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Friday, August 18, 2000, updated at 08:56(GMT+8)

Minorities to Get Health Care Tonic

China's ethnic minorities, about 100 million people, are expected to enjoy better health care and higher living standards in the future, according to officials.

The State Family Planning Commission has urged local officials and family planning workers to work harder to provide better services.

They have also been told to respect the traditions and religions of ethnic minorities, said Zhang Weiqing, minister in charge of the State Family Planning Commission.

A grassroots health service network will be set up to try to prevent birth defects in ethnic minority areas.

Family planning will also be integrated with programmes to tackle poverty in ethnic minority areas to allow people to live happier lives.

Zhang made the remarks yesterday at the opening of a four-day national conference on population and family planning among ethnic minorities in Hailar in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

The State is setting up these policies to make sure economic development and population growth progress hand in hand, said Zhang.

The present policy encourages urban families to have one child, though couples who are both only-children may have a second baby.

Farmers who have only one girl may also have a second child after waiting four years.

But such policies among ethnic minorities are flexible and can be changed by local governments, officials said.

More and more ethnic residents have now realized the importance of family planning and support its implementation, Zhang said.

Birth rates in the five ethnic autonomous regions -- Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Tibet Autonomous Region and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region -- have declined from 22.01 per thousand in 1990 to 17.91 per thousand last year.

With improvements in health care, infant mortality rates in these regions have also decreased considerably.

In Tibet Autonomous Region infant mortality fell from 91.8 per thousand in 1990 to 36.5 per thousand in 1999.

Zhang stressed a rising population could affect the development of China's western regions.

"Population growth is putting increasing pressure on the environment and resources in the regions,'' the official said. "The growing population has led to many problems, including desertification, shortages of water and energy, and a lack of land to cultivate.''

Poverty, illiteracy, low urbanization, high infant mortality rates and less-developed heath care facilities have badly affected ethnic minorities, statistics from the commission show.

"In some localities, family planning work is still at very primitive level and people have not shaken off old ways,'' Zhang said.

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China's ethnic minorities, about 100 million people, are expected to enjoy better health care and higher living standards in the future, according to officials.

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