The State and Minority Nationalities (Ethnic Groups) in China

  • Roland BoerEmail author
Reference work entry


In the context of racial tensions in the USA, questions over the EU project from those who have not benefitted, the treatment of asylum seekers with increasing harshness in places like Australia, and the response to refugees in Europe, a rather different example of ethnic and cultural diversity is worth attention – that of China. As the country with the largest population in the world and due to a complex history, China now has 56 officially recognized nationalities, including the Han, who number 1.2 billion. Even so, the next nine nationalities number 6–19 million each – larger than the total population of many countries in the world.

How does China deal with this situation? To begin with, the term minzu is badly translated as “ethnic group.” It is better translated as “nationality.” With its multiple nationalities, China has developed a “preferential policy” that initially followed the model of the Soviet Union and was revised substantially in the 1990s. The policy entails support for economic development, cultural traditions, language, education, literature, and local political leadership. However, the policy has also created some problems: the inherent difficulties of government classification and their unintended effects; the tensions over “separatism, extremism, and terrorism,” which has included foreign interference; and differences over the understanding and application of human rights in light of distinct traditions. Ultimately, the policy turns on the contradiction between autonomy for nationalities and the unity of the Chinese state. The question is how one deals with such a contradiction.


China Nationality Preferential policies Terrorism Human rights 


  1. Amnesty International (2018) Amnesty International report 2017/18: the state of the World’s human rights. Amnesty International, LondonGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson B (1991) Imagined Communities, Revised edn. Verso, LondonGoogle Scholar
  3. ASEAN (2012) ASEAN human rights declaration. Asea-Pacific Human Rights Center, OsakaGoogle Scholar
  4. Boer R (2017) Stalin: from theology to the philosophy of socialism in power. Springer, BeijingGoogle Scholar
  5. Bulag U (2010) Alter/native mongolian identity: from nationality to ethnic group. In: Perry E, Selden M (eds) Chinese society: change, conflict and resistance. Routledge, London, pp 262–287Google Scholar
  6. Connor W (1984) The National question in marxist-leninist theory and strategy. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  7. Connor W (2009) Mandarins, marxists, and minorities. In: Zhou M, Hill AM (eds) Affirmative action in China and the U.S.: a dialogue on inequality and minority education. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, pp 27–46Google Scholar
  8. Crossley P, Siu H, Sutton D (2006) Empire at the margins: culture, ethnicity, and frontier in early modern China. Stanford University Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  9. Davis EVW (2013) Ruling, resources and religion in China: managing the multiethnic state in the 21st century. Palgrave Macmillan, HoundmillsGoogle Scholar
  10. Dillon M (1999) China’s Muslim Hui community: migration, settlement and sects. Routledge, LondonGoogle Scholar
  11. Dreyer JT (1976) China’s forty millions. Harvard Univerity Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  12. Egry G (2005) Social democracy and the nationalities question. In: Feitl I, Sipos B (eds) Regimes and transformations: hungary in the twentieth century. Napvilág Kiadó, Budapest, pp 95–118Google Scholar
  13. Gianaris N (1996) Modern capitalism: privatization, employee ownership, and industrial democracy. Greenwood Publishing, WestportGoogle Scholar
  14. Gladney D (1991) Muslim Chinese: ethnic nationalism in the People’s Republic. Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  15. Graeber D (2011) Debt: the first 5,000 years. Melville House, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  16. Grotius H (1625 [2005]) The rights of war and peace. Translated by John Clarke. Edited by Richard Tuck. 3 vols. Liberty Fund, IndianapolisGoogle Scholar
  17. Hill AM, Zhou M (2009) Introduction. In: Zhou M, Hill AM (eds) Affirmative action in China and the U.S.: a dialogue on inequality and minority education. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, pp 1–24Google Scholar
  18. Hillman B (2003) Paradise under construction: minorities, myths and modernity in northwest Yunnan. Asian Ethn 4(2):177–190Google Scholar
  19. Human Rights Watch (2018) World report 2018: events of 2017. Human Rights Watch, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  20. Kaup K (2002) Regionalism versus ethnic nationalism. China Q 172:863–884Google Scholar
  21. Luo H, Song G (2012) Balance and imbalance in human rights law. Soc Sci China 33(1):55–70Google Scholar
  22. Ma R (2009) Issues of minority education in Xinjiang, China. In: Zhou M, Hill AM (eds) Affirmative action in China and the U.S.: a dialogue on inequality and minority education. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, pp 179–198Google Scholar
