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UN experts review discrimination against ethnic minorities, rural residents and migrants in the PRC

August 1, 2001

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) critically reviewed the PRC's 9th periodic report on its implementation of the UN Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Sixteen independent experts make up CERD and review state parties' reports and make recommendations. The review of the PRC's report is particularly significant as the World Conference Against Racism, to be held in South Africa, draws closer.

The PRC government's CERD report claimed that the economic and social status of national minorities (shaoshu minzu) is improving and that religious, cultural and basic human rights are fully respected. However, in its report to the CERD members, Human Rights in China (HRIC) exposed the discriminatory effect of PRC laws and policies on three overlapping groups: people with rural household registration or hukou, (63.91 percent of the population); internal rural-to-urban migrants, part of a vast floating population(estimated between 40 to 120 million); and national minorities (106.43 million, 8.41 percent of the population). These three groups together constitute the vast majority of the PRC's 1.3 billion population.

The failure of the PRC government to ensure equality in political, economic, social, cultural and other fields of public life has created an exclusionary system that threatens to undermine the security, stability and fairness of the PRC's reform efforts. "Given that the treaty has now been in force in the PRC for 20 years, it is particularly disturbing that so little has been done to combat racial discrimination," said Sophia Woodman, HRIC research director. Institutionalized discrimination against rural residents - including the vast majority of the PRC's ethnic minorities, results in skewed development policies that deprive hundreds of millions of people of their right to development.

In its interrogation of the record-setting 30-member PRC delegation, international CERD experts expressed strong concerns about this pervasive discrimination and the tensions between the PRC's development model and the protection of fundamental human rights. At the close of the CERD session, on August 16, the UN experts will make public its compliance assessment and its recommendations on the PRC's implementation of the Convention.

The PRC ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1981.

HRIC's CERD report is available on "Report" sesson - "Implementation of the ICERD in the PRC" at HRIC's website


In its report, HRIC looked primarily at the PRC's approach to racial discrimination to examine whether it met the standards set by the Convention. In doing so, we found that the anti-discriminatory laws and policies adopted by the PRC had left major groups virtually unprotected: rural residents, rural-to-urban migrants, and national minorities. In focusing on these three groups, we have also sought to assess whether ICERD's previous recommendations to the PRC government had been taken into consideration and implemented, while identifying general compliance issues in the PRC government's report. These include the problematic and narrow conception of discrimination adopted by the PRC government; inadequate analysis of the discrepancy between legislation and actual implementation; lack of adequate information and analysis on the situation of national minorities; and inadequate information on domestic promotion of ICERD among PRC citizens.

Article 1

The PRC government report focuses on laws and policies relating to the status of minority nationalities(shaoshu minzu), thus conflating the issue of racial discrimination with the situation of officially recognized ethnic minority peoples, which is not as broad as taking action to combat racial discrimination. As a result, the anti-discriminatory laws and policies adopted by the PRC have left major groups virtually unprotected and ineligible for the putative benefits of special preferential policies.

HRIC's report focuses on three main overlapping groups: rural residents (63.91 percent of the population), rural-to-urban migrants (or floating population from 40 million to 120 million), and national minorities (106.43 million persons or 8.41 percent of the population.) Many members of national minorities are, in fact, included in the rural and internal migrants categories. Overall, these groups do not enjoy the same level of social and economic development as the Han majority or urban residents.

HRIC suggests that the concept of minority nationalities in the PRC is a construct of the state, rather than reflecting the self-identification of ethnic minority groups or the reality of ethnic and cultural diversity across the vast territory of the PRC. The PRC population is officially comprised of the majority Han(ethnic Chinese, over 90 percent of the population), and 55 officially recognized minority nationalities. This classification was undertaken in the 1950s by the new government, which identified groups that should be registered as official nationalities. More than 400 distinct groups originally applied. Those not accorded recognition were either classified as Han or put together with other ethnic minorities considered similar. In addition, within the population labeled Han, there is enormous ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity.

Article 2

Although the laws of the PRC provide for equality and the protection of the rights of minority people and [the promotion of] their development,in some cases these laws may in fact be exacerbating the gap in status between ethnic minorities and the dominant Han Chinese. Despite a body of laws and preferential policies, national minorities suffer unequal treatment and disadvantages in virtually every area of public life, as indicated by the widening discrepancies in terms of economic status and living standards.

Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia offer the clearest examples of how racial discrimination relates directly to government policies. The effect of economic preferential policies in autonomous areas has virtually disappeared, since most other areas also enjoy such measures. The subsidies and tax breaks given to such areas have also declined in value and, according to various figures, collection of revenue from the minority areas actually exceeds what they are given by the central government. Furthermore, preferences accorded to coastal development zones and cities provide far more benefits than those enjoyed by the autonomous areas. As a result, in recent years, these regions have seen a marked decline in the welfare of their indigenous inhabitants.

