• China

    China

    In addition to the Han majority, the Chinese government recognizes 55 peoples of ethnic minorities.

The Indigenous World 2024: China

The People’s Republic of China (PRC or China) officially proclaims itself to be a unified country with a diverse ethnic make-up and all nationalities equal in the Constitution. Besides the Han Chinese majority, the government recognizes 55 minority nationalities within its borders. According to the latest national census in 2020,[1] the combined minority nationalities’ population stands at 125,332,335 or 8.89% of the country's total population. The “unidentified ethnic groups” in China are included in the “minority nationalities” population, numbering 836,488 persons. Minority nationalities are culturally distinctive and socially marginalized in the Chinese context.

The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Regional National Autonomy is a basic law for the governance of minority nationalities in China. It includes establishing autonomous areas for nationalities, setting up their own local governance and giving them the right to practise their own language and culture. These regional national autonomous areas make up approximately 64% of China’s total territory and include, among others, vast territories of Tibet Autonomous Region, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The Chinese government does not recognize the existence of Indigenous Peoples in the PRC despite voting in favour of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).


Legislation affecting Indigenous Peoples

Implementation of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Ecological Protection Law

The Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Ecological Protection Law came into force on 1 September 2023.[2] The Tibetan Plateau spans around 2.5 million km2 or a quarter of China’s total area. The law underlines biodiversity conservation by establishing a new framework to protect and restore ecosystems through establishing national parks, nature reserves, nature parks, and other protected natural areas. According to Article 19 of the law:

the state will strengthen the work of ecological protection and repair in the source of three rivers, conduct systematic protection and zone-based and classified management of national parks established by the law, scientifically adopt measures such as grazing ban and enclosure, increase efforts to manage degraded grasslands, degraded wetlands, and desertified land and prevent and control soil erosion, comprehensively improve severely degraded land, and strictly prohibit various resource development and utilization activities that damage ecological functions or do not meet the requirements of differentiated management and control.

Some measures introduced by the law, such as grazing bans and enclosures, will affect herding rights and the nomadic way of life in the region. Further, the law does not introduce a requirement to apply the rule of free, prior, and informed consent for those communities that will be relocated in accordance with the law.

Residents of the Plateau are predominantly Tibetans in various subgroup identities, such as Menba, Luoba, Mishmi and others. Indigenous Peoples as rights-holders and contributors to the conservation of the Plateau are under-emphasized in this new law. Although there are statements that the state will take effective measures to protect and promote the traditional ecological cultural heritage of the Tibetan Plateau (Article 9), and improve public participation (Article 48), it is not clear how various stakeholders who hold local knowledge and religious beliefs on wildlife and nature, including Indigenous communities and civil society, will be engaged in collaborative governance.

Implementation should also be considered in the context of the ongoing exploration of mineral and hydropower resources in the region for a green transition. The Tibetan Plateau has now been assessed as holding 90% of the state’s lithium ore (at least 3.655 million tonnes of China’s estimated 4.047 million tonnes of lithium). A 2023 report reveals that a lithium mining boom is underway in eastern Tibet.[3] Both the world’s electric vehicle manufacturers and their competitors in China are becoming increasingly reliant on Tibet’s lithium exploitation and production. This acceleration of lithium mining involves a high risk of pollution and destruction of the landscape of the plateau. Local populations who protest and express any concern about the mines and their impact on their livelihoods have been subjected to repression from the State. This observation needs to be viewed alongside the ongoing revision of the Mineral Resources Law. The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress considered the draft revision of the Mineral Resources Law in December 2023. The revision has prioritized the State’s interests in exploiting and protecting mineral resources as well as safeguarding the security of national strategic resources,[4] while protection of the land rights of Indigenous and local communities, in accordance with existing international instruments, has been ignored.

Meanwhile, large-scale hydropower development has also been planned in the region. With exemptions for small projects, the Law on Ecological Protection of the Tibetan Plateau has explicitly outlawed the construction of new hydroelectric projects (Articles 45 and 57); however, it does broadly support projects focused on hydropower, wind, solar and geothermal in order to establish a clean energy system there, and construct facilities for energy transmission out of the region (Article 45). This ambiguity leaves an escape clause that the State and State-owned enterprises can use to engage in the development of large-scale projects with the justification of promoting a green energy transition.

Ongoing legislation and management of national parks

On 7 September 2023, China’s national legislature, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC), released the five-year legislative plan (2023-2028), which included a plan to consider the Law of National Parks during the period. The establishment of national parks has substantial impacts on the lands of Indigenous Peoples and their ways of life in China. China has established 49 national park candidate areas.