  23. Mackerras C (2003) China’s ethnic minorities and globalisation. RoutledgeCurzon, LondonGoogle Scholar
  24. Mao Z (1937 [1965]) On contradiction. In: Selected works of Mao Tse-Tung, vol 1. Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, pp 311–347Google Scholar
  25. Martin T (2001) The affirmative action empire: nations and nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939. Cornell University Press, IthacaGoogle Scholar
  26. McCarthy S (2000) Ethno-religious mobilisation and citizenship discourse in the People’s Republic of China. Asian Ethn 1(2):107–116Google Scholar
  27. Miéville C (2004) Between equal rights: a Marxist theory of international law, Original edn. Brill/Pluto, Leiden/London, p 2005Google Scholar
  28. National People’s Congress (2001) Zhonghua renmin gongheguo Minzu quyu zizhi fa (Law of the People’s Republic of China on regional national autonomy). Ethnic Publishing House, BeijingGoogle Scholar
  29. Norbu D (2001) China’s Tibet policy. Curzon, RichmondGoogle Scholar
  30. Patterson O (1982) Slavery and social death: a comparative study. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  31. Postiglione G, Jiao B, Tsering N (2009) Tibetan student perspectives on neidi schools. In: Zhou M, Hill AM (eds) Affirmative action in China and the U.S.: a dialogue on inequality and minority education. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, pp 127–142Google Scholar
  32. Sautman B (1998a) Affirmative action, ethnic minorities and China’s universities. Pac Rim Law Policy J 7(1):77–116Google Scholar
  33. Sautman B (1998b) Preferential policies for ethnic minorities in China: the case of Xinjiang. Nationalism Ethnic Politics 4(1–2):86–118Google Scholar
  34. Sautman B (2003) ‘Cultural genocide’ and Tibet. Texas Int Law J 38(2):173–246Google Scholar
  35. Sautman B (2006) Colonialism genocide, and Tibet. Asian Ethn 7(3):243–265Google Scholar
  36. Sautman B (2010) ‘Vegetarian between meals’: the Dalai Llama, war, and violence. Positions 18(1):89–143Google Scholar
  37. Stalin IV (1913 [1953]) Marxism and the National Question. In: Works, vol 2. Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, pp 300–381Google Scholar
  38. State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China (2018) Human rights record of the United States in 2017. State Council, BeijingGoogle Scholar
  39. Sun P (2014) Human rights protection system in China. Springer, HeidelbergGoogle Scholar
  40. Suny RG (1993) The revenge of the past: nationalism, revolution, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Stanford University Press, StanfordGoogle Scholar
  41. Suny RG, Martin T (2001) A state of nations: empire and nation-making in the age of Lenin and Stalin. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  42. Tapp N (1995) Minority nationality in China: policy and practice. In: Barnes RH, Gray A, Kingsbury B (eds) Indigenous peoples of Asia. Association for Asian Studies, Ann Arbor, pp 195–220Google Scholar
  43. Tierney B (1997) The idea of natural rights: studies on natural rights, natural law and church law 1150–1625. Scholar’s Press, AtlantaGoogle Scholar
  44. UN General Assembly (1976) International covenant on economic, social, and cultural rights, United Nations treaty series, vol 993. United Nations, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  45. Vasak K (1977) Human rights: a thirty-year struggle: the sustained efforts to give force of law to the universal declaration of human rights. UNESCO Cour 30(11):29–32Google Scholar
  46. Wang T (2009) Preferential policies for minority college admission in China: recent developments, necessity, and impact. In: Zhou M, Hill AM (eds) Affirmative action in China and the U.S.: a dialogue on inequality and minority education. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, pp 71–82Google Scholar
  47. Wolff HJ (1951) Roman law: an historical introduction. University of Oklahoma Press, NormanGoogle Scholar
  48. Xi J (2017) Secure a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and strive for the great success of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era: report to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, October 18, 2017. Foreign Languages Press, BeijingGoogle Scholar
  49. Zhou M (2009) Tracking the historical development of China’s positive and preferential policies for minority education: continuities and discontinuities. In: Zhou M, Hill AM (eds) Affirmative action in China and the U.S.: a dialogue on inequality and minority education. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, pp 47–70Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Liberal ArtsRenmin University of ChinaBeijingPeople’s Republic of China

Section editors and affiliations

  • Steven Ratuva
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Anthropology and SociologyUniversity of CanterburyChristchurchNew Zealand
  2. 2.Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific StudiesUniversity of CanterburyChristchurchNew Zealand

Personalised recommendations