China is a unitary multi-ethnic country. To date, 56 ethnic groups have been identified and recognized by the central government. The population of the Han ethnic group accounts for the majority. As the population of the other 55 ethnic groups is relatively small, they are customarily referred to as "ethnic minorities." According to statistics collected in the fifth national census, conducted in 2000, the population of all ethnic minority groups totaled 106.43 million, accounting for 8.41 percent of the national total.
To solve the problems of ethnic groups, different systems have been adopted by different multi-ethnic countries around the world, and what China practices is the system of ethnic regional autonomy. Ethnic regional autonomy means that, under the unified leadership of the state, organs of self-government are established for the exercise of autonomy and regional autonomy is practiced in areas where people of ethnic minorities live in compact communities. China's adoption of ethnic regional autonomy to solve the ethnic problems is an institutional arrangement based on its own historical development, cultural characteristics, ethnic relations and distribution of the ethnic groups, as well as other specific conditions, which is in accord with the common interests of all ethnic groups and their demands for development. Both the Constitution and the Law on Ethnic Regional Autonomy contain clear stipulations on ethnic regional autonomy and its implementation. The system of ethnic regional autonomy is a basic political system of China.
Ethnic autonomous areas in China are divided into three levels, namely, autonomous regions, autonomous prefectures and autonomous counties. In 1947, before the People's Republic of China was founded, under the leadership of the CPC, the first provincial-level autonomous region in China -- the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region -- was established in the liberated areas inhabited by Mongolians in compact communities. After New China was founded in 1949, the Chinese government began to introduce the system of ethnic regional autonomy to all areas where ethnic minorities lived in compact communities. In October 1955, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region was established; in March 1958, the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region was established; in October 1958, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region was established; and in September 1965, the Tibet Autonomous Region was established. Now, China has established 155 ethnic autonomous areas, including five autonomous regions, 30 autonomous prefectures and 120 autonomous counties (banners). Of the 55 ethnic minorities, 44 have their own autonomous areas. The population of ethnic minorities implementing regional autonomy accounts for 71 percent of the total population of ethnic minorities. Meanwhile, China has established 1,173 autonomous townships in places equivalent to townships where ethnic minorities live in compact communities, as a supplement to the autonomous areas. Of the 11 ethnic minorities for which regional autonomy is not implemented because their populations and habitats are relatively small, nine have set up autonomous townships.
In accordance with the Constitution and the Law on Ethnic Regional Autonomy, the organs of self-government of ethnic autonomous areas are the people's congresses and people's governments of autonomous regions, autonomous prefectures and autonomous counties. In addition to exercising the functions and powers of local state organs at the corresponding level, they also exercise the power of autonomy. First, independently managing the internal affairs of their ethnic groups in their autonomous areas. Among the chairpersons or vice-chairpersons of the standing committees of the people's congresses of all 155 autonomous areas in China, there are citizens of the ethnic group or groups exercising regional autonomy in the area concerned. The chairperson of an autonomous region, the prefect of an autonomous prefecture and the head of an autonomous county are all citizens of the ethnic group or groups exercising regional autonomy in the area concerned. In the working departments of the self-government organs in these autonomous areas, a rational proportion of officials from the ethnic group or groups exercising regional autonomy as well as members of other minorities living in the area concerned are appointed in accordance with the law. At present, minority officials total more than 2.9 million nationwide. Second, having the power to formulate regulations on the exercise of autonomy and separate regulations. By the end of 2004, the ethnic autonomous areas had formulated 133 regulations on the exercise of autonomy and 418 separate regulations, all of which are still effective now. In the light of the particular situation in each area, they had made 68 flexible alterations or supplementary regulations to such laws as the Marriage Law, the Law of Succession, the Election Law, the Law on Land Administration and the Grassland Law. Third, using and developing their own spoken and written languages. At present, 22 ethnic minorities in China use 28 written languages of their own. In 2003, 4,787 titles of books with a total print-run of 50.34 million copies, 205 magazines with a total print-run of 7.81 million volumes, and 88 newspapers with a total print-run of 131.3 million copies were published in the languages of ethnic minorities. Now available are coded character sets, national standards for fonts and keyboards in the Mongolian, Tibetan, Uygur, Korean and Yi languages, software in these languages can be run using the Windows system, and laser photo-typesetting in these languages has been realized. Fourth, respecting and protecting the freedom of religious belief of ethnic minorities. By the end of 2004, Tibetan Buddhist sites numbered more than 1,700 in the Tibet Autonomous Region, with 46,000 resident monks and nuns, and mosques numbered 23,900 in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, with 27,000 clerical personnel. In addition, regional autonomous areas have the right to preserve or reform their own folk ways and customs, independently arrange, manage and develop the economic construction of the locality concerned, independently manage local revenues, and independently develop undertakings of education, science and technology, culture and sports.
