Minority Rights” Has China heard of this term?

Any discussion on the current state of minority rights in China must precede with the basic understanding of the term ‘Minority’. Well surprisingly, until the present day, there is no definite definition of Minority that the world has come up with. Various attempts have been made by different scholars, a plethora of perceptions and philosophies placed but not a single among can be called complete in itself due to the complexity, vastness and ambiguous nature of this word. So, for a general understanding, the most extensively cited definition of this word can be considered which is given by Francesco Capotorti. He defined ‘minority’ as “a group which is numerically inferior to the rest of the population of a state and in a non-dominant position, whose members posses ethinic, religious, or linguistic characteristics which differ from those of the rest of the population, and who, if only implicitly, maintain a sense of solidarity, directed towards preserving their culture, tradition, religion or language.” [1]

The rights which are needed by minorities are called Minority Rights. But why are these called as Minority Rights and what are the requirements of it? What does it matter if they are outnumbered, do not they classify as human beings and be given human rights? Well ideally, they should but they ARE NOT. It is a matter of fact that in most multi-ethnic societies, the majority communities tend to enjoy preferential rights since birth in all the arenas, be it politically, economically or in the society. The inferior and non-dominant status of the minorities render them in vulnerable conditions and subject them to discrimination and persecution. So, to protect the rights of these people to live a life with respect and dignity and to prevent their constant subjugation at the hands of the dominant class, the states grant its minority communities with some rights which are only theirs. Often minority rights are wrongly projected as special privileges for the minority groups. The rationale of minority rights is not to create a special pampered lot, rather it is to safeguard special needs of minority groups, preserve their distinct identity and culture and to achieve the goal of substantive equality as opposed to formal equality.[2]

Different states have come up with different minority rights for its citizens as per the needs as the diversity table of every state is not the same. China has been a united multi-ethnic country since ancient times. So far, there are 56 ethnic groups identified and confirmed by the Central Government. According to the fourth national census conducted in 1990, of the country’s total population 91.96 percent belong to the Han ethnic group, and 8.04 percent belong to minority ethnic groups.[3] The Constitution of the People’s Republic of China stipulates: ”All ethnic groups in the People’s Republic of China are equal. The state protects the lawful rights and interests of the ethnic minorities and upholds and develops a relationship of equality, unity and mutual assistance among all of China’s ethnic groups. Discrimination against and oppression of any ethnic group are prohibited.”

While reading the above statement the picture seems very smooth, democratic and kind and filled with the spirit of equality and fraternity, but is it really in China or it is just in the books? The Uighur Crisis in China would aptly answer this question. A set of government documents on how the Uighur muslims are treated in China was leaked in The New York Times newspaper in 2019 which has brought this issue out in the world. These documents have given a behind-the-scenes look into how the minority was treated, what was actually done at camps and what was the ill motive of government behind it. This issue has raised international concern about what China is doing to its Uighur population, a Muslim minority community concentrated in the country’s northwestern Xinjiang province. Around 1,000,000 Uighurs, Kazakhs and different Muslims have been packaged into internment camps, where they are purportedly being forced into surrendering their personality, and absorb better in the socialist nation overwhelmed by the Han Chinese.

The actual cause of rivalry between both the groups is actually created by the government. The Chinese government has deliberately created tension between the Uighurs and Han Chinese by encouraging the later ones to migrate to the Xingiang province where most of the Uighurs are settled. The migration in bulk by Han Chinese has deprived the Uighurs from their jobs and livelihood. They were now treated as slaves and continuously persecuted. This has led to various protests between both the groups, the major one being in 2009 when 200 people lost their lives. Claiming this activity as a terrorist blunder only by Uighurs, the Chinese government has responded in recent years with widespread repression targeting the broader Uighur population. The government began implementing surveillance and policing tactics against the Uighur in 2016 that apparently has made Xinjiang “the most heavily monitored place on earth.” Uighurs are restricted from fasting during Ramadan, naming their children with traditional Muslim names, and wearing “abnormal beards. The real motive of China behind all these is to render Uighurs without any power and identity.

This is what the current situation in China is, but the conditions were not packed with brotherhood even in past times. Ethnic groups were classified like barbarians in ancient China. The Han discriminated against ‘backward’ ethnic groups in central China for much of China’s history, while ethnic groups seized control in other eras, such as in the Yuan and Qing Dynasties. In those periods, the ruling minority ethnic groups discriminated against other ethnic groups, including the Han majority. The doctrine of nationality of Dr. Sun Yat Sun is probably the first advocation of equality between nationalities in China. The country’s traditional approach to minorities, which originated at the beginning of the 20th century, has been a success in China’s nation-building process and has been adapted to serve the goal of modernization and development[4] but this approach was not absolute in dealing with the over growing riots and protests in some regions of China. At times, when the Ethnic groups criticized the government policies over rights, Chinese government defended itself by giving various reasons but the point is neither of the sides have really tried to reach at a point of reconciliation.

Now, talking about the policies and laws in China , the  arrangement on minorities has been executed as a system  of regional autonomy, in which under the administration of a central government, minorities can practice autonomy in the areas in which they live. the main question that arises is, why just autonomy inside the Chinese State? Why not self-determination or independence for ethnic minorities? [5]During the new Democratic Revolution drove by Chinese Communist faction, minorities were promised to be given self determination and the right to secede, but as the revolution suceeded and individuals came to power, the promise vanished as if it never existed.

There are humongous laws and policies on Minority rights which have got rusted by just staying in the books of China. Leaders come in the public, brag about the human rights and words like Equality and fraternity but for how long long will they continue with this? For how long the minorities of China will continue to beg for rights so tha they can live respectfully in the society ? Well, not for so long. China can continue to do all this until the saturation point of the depressed class reaches. Because once it has reached, huge protests are going to break out in the country and it has already broken out, though not by the minorities but the citizens who feel they are treated in a dehumanized way. The way Hongkong is protesting against China’s oppressive policies is a fine example of it and the way world has criticized China for the way it has handled the Corona outbreak and the way it has ill treated the Uighurs is a warning that tactics which worked in the past will not work in this Global era. The internet knows no bounds, no matter much security is placed. Inter-ethnic tensions, divisions and exclusion that remain unaddressed can easily become a source of instability and conflict. Dealing efficiently with minority-majority relations in the aftermath of ethnic conflict is central to achieving a durable peace. In this regard, the protection of national minorities is not only fundamental to enhance social cohesion in diverse societies, but also essential to achieve democratic security, sustainable development and peace in a context of instability.[6]

[1]  Alam, Aftab. “MINORITY RIGHTS UNDER INTERNATIONAL LAW.” Journal of the Indian Law Institute, vol. 57, no. 3, 2015, pp. 376–400. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44782787. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.

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[3] “National Minorities Policy and Its Practice in China.” China-Un.Ch, 2020, www.china-un.ch/eng/bjzl/t176942.htm.

[4] WANG, SHUPING. “The People’s Republic Of China’s Policy on Minorities and International Approaches to Ethnic Groups: A Comparative Study.” International Journal on Minority and Group Rights, vol. 11, no. 1/2, 2004, pp. 159–185. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24675260. Accessed 13 Jan. 2021.

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[6] Why Are Minority Rights Important? – Political Youth Network. politicalyouthnetwork.org/why-are-minority-rights-important-

Article written by-

Vidhi Periwal

Student at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law

(HRDI Internship)