The fruits of the PRC's economic reforms have not been evenly enjoyed throughout the country. Wealth is concentrated in China's cities, particularly along the eastern coast, while the country's western and rural regions are characterized by inadequate development resources. This divide is of particular significance for members of ethnic minorities, most of whom are either classified as rural or living in the western part of the PRC. The unequal development policies consistently pursued by the PRC state are discriminatory, and inconsistent with the right to development.

The PRC's ethnic-related laws and regulations described in the government report are excessively vague and lack specific implementation and enforcement mechanisms. They provide, at best, a formal framework of articulated rights and aspirations. For example, the National Autonomy Law is primarily a restatement of the general policies of the CCP towards ethnic minorities. It does not provide a workable legal mechanism to enable the elimination or reduction of ethnic and racial discrimination. However, the government's report fails to identify obstacles that have hampered implementation of domestic law and compliance with ICERD. In addition to the lack of statistical data, HRIC believes that the government report provided an agglomeration of information without sufficient context, analysis or comparison to make them meaningful.

Article 3

Although international standards do not specifically refer to 'rural origin' as a prohibited basis for discrimination, the hukou classifications are derived from the economic and social class characteristics of rural residents and from their place of birth. Soon after the founding of the PRC, the government set up the system of residence registration (hukou) under which individuals and families are tied to a particular place of residence and divided into nonagricultural (urban) or agricultural (rural) categories. The hukou system has institutionalized discrimination against rural people, including a large proportion of the ethnic minority population. Whereas urban workers were entitled to guaranteed employment, subsidized housing and food, and other benefits, rural localities were left to shoulder the responsibility for feeding, housing and employing the rural population. The policy of prioritizing the city over the countryside created a rigid social hierarchy based on descent (contravening ICERD, Article 1) and has been transmitted across generations. It has created a gulf between urban and rural areas, involving discrimination in economic, social, political, civil and cultural rights, and widening disparities in terms of economic status and living standards. Discrimination resulting from the hukou system has often been exacerbated by ethnic differences, which make people from other regions, from rural areas, and from ethnic minorities instantly identifiable through dress and language. As a practice that has fostered separate and unequal rural and urban societies, the hukou system contravenes the prohibition of Article 3 against racial segregation, apartheid, and all practices of this nature (emphasis added).

Article 4

Another part of the official classification project in the early years of the PRC was to classify national minorities on a linear scale of social evolution and to label groups according to the stage of development of their culture. Minorities without a written language were often classified as "primitive" and their religious beliefs denigrated as mere superstition. Most minorities were considered "backward", awaiting the civilization to be brought to them by the Han elder brothers. This classification clearly advocated the superiority of certain races over others, and contributed to current "Great Han chauvinism"(da hanzu zhuyi)rhetoric fostering popular discrimination against ethnic minorities. The government bears significant responsibility for this, as such negative descriptions of national minorities have been included in school and education curricula. Furthermore, because it exacerbates discriminatory attitudes and cultural bias towards ruralites among urban residents, the hukou system is a practice that contravenes Article 2.

Article 5 (a): Equal treatment before the tribunals

Within the context of a legal system in construction and undergoing reform, the PRC laws do not provide adequate procedural safeguards and rights for victims of racial or ethnic based discrimination. In addition to the many difficulties for ordinary defendants to be tried fairly and independently in criminal cases, defendants in politically sensitive cases stand much less chance of getting a fair trial. Members of minorities who advocate their national, cultural or religious identity are most likely to be viewed as engaging in an act of splitting the country, and therefore, to be tried under the category of crimes of endangering state security defined by the Criminal Law.

Article 5 (c): Political rights

Although some posts in the autonomous governments are set aside for minorities, top positions are usually reserved for Han cadres and Party officials. Minorities are not represented in the highest decision-making levels of the PRC, like the CCP Politburo. The process of selecting government representatives is dominated by the CCP committees, and thus the Party, not the autonomous areas, set the priorities for the governments that rule there.

Article 5 (d) (vii): Rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion

Contrary to claims by the PRC government, the right to freedom of conscience and religion is routinely violated. Religious practice is not tolerated within state institutions. Members of the CCP are not permitted to believe or engage in religion. Muslims have reportedly faced discrimination in public office or been fired from government posts for praying during working hours. In Tibet, since the launch of the Patriotic Education Campaign in 1996, there has been an emphasis in schools on promoting atheism and on undermining Tibetans'loyalty to the Dalai Lama.

Article 5 (d) and (e): The enjoyment of fundamental rights in autonomous ethnic minority areas

Discrimination in minority areas such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia has been most manifest in the government?s efforts to curb "separatism" in the name of national unity, which has resulted in a variety of human rights abuses: arbitrary arrest and execution after summary trials to restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and religion.

The long-term, highly controversial official strategy of encouraging immigration of Han Chinese into autonomous areas has resulted in increased economic discrimination. Xinjiang's economic development has largely bypassed the local ethnic population: the unemployment rate among Uyghurs is about 70 percent, while that of Han Chinese in the region is less than 1 percent. As a result of state hiring policies and relocation programs, demographics in Xinjiang have shifted dramatically: in Xinjiang's capital of Urumqi, Han Chinese comprise 80 percent of the 1.5 million inhabitants. In Inner Mongolia, Mongols are a minority in the whole region as a result of Han immigration.

