Autonomy / 自治

Autonomy / 自治


While the term “autonomy” lacks a generally accepted definition in international law, it is often understood as political or governmental autonomy, i.e., self-government or independence of action at the internal or domestic level.

Through a compromise between the sovereign state and peoples who strive for self-determination, states may use autonomy arrangements to protect their territorial integrity while safeguarding the rights of minorities, and to avoid discord. However, governments differ in their compliance to such commitments. State actors striving to assert more control over autonomous areas in the name of national unity and territorial integrity may, for example, see a need to limit the degree of autonomy of self-ruling groups.

For its part, the Chinese government has continuously redefined the concept of autonomy and what it entails. Tibet, Xinjiang, and three other Chinese regions hold the official status of being “autonomous” within the People’s Republic of China. The PRC government has promised that Hong Kong would enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” from Beijing and made similar vows to the citizens of Taiwan should they ever embrace the Communist Party’s (CCP) leadership. Nevertheless, China’s redefinition of autonomy in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong has prompted scepticism over its ability to deliver on its promises of autonomy to the people of Taiwan.


Socialist regimes were among the first states to establish institutions of formal autonomy. According to CCP policy, China’s ethnic minorities enjoy regional autonomy in communities where they live in higher concentration – “under the unified leadership of the state”. Moreover, Chinese law stipulates that a governor of an autonomous region must belong to the ethnic minority which exercises autonomy.

Nevertheless, actual power rests not with the governors but with the regional Party Secretaries, who have almost exclusively belonged to the Han majority population. Chinese legal scholar Yu Xingzhong concludes that the political system specified in the PRC Autonomy Law “certainly does not correspond to what is usually understood [by] the term ‘autonomy’”.

The CCP in 1951 signed an agreement with Tibetan representatives in which it promised the Tibetan people the right to exercise national regional autonomy under the PRC government. The Tibetan government with the Dalai Lama as its head would govern the Tibet Autonomous Region, but it eventually became evident that it was merely a transitional and temporary arrangement which would not involve the preservation of Tibet’s political, religious and social institutions. The Dalai Lama’s subsequent call for “genuine autonomy” (within the PRC) has been dismissed by Beijing as an attempt to overthrow its grip on power.

The “autonomous” institutions of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), strongly resemble those in China’s other autonomous regions. For instance, Xinjiang’s People’s Congress is subject to central veto power, and China’s supreme court retains supervisory power over courts in the region. The Party State’s efforts to fight the so-called “three forces” (三股势力) – separatism, extremism and terrorism – in Xinjiang have further decreased the prospects for genuine autonomy. Rather than responding to calls for dialogue on the issue of autonomy, Beijing has adopted hard-line policies involving large-scale arbitrary detention of members of Muslim minority groups and other measures which “may constitute … crimes against humanity” according to a UN assessment.

For Hong Kong, the Chinese government vowed to preserve its way of life for at least fifty years after the handover in 1997, according to the “one country, two systems” formula, and a “high degree” of autonomy. PRC laws would, by and large, not apply in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), and mainland officials were not to interfere in the regional government’s affairs. Nevertheless, the Chinese foreign ministry in 2017 stated that the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 – by which the PRC had vowed to maintain Hong Kong’s autonomy – was “not at all binding for the central government’s management over Hong Kong”.  The Chinese regime has in recent years restricted basic rights in the HKSAR, with reference to four vaguely defined crimes: secession, subversion, terrorist activities, and collusion with foreign forces.

Beijing’s position on Taiwan is that it will eventually unify the de facto independent territory with the PRC, but that it will enjoy an autonomous status similar to that of the HKSAR. The Chinese government’s deviation from its original promises to Hong Kongers, Tibetans and Uyghurs on the issue of autonomy has however contributed to scepticism among Taiwan’s citizens towards the proposed “high degree” of autonomy, should they one day be governed by the PRC.