China published a white paper on Monday saying that the country's regional autonomy system for ethnic minorities adopted half a century ago has been in conformity with the country's "peculiar situation" and proven to be in the common interests of all ethnic groups.
The 12,000-word document, titled Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities in China, was issued by the Information Office of the State Council.
Regional autonomy is practiced in areas where people of ethnic minorities live in compact communities, where organs of self-government are established for the exercise of autonomy.
The system "is critical to enhancing the relationship of equality, unity and mutual assistance among different ethnic groups, to upholding national unification, and to accelerating the development of places where regional autonomy is practiced and promoting their progress," the white paper says.
China has 56 ethnic groups identified and recognized by the central government. While the Han ethnic group has the largest population, that of the other 55 ethnic minority groups accounts for only 8.41 percent of the country's total.
Under the leadership of the Communist Party, China's first provincial-level ethnic autonomous region -- the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region -- was established in 1947.
After New China was established in 1949, the white paper says that the Chinese government began to introduce the system of regional autonomy for ethnic minorities to all regions where ethnic minorities lived in compact communities.
"This major historical decision (to pursue regional autonomy system) was made out of consideration for the particular situation of China," the white paper says.
"The long existence of a united multi-ethnic state is the historical basis"; "The patriotic spirit formed during the fight against foreign invasions in modern times is the political basis"; and "the population distribution pattern of China's ethnic groups, in which they live together over vast areas while some live in compact communities in small areas, plus the disparities between different areas in access to natural resources and stage of development make it pragmatic" to adopt the policy, the white paper says.
By the end of 2003, China had established 155 ethnic autonomous areas. Of these, five are autonomous regions, 30 autonomous prefectures and 120 autonomous counties (banners). According to a national census in 2000, of the 55 ethnic minorities, 44 have their own ethnic autonomous areas. The area where such regional autonomy is practiced accounts for 64 percent of the entire territory of China.
Under the regional autonomy system, all the ethnic autonomy areas are entitled to have the right of self-government and independent management of their internal ethnic affairs, the document says.
"The heads of all autonomous regions, autonomous prefectures and autonomous counties are all citizens of the ethnic groups exercising regional autonomy in the areas concerned," it adds.
Ethnic autonomous areas enjoy the right to formulate self-government regulations and separate rules, including alternations to existing national laws in conformity to their own customs, the white paper says.
In addition, it says, all ethnic minorities are entitled to the right to practice their own religions freely, retain or alter their folkways and customs, to use and develop their spoken and written languages, independently arrange, manage and develop economic construction, and independently develop educational, scientific, technological and cultural undertakings.
It is an obligation by law in China that "higher state organs should support and assist ethnic autonomous areas in speeding up their development," the document notes.
To accelerate the development of China's western regions and ethnic autonomous areas, the Chinese government launched a grand strategy for the development of western China in 2000, which covers five autonomous regions, 27 autonomous prefectures and 83 of the 120 autonomous counties (banners).
"Over the past five years, the construction of 60 important projects has begun in western China, with a total investment of 850 billion yuan," it says, noting that they "play an important role in promoting the economic and social development of the ethnic autonomous areas."
Since 2000, the state has assisted ethnic autonomous areas to further convert their resource advantages into economic advantages by investing in the construction of a number of key projects, such as the West-East Natural Gas Transmission Project, West-East Power Transmission Project and Qinghai-Tibet Railway, it says.
Other measures to boost economic development in ethnic minority regions include: financial support, aid in ecological construction and environmental protection, education, poverty relief, and special policies for producing their unique necessities.
"Before the founding of New China, the ethnic minority areas suffered from low productivity, and underdeveloped economy, society and culture," the white paper says. Most of their populations were illiterate, and they suffered epidemics of such contagious diseases as plague, smallpox and malaria. "Some were on the verge of extinction," it says.
As a result of over half a century's efforts, in the ethnic autonomous areas the people's living conditions and environments have conspicuously improved, people there now "share the achievements of development brought about by the modernization construction of the country," it adds.
In 2003, the GDP of China's ethnic autonomous areas reached 1,038.1 billion yuan, exceeding 1,000 billion yuan for the first time. The per-capita net income of rural residents in ethnic autonomous areas was 1,895 yuan, 2.31 times that in 1994.
The white paper also says that over the years, infrastructure of the autonomous areas has been distinctively improved, traditional culture well-protected, educational levels markedly raised and medical services greatly enhanced.
"The life expectancy of 13 ethnic minorities is higher than the national average, which is 71.40 years, and those of seven of them are higher than the average of the Han people, which is 73.34 years," it says.
The practice of more than half a century has proved that the system and practice of China's regional ethnic autonomy have been immensely successful, the white paper says. "Regional ethnic autonomy is a correct solution to the issue of ethnic groups in China, and is in keeping with China's actual conditions and the common interests of all ethnic groups."
The white paper, however, acknowledges that limited and influenced by historical, geographical and other conditions, the economic and social development level of western China, where the populations of ethnic minorities are more concentrated, is still low compared with the more developed eastern areas. "Some remote areas, in particular, are still pretty backward."
It pledges that the Chinese government will adhere to the scientific concept of human-oriented, all-round, coordinated, sustainable development, further explore and strengthen specific forms of implementation of the system of regional ethnic autonomy, continuously strengthen the material basis for implementation of the system of regional ethnic autonomy, and promote the all-round economic and social development of ethnic minorities and their areas.