The state assists ethnic autonomous areas to accelerate their economic and social development through various measures. Primarily they are: giving strategic prominence to speeding up the development of ethnic autonomous areas, giving priority to, and rationally allocating, infrastructure construction projects in these areas, strengthening financial input and support to these areas, attaching importance to ecological and environmental protection in these areas, adopting special measures to help these areas develop education, science and technology, augmenting assistance to impoverished habitats of ethnic minorities, expediting input into the social undertakings in these areas, helping them open wider to the outside world, pairing them up with more-developed areas for support, and attending to the special needs of ethnic minorities in their life and work. From 2000, when the grand strategy for development of western China was adopted, to the end of 2004, 60 key projects, involving transportation, energy, education, public health and environmental protection, had been launched in succession, with a total investment of over 850 billion yuan. All the five autonomous regions, 27 autonomous prefectures, and 83 of the 120 autonomous counties are covered in the strategy. Assisting the ethnic minority areas to accelerate their development has been listed as a major task in the state's "Seven-Year Program for Delivering 80 Million People from Poverty" and "Outline for Poverty Alleviation and Development in China's Rural Areas," as well as in the pairing-off assistance between the more-developed east coast and the western regions, the "National Project of Compulsory Education in Poor Areas," the "Food and Clothing Fund for Impoverished Ethnic Minority Areas," the "National Natural Forest Protection Project" and the "Broadcast and TV to Every Village Project." The state has made special arrangements for the development of Tibet. From 1994 to 2001, 30 projects were constructed there, with 3.9 billion yuan in total investment directly from the central government. During the Tenth Five-Year Plan (2001-2005), the central government has invested 31.2 billion yuan in Tibet to construct 117 projects.
With the energetic assistance and support from the state and the more-developed areas, the ethnic autonomous areas have fully exploited their own advantages and maintained a sound situation featured by economic growth, political stability, social progress and harmony between ethnic groups. From 1994 to 2003, the GDP of the ethnic autonomous areas grew by an annual average of 9.87 percent, which was nearly one percentage point higher than the national average. In 1994, the percapita GDP of these areas was equivalent to 63.5 percent of the national per-capita figure; in 2003, it rose to 66.5 percent. Also in 2003, the local revenue of the ethnic autonomous areas reached 67.4 billion yuan, 3.3 times that of 1994. In the same year, the per-capita GDP in Tibet was 6,871 yuan, equivalent to 75.5 percent of the national per-capita average; and the per-capita GDP in Xinjiang was 9,700 yuan, equivalent to 106.6 percent of the national per-capita average. The successful implementation of the system of regional autonomy for ethnic minorities has enabled the ethnic minorities to manage their own affairs in accordance with the law and participate in the democratic management of state and social affairs. It has also ensured that all ethnic groups in China, whether their populations are big or small, enjoy equal economic, political, social and cultural rights and work together to safeguard national unity and national solidarity and fight against any attempt to split the country and destroy national solidarity, thus form among them harmonious relations characterized by mutual support, mutual help, striving in unison and common prosperity.