China issued its first white paper on ethnic minorities yesterday, laying out the principles in which it hopes to overcome ethnic strife and poverty through economic development and a fairer legal system.
"China has adopted a system that has come to be known as regional autonomy for ethnic minorities," Wu Shimin, deputy minister of the State Ethnic Affairs Committee, told journalists as he launched the 49-page policy document.
"This means that under the unified leadership of the state, regional autonomy is practiced in areas where people of ethnic minorities live in compact communities."
Some 104.5 million people make up China's 55 ethnic minorities, accounting for 8.4 percent of the total population.
The white paper noted that of China's 331 official "impoverished counties," 141, or 43 percent, were in ethnic autonomous regions.
While China's overall GDP has grown by over 9 percent since 1993, the 2003 GDP in the western-most Uighur Muslim region of Xinjiang was only up 0.06 percent from 1993, while that of Tibet was up only 0.04 percent, it said.
"Of course in some of these regions, sometimes there are some contradictions and clashes in areas of ethnic minority relations," Wu said.
Such clashes usually center around either ethnic minority economic interests and the pace of development or a clash of cultural or ethnic traditions with the Han Chinese majority, he said.
Many of China's ethnic minorities have voiced opposition to recent Han immigration into their areas, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang, where Han Chinese often enjoy preferential treatment.
"Clashes in cultural traditions comes as mutual exchanges between ethnic minorities are greatly increasing," Wu said.
"A lack of understanding and respect in cultural and traditional matters is often the cause of these contradictions."
Ethnic independence movements in Tibet and in western Xinjiang were most prominent, Wu said, and "foreign forces" were often involved.
China was trying to overcome ethnic problems by "quickening the pace of development," while also strengthening "education on unity and equality" and building and perfecting the legal system in each area, he said.
China has five major autonomous regions, which include 30 autonomous prefectures and 120 autonomous counties. In these regions, the government head is usually from the major ethnic minority of the region, while the most powerful leader is normally a Han Chinese who heads the regional Communist Party.