Because of their generally inferior economic conditions, their predominantly rural status and the dominance of the Chinese language at higher levels of education, minorities in the PRC are doubly disadvantaged in access to education. Overall, the dominance of the Chinese language - Xin, the education system, in official affairs and in business, affects members of minorities in all areas of public and economic life, and their right to develop and use their own languages is not respected. The huge disparity between urban and rural regions in terms of funding allocated to education, particularly in the western regions of the PRC that are predominantly ethnic minority, is another main reason why the condition of the schools and the quality of education they provide is inferior, as indicated by the high drop-out rate among minority children or the lower literacy rate among rural children compared with urban children. In fact, due to reform era decentralization, the central government has been providing less and less support to poorer provinces, and localities have to raise most of the funds for basic education. This means that the poorest areas have the least money available for education. This has led to extreme inequality in the educational field. Girls are particularly disadvantaged in poor areas in terms of education. The Sample Survey on the Situation of Children in 1993 reported that three-quarters of children not enrolled were girls, mostly in poor and national minority regions.

Article 5 (d) and (e): The enjoyment of fundamental rights by rural-to-urban migrants

The regulatory regime governing internal migration imposes a set of discriminatory controls over migrant's employment, health, fertility, education and housing. Owing to bureaucratic intricacies, a majority of migrants do not have all of the necessary permits (residency, work, population control) and live in a semi-illegal state where they are cut off from the few urban benefits linked to the permit schemes, and are subject to extortion by officials, abuse by employers, and ultimately the threat of detention and repatriation to their home areas under the form of administrative detention known as "Custody and Repatriation".

Discriminatory attitudes against them have made it difficult for migrants to find employment and earn a fair wage. Migrants are clearly discriminated against in favor of urban workers. This is, in part, due to official policies to keep low urban unemployment rates. Migrants are particularly vulnerable to abuse in the workplace, including forced labor, dangerous working conditions, physical assaults and unfair dismissals.

Article 5 (e) (iv): The right to public health

Rural residents, including a large proportion of ethnic minorities, suffer systematic discrimination in the provision of health care as compared to urban people. While health institutions are concentrated in urban areas, there is a shortage of skilled medical staff in rural and township areas; and in minority areas, non-Han patients are reportedly discriminated against by medical staff. The poorest among rural residents have been severely affected by reforms that have torn apart the social safety net; the cooperative insurance schemes which once provided for the basic health needs of over 75 percent of rural residents now only cover about 10 percent of the rural population. Children in poor rural or minority areas are also seriously affected as reflected in a number of indicators, such as the infant mortality rate (14.2 per thousand in urban areas versus 41.6 per thousand in rural areas), or the fact that malnutrition impairs the growth of Tibetan children. The disparities in terms of access to health services are most clearly revealed in the life expectancy in different regions: Uyghurs have one of the shortest life spans of any ethnic group in Xinjiang (63 years, versus 70 on average in the PRC); and, according to local officials, in one of the counties comprising Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province, average life expectancy is as low as 44-45 years.

Article 6

The absence of a definition of discrimination meeting ICERD standards impairs the ability of those who have suffered from discriminatory treatment to seek redress. The lack of redress is compounded by the lack of institutional mechanisms providing effective remedies for victims of racially or ethnically based discrimination. Official discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity is therefore not subject to legal challenge. More specifically, the lack of an independent judiciary free of interference or supervision of the Party within its structure and decision making process, inadequacies in the training of lawyers, procurators and judges, and the lack of clarity of the laws all contribute to the absence of effective protections and remedies. Furthermore, official discrimination and lack of status mean that migrants dare not or have difficulty accessing means to protect their rights, including official mechanisms that are supposed to enforce labor laws and regulations.

Article 7

The educational curriculum fails to present a positive view of minority cultures, history and tradition. In the PRC as a whole, including autonomous areas, the curriculum is seen as essential for the guarantee of the integrity and unity of the country. Patriotic education in minority schools focuses on the theme that all nationalities should consider themselves an indivisible part of the Chinese nationality.

Negative perceptions of migrant workers persist in the official media. Many PRC academics also echo the official line, lauding migrants for their positive impact on economic development but describing them as a drain on state-subsidized goods and services, blaming them for the rise in crime rates and for violating the population control policy. Such misrepresentations resonate strongly among urban residents who are frustrated at the slipping away of state-subsidized services. HRIC believes that the government has failed to take meaningful measures to combat such prejudices. The PRC government's report fails to discuss whether ICERD has been promoted as part of the country's efforts to combat racial discrimination. ICERD was not included in compilations of UN instruments on apartheid and genocide published in the PRC. To our knowledge, the government does not use UN treaties in domestic legal awareness campaigns, and also bars the domestic media from reporting on review of its reports by UN treaty bodies.

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