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The PRC's 1984 Regional Autonomy Law and its effect on Yunnan's ethnic minorities: Damian Howells (from the University of Leeds) (2001-03-21)

Damian Howells is a post -graduate in the East Asian Studies Department, who gave the last EARS lecture of the year on the subject of his thesis: the effect of the 1984 Regional Autonomy Legislation on Yunnan's ethnic minorities. China has 56 ethnic minorities (if you count the Taiwanese!) and the treatment meted out to them by the dominant Han Chinese has changed with the political flavour of the times. In 1949, the newly victorious Communists wanted support from the ethnic minorities, who incidentally tend to inhabit the wilder and more inaccessible reaches of the country, the parts where Hans preferred not to live, which meant rebellion and independence claims were harder to put down. At that time the Communists also hoped to bring an end to feudal practices rife all over the country but recognised that, especially for the ethnic minorities, this was best done by persuasion. Ethnic minorities were represented at all levels of government and autonomous regions were set up, which allowed the people to organise their own style of local government, whilst reporting to party cadres at a higher level. All in all, a fairly understanding attitude was taken to the people's need to maintain their traditional lifestyles as well as making some concessions to Communism.

Damian explained how all this came to an abrupt end in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when ethnic minorities rights to use their own languages and practice their own religions were curtailed, and many autonomous regions were abolished. Temples were desecrated by Mao's ultra left-wing Red Guards and mosques were used as pigsties. The 1984 Regional Autonomy Law was an attempt to restore the status quo and restore ethnic minorities' confidence in the Communist Party.

Yunnan is a particularly interesting place to study the effect of the Regional Autonomy legislation on different minorities, because, with its pleasant climate and fertility, it is a place where many Hans have chosen to live. They are not subject to any of the special treatment accorded to the 24 different minorities. Yunnan has an immensely complicated patchwork of a population, who speak a total of 28 languages, and read 23 different scripts. As many as four different minorities, all speaking different languages may live in the same valley! This makes it very difficult to administer a system where everyone can be guaranteed their rights under the Regional Autonomy Law, and Damian's study reveals that some of the minorities are getting a better deal from the reforms than others.

A person's ethnic group is displayed on their ID card. As an member of an ethnic minority you enjoy relaxed birth control restrictions, but this may depend on your place of residence, as urban birth controls are enforced more strictly. Ethnic minorities are guaranteed representation by a member of their own nationality in the autonomous zone government, as is primary education for children in their mother tongue. A tall order in a region with 28 different languages, some spoken by very remote tribes. Local organs of government are required to take the social customs of ethnic minorities into account when levying administrative and criminal penalties.

However Damian's study reveals that for a number of reasons, this package of rights is actually only guaranteed to 25% of the minority population. Firstly, those living outside an autonomous area are not guaranteed representation by people of their own nationality, and it may be impractical for a city-dwelling Yi child to access primary education in her mother tongue because there are simply not enough Yi children about to make up a viable class. Secondly, the levels at which the different minorities retain their cultural integrity differs greatly. The Dai still use their language and script to conduct business, but the Bai have become sinicized to a greater extent and use Chinese characters as their script whilst retaining their spoken language. Many of the minorities see mastering Chinese as the only way to achieving greater social standing and opportunities for self-improvement, and so are less likely to demand and enforce autonomy in matters educational.

The government's promulgation of the 1984 legislation was intended to preserve the ethnic minorities autonomy culture whilst maintaining a cohesive and peaceful coexistence. Damian's talk illustrated that whilst the policies have gone some way to achieving that in Yunnan, not all minorities are receiving equal treatment. Politically Yunnan is peaceful, which is partly due to the different races tendency to keep out of each other's way and their right to administer their day-to-day affairs independently. But will the Regional Autonomy Laws be sufficient to please minorities in politically sensitive areas like Tibet and Xinjiang?

summary by Kate Mulrenan