Ethnic minority

Ethnic minority

Ethnic minority / 少数民族

Ethnic minority / 少数民族


In the UN context, the term ethnicity often factors in a group’s common origin, language, customs and beliefs, but can only be subjectively and arbitrarily defined.  The notion of ethnic minorities is a social construct which appeared with the creation of the nation-state, which was built around a constructed nationality, or an ethnic majority.

The Chinese Communist Party has divided China’s population into ethnic groups or nationalities consisting of 55 minorities and the Han (汉族) – the majority group which is itself a construct of the late 19th century. In China’s 2021 census, 125 million citizens – nearly 9 percent of the population – were classified as members of the official minority groups, such as Mongol, Tibetan and Uyghur.

China’s ethnic diversity and its large territory is partly the result of previous conquests. As this historical expansionism does not match the official narrative of an inherently peaceful Chinese civilisation, the CCP claims to govern a “united multi-ethnic country since ancient times”.



After the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, its first president Sun Yat-sen proposed that China consisted of a union of five minzu (民族, nationalities or ethnic groups): the Han, the Manchu, the Mongols, the (Hui) Muslims, and the Tibetans. This setup was soon replaced by the concept of Zhonghua minzu (中华民族) – the Chinese nation, people, or race – a super-ethnicity with a supposed common ancestry which remains a crucial part of the CCP’s rhetoric on ethnic affairs.

During its early years, the Chinese Communist Party contemplated allowing non-Han minorities independence from China.[1] After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, the Chinese state however embarked on an “ethnic classification project”, which researchers have described as one of the great colonising missions of the twentieth century.[2] The project divided the population into ethnic groups, following Joseph Stalin’s criteria: common language, territory, economy, and psychological nature. Most nationalities were classified in the 1950s, and by 1979 their number reached the current 56.

Several of the ethnic minorities officially acknowledged by the Chinese state also encompass large groups that live outside the PRC’s borders, such as ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks. Some ethnic groups with a large international representation have not been included among China’s 55 official minorities. These include the Hakka (which are labelled as Han) and Hmong (which have been included in the Miao minority).

Today, official discourse portrays the ethnic minorities as unique but unified with the Han as part of the ‘Chinese nation’. This concept and the associated claim of authority over these groups transcends national boundaries, as the Party also includes foreign nationals with predominantly Han, but increasingly also other heritage that is encompassed under the notion of “Chinese”. The Chinese government also counts the Gaoshan (高山族) in Taiwan as one of the PRC’s ethnic minorities, by which it refers to 16 aboriginal groups officially recognised by the Taiwanese government. China, for its part, claims to have no indigenous peoples, as it would otherwise have to acknowledge its history of colonisation.

China’s minorities have traditionally been regarded as primitive and even inferior, not least by Han elites.[3] In official channels, minorities tend to be stereotypically portrayed as separate from the majority; dancing, singing, and wearing traditional costumes – including delegates to the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature.

The PRC Constitution states that China’s nationalities are equal, and contemporary official discourse portrays their relationship as being as close as “seeds in a pomegranate”. According to the Constitution, all ethnic groups “have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages and to preserve or reform their own traditions and customs”.

In practice, however, the ethnic minorities are increasingly exposed to a “second-generation ethnic policy” (第二代民族政策), a policy framework that emphasises a unified national identity and severely restricts the rights of minorities to their own cultures, languages, and identities. The minority groups lack meaningful political participation, few of them are represented at all in the Central Committee, and it is rare for members of the ethnic minorities to reach the higher echelons of political power.

[1] M. Fiskesjö, ‘The Legacy of the Chinese Empires Beyond “the West and the Rest“’, Education about Asia, Vol. 22, No. 1 (2017), pp. 6-7.

[2] N. Tapp, ‘In Defence of the Archaic: A Reconsideration of the 1950s Ethnic Classification Project in China’, Asian Ethnicity, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2002), pp. 63-84.

[3] S. D. Blum, ‘Portraits of “Primitives”: Ordering Human Kinds in the Chinese Nation’, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000.