The largest national park in China is the Sanjiangyuan National Park, mainly situated in areas inhabited by Tibetans and Mongolians. The park covers 190,700 km2, and forest and grasslands crucial for the nomadic herding of Indigenous communities cover more than 74% of that area.[5] In August, the Sanjiangyuan National Park management bureau released a master plan for comprehensive protection.[6] Although it aims to improve protective measures for the park, it lacks measures on how to respect Indigenous Peoples as right-holders and contributors to park governance.

National parks’ creation in China often goes hand in hand with a reversal of nomads’ grazing rights through land grabs and relocations. While the establishment of national parks promotes China’s eco-credentials and “pristine” nature attracts tourists, there is no discussion in the public domain of the issue of dispossessing affected Indigenous communities of their rights.[7]

Major events relevant to Indigenous Peoples

2023 saw official translations of the name “Tibet” in the Chinese government’s English-language communication replaced by “Xizang” – the Chinese name in Mandarin referring to the Tibetan region. The white paper “CPC Policies on the Governance of Xizang in the New Era: Approach and Achievements” issued by the State Council Information Office officially reflected this change.[8] Tibetan activists’ and experts’ observations on this name change in communications reflect China's policies of legitimizing the claim over Tibet and erasing Tibetan culture from global consciousness.[9]

Outcomes from the United Nations and European Union

UN Human Rights Council

At the 52nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council in March 2023, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) delivered two statements on behalf of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights stressing China’s use of torture and repression of environmental defenders in Tibet.[10] The statements were delivered in dialogues with the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders. In its statements, ICT raised issues regarding the increased persecution of Tibetan environmental defenders when protecting Tibetan lands and natural resources from extensive mining, dams, and harmful infrastructure projects.[11]

At the 54th Session of the Human Rights Council, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, called for an increased participatory approach and strong remedial action regarding concerns in Xinjiang following the recommendations of the 2022 OHCHR assessment of human rights concerns in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.[12]

Third Committee of the General Assembly

In October, 51 UN Member States led by the UK issued a joint declaration to the UN General Assembly Third Committee condemning the Chinese government’s crimes against humanity committed against Uyghurs and other Turkic communities in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and calling out systematic human rights abuses in the region.[13]

Pakistan presented a joint statement to the Third Committee insisting that the situation in Xinjiang and Tibet was China’s internal affair and opposing the politicization of human rights. China’s UN delegation claimed that 72 countries backed that statement.[14] However, given that, in past years, Beijing has included countries that were unaware they were listed as signatories,[15] one cannot discount this having happened again.

Special Procedures and UN Experts

In February 2023, following their previous communications with China, UN experts expressed their alarm at what appears to be a policy of forced assimilation of the Tibetan identity into the dominant Han Chinese majority through the system of residential schools. Initiatives to promote the Tibetan language and culture were reportedly being suppressed, and individuals advocating for the promotion of the Tibetan language and Tibetan-language education being persecuted.[16]

The UN experts included Mr. Fernand de Varennes, UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues; Ms Farida Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education, and Ms Alexandra Xanthaki, UN Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights. They stated that the policies were contrary to the principles of prohibition of discrimination and the rights to education, linguistic and cultural rights, freedom of religion or belief, and other minority rights of the Tibetan people.

UN forums on Indigenous and minority issues

The Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center (SMHRIC), a US-based organization monitoring the human rights situation in Southern (Inner) Mongolia, highlighted two major issues concerning the banning of the Mongolian language and the state’s wider campaign of cultural eradication at the 22nd Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII)[17] and the 16th Session of the UN Forum on Minority Issues (UNFMI).[18] The statements condemned China’s policies of systematic erasure of the Mongolian traditional way of life through projects of “ecological migration” and the “livestock grazing ban”, aimed at resettling more than one million nomadic peoples in China from their ancestral pastural lands closer to urban centres in the region.

The Public Uyghur Association of the Kyrgyz Republic made a statement on the discrimination and other abuses the Uyghur and other minorities are facing in the Uyghur region of China at the UNFMI.[19] It described situations of discrimination in employment, concerning religious beliefs, language use, and gender. In addition, the statement raised issues on the destruction of cultural heritage, forced marriages, sexual abuses, and enforced disappearances in the region.

