of such major rivers as the Yangtze River and the Yellow River, the important ecological and environmental shields for Central and eastern China and the habitats of many of the country's unique plants and animals," Mou said.

"The environmental and ecological changes in the ethnic minority regions have a direct bearing on the realization of China's strategy of sustainable development."

After the 1998 deluge devastated the country's Yangtze River region and its northeastern provinces, China has pushed hard for its western part to replant trees and grass to check soil erosion.

(China Daily November 8, 2002)

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