The Chinese delegation expressed its strong protest at the statements. At the UNFMI, China accused the anti-China separatist forces of abusing the forum and insisting on distorting facts, spreading lies and rumours under the pretext of human rights, using Tibetan, Xinjiang, and Mongolian issues at this multilateral platform to smear China in an attempt to create separation and chaos.[20]

UN Treaty Bodies: CERD and ICESCR

In the 7th Meeting of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in December 2023, one State party asked for an update on actions taken by the CERD under its early warning and urgent action procedure concerning the human rights situation in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.[21] Another speaker accused CERD of taking decisions based on false information presented to smear China. CERD experts stated that the CERD had initially addressed the issue of the human rights situation in the region in its dialogue with China but that the situation had worsened since then, hence the CERD felt it necessary to speak out against racial discrimination at an early stage. The CERD was very careful in performing background checks before issuing statements through the procedure.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) considered the 3rd periodic report of China and adopted the concluding observations in March 2023. Under the subtitle of “Indigenous Peoples” in the observations, the CESCR expressed its concern that:

“resettlement of nomadic herders, particularly Tibetan herders, is carried out in the State party without proper consultation and in most cases without free, prior and informed consent, particularly in the western provinces and in autonomous regions. The Committee is also concerned about reports that large numbers of small-scale farmers and nomadic herders, including from ethnic autonomous areas, have lost their traditional lands and livelihoods owing to poverty alleviation schemes and ecological restoration resettlement measures, and that compensation for expropriated property is often insufficient to maintain an adequate standard of living (arts. 1 (2) and 2 (2)).”

The CESCR recommended that China “immediately halt non-voluntary resettlement of nomadic herders, including Tibetan herders, from their traditional lands and non-voluntary relocation or rehousing programmes” and “carry out meaningful consultations with the affected communities in order to examine and evaluate all available alternative options, and offer full, adequate and timely compensation for expropriations that have already been carried out.”[22]

In addition, noting the information provided during the dialogue with China, the CESCR expressed concerns and recommended that China take immediate action on the following major topics:

  • Discrimination in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region[23]
  • Coercive measures, including forced labour[24]
  • Protection of the family and children[25]
  • Cultural and linguistic identity and expression in education[26]
  • Cultural heritage and religious practices[27]

China presented its follow-up comments and rejected most of the criticism. Given that China has continuously denied the existence of Indigenous Peoples in the country, it is significant to note that this was the first time that the Committee listed “indigenous peoples” as a subtitle in its observations. Furthermore, it is surprising to see that China did not have comments in response to the facts and recommendations concerning the observations under the subtitle of Indigenous Peoples (paras 27 and 28).[28]

European Parliament

The European Parliament adopted a resolution in December 2023 on the abduction of Tibetan children and forced assimilation practices through Chinese boarding schools in Tibet. The resolution condemns the repressive assimilation policies, especially the boarding school system in Tibet that seeks to eliminate the distinct linguistic, cultural, and religious traditions among Tibetans and other minorities, such as Uyghurs. It calls for the immediate abolition of this authoritarian system imposed on children in Tibet and the practice of family separations as highlighted by UN experts.

The resolution urges the EU to adopt targeted sanctions and raises the issue of human rights violations in China, and particularly the situation in Tibet, at every political and human rights dialogue with the Chinese authorities.[29]

General outlook for 2024

China’s 4th Universal Periodic Review (UPR) will be held on 23 January 2024. It is a crucial moment of global scrutiny on the human rights situation in the country due to the absence of debate on substantial issues in the Human Rights Council.

Despite a seemingly high acceptance rate of recommendations – China accepted 284 out of 346 recommendations from its 3rd UPR in November 2018 – China has broadly rejected all recommendations on the rights of Uyghurs and Tibetans.

 

 

Due to the sensitivity of some of the issues covered in this article, the author prefers to remain anonymous.

 

This article is part of the 38th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. The photo above is of an Indigenous man harvesting quinoa in Sunimarka, Peru. This photo was taken by Pablo Lasansky, and is the cover of The Indigenous World 2024 where this article is featured. Find The Indigenous World 2024 in full here

 

Notes and references

[1] “China Statistical Yearbook 2021.” China Statistics Press, 2021. https://www.stats.gov.cn/sj/ndsj/2021/indexeh.htm

[2] Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Ecological Protection Law of the People's Republic of China, adopted at the second meeting of the Standing Committee of the 14th National People's Congress on 26 April 2023. http://www.npc.gov.cn/npc/c2/c30834/202304/t20230426_429053.html

[3] Lafitte, Gabriel. “Tibet, a new frontline of ‘white gold rush’ in global race for renewable energy.” Turquoise Roof, 1 November2023. https://turquoiseroof.org/white_gold_rush_in_tibet/

[4] “Report on Amendments to the Organic Law of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China (Draft Revision).” NPC Observer, 29 December 2023. https://npcobserver.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/2023-12-29-Public-Consultation-Explanations.pdf#page=22

[5] “China’s Sanjiangyuan National Park sees continued improvement in ecological environment.” Xinhua, 28 December 2023. http://english.scio.gov.cn/chinavoices/2023-12/28/content_116907297.htm

[6] “China's Sanjiangyuan National Park releases master plan for comprehensive protection.” Xinhua, 23 August 2023. http://en.people.cn/n3/2023/0823/c90000-20062459.html

[7] Palmo, Dechen. “What Xi didn’t say about national parks on Tibetan Plateau - The new parks will entail forced relocation of Tibetan nomads from their land.” 28 June 2022.

https://asiatimes.com/2022/06/what-xi-didnt-say-about-national-parks-on-tibetan-plateau/

[8] The State Council Information Office, PRC. “CPC Policies on the Governance of Xizang in the New Era: Approach and Achievements.” November 2023. http://www.scio.gov.cn/zfbps/zfbps_2279/202311/t20231110_778528.html

[9] McCartney, Micha. “China is Slowly Erasing Tibet's Name.” 14 November 2023. https://www.newsweek.com/china-changing-tibet-english-name-1843391

[10] “Torture, repression of Tibetan environmental defenders raised at UN human rights session.” International Campaign for Tibet, 16 March 2023. https://savetibet.org/torture-repression-of-tibetan-environmental-defenders-raised-at-un-human-rights-session

[11] On the 50 cases of prosecution of environmental rights defenders in Tibet see: “Environmental Defenders of Tibet: China’s Persecution Of Tibetan Environmental Defenders, International Campaign for Tibet.” August 2022. https://savetibet.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/2205-ICFT-Report_V8.pdf

[12] “Report on the 54th session of the Human Rights Council.” Universal Rights Group, 13 October 2023. https://www.universal-rights.org/report-on-the-54th-session-of-the-human-rights-council/

[13] “Human rights violations in Xinjiang: joint statement at the UN Third Committee.” UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, 18 October 2023.

https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/joint-statement-on-human-rights-violations-in-xinjiang-at-the-un-third-committee

[14] “Developing countries and friendly countries voice support for China’s just position and opposition to interference in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of human rights in the UN.” Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the UN, 17 October 2023. http://un.china-mission.gov.cn/eng/chinaandun/socialhr/3rdcommittee/202310/t20231018_11162597.htm

[15] Charbonneau, Louis. “UN Member Countries Condemn China’s Crimes Against Humanity: More than 50 Join Declaration on Human Rights Violations in Xinjiang.” Human Rights Watch, 23 October 2023. https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/10/23/un-member-countries-condemn-chinas-crimes-against-humanity

[16] “China: UN experts alarmed by separation of 1 million Tibetan children from families and forced assimilation at residential schools.” UN Human Rights, 6 February 2023. https://ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2023/02/china-un-experts-alarmed-separation-1-million-tibetan-children-families-and

[17] SMHRIC statement at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) 22nd Session, Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, 26 April 2023. https://www.smhric.org/news_719.htm

[18] SMHRIC statements at the 16th Session of the United Nations Forum on Minority Issues. Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, 4 December 2023. https://www.smhric.org/news_730.htm

[19] Ibragimov, Farkhat. OHCHR Minority Fellowship Alumnus, Member of the Public Uyghur Association ITTIPAK of the Kyrgyz Republic. 30 November 2023. https://hrcmeetings.ohchr.org/HRCMechanisms/ForumMinority/SiteAssets/Pages/16th-session/Statement%20by%20Farkhat%20Ibragimov.pdf

[20] SMHRIC statements at the 16th Session of the United Nations Forum on Minority Issues. Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Center, 4 December 2023. https://www.smhric.org/news_730.htm

[21] “Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Holds Seventh Meeting with States Parties.” UN Human Rights, 4 December 2023. https://www.ohchr.org/en/news/2023/12/committee-elimination-racial-discrimination-holds-seventh-meeting-states-parties

[22] Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. “Concluding observations on the third periodic report of China, including Hong Kong, China, and Macao, China,” adopted by the Committee at its 73rd session (13 February–3 March 2023). E/C.12/CHN/CO/3, paras. 27 and 28.

[23] Ibid, paras. 35 and 36.

[24] Ibid, paras. 50 and 51.

[25] Ibid, paras. 68, 69, 70 and 71.

[26] Ibid, paras. 88 and 89.

[27] Ibid, paras. 90 and 91.

[28] “Comments on CESCR Concluding Observations on the Third Periodic Report of China.” UN Human Rights, 22 March 2023. https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=E%2FC.12%2FCHN%2FCO%2F3&Lang=en

[29] The full resolution of the European Parliament, P9_TA(2023)0479, The abduction of Tibetan children and forced assimilation practices through Chinese boarding schools in Tibet, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2023-0479_EN.pdf

Tags: Land rights, Human rights, Conservation, International Processes

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