II. The Political Status of Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities and the Establishment of Ethnic Autonomous Areas
(1) The Political Status of Regional Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities
The first National People's Congress, convened in 1954, included the system of regional autonomy for ethnic minorities in the Constitution of the People's Republic of China (hereinafter referred to as the "Constitution"). All subsequent revisions to the Constitution reaffirmed the implementation of this system. The Law of the People's Republic of China on Regional Ethnic Autonomy (hereinafter referred to as "Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy"), which was amended and issued in 2001, explicitly stipulates that "the system of regional autonomy for ethnic minorities is a basic political system of the state."
As early as 1952, the Chinese government issued the Program for the Implementation of Regional Ethnic Autonomy of the People's Republic of China, which included clear provisions on such important issues as the establishment of ethnic autonomous areas and the composition of organs of self-government, as well as the right of self-government for such organs. On May 31, 1984, on the basis of summarizing the experience of practicing regional autonomy for ethnic minorities, the second session of the Sixth National People's Congress (NPC) adopted the Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy, and decided to put it into effect on October 1 of that year. To meet the need for faster economic and social development of ethnic autonomous areas in the era of the socialist market economy and on the basis of fully respecting and representing the will of the people living in those areas, in 2001 the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress made revisions to the Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy, thus making the law more complete and effective.
The Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy, the content of which covers all aspects, including politics, economy, culture and society, is a basic legal document for implementing the system of regional autonomy for ethnic minorities as provided in the Constitution. It defines the relationship between the central government and the ethnic autonomous regions, as well as the relationship between different ethnic groups in ethnic autonomous regions. Its legal effect is not limited to the ethnic autonomous regions only; every individual in China and all state organs must abide by and implement this law.
(2) The Establishment of Ethnic Autonomous Regions
Under the leadership of the Communist Party, China's first provincial-level ethnic autonomous region - the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region - was established in 1947 in the liberated areas inhabited by Mongolians before the founding of the People's Republic of China. After New China was established in 1949, the Chinese government began to introduce the system of regional autonomy for ethnic minorities to all regions 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. 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 the fifth national census, conducted in 2000, of the 55 ethnic minorities, 44 have their own ethnic autonomous areas. The population of ethnic minorities practicing regional autonomy accounts for 71 percent of the total population of ethnic minorities, and the area where such regional autonomy is practiced accounts for 64 percent of the entire territory of China.
In places where ethnic minorities live in compact communities but where the establishment of autonomous areas is not feasible, because the populations of the ethnic minorities and the areas they live in are relatively small, or because the populations are scattered, the Constitution provides that ethnic townships be established, so that the minority peoples there can also exercise the right to administer the internal affairs of the ethnic group and be the masters of their own areas. In 1993, the Chinese government issued the Regulations on the Administrative Work of Ethnic Townships to guarantee the implementation of the system of ethnic townships. By the end of 2003, China had established 1,173 ethnic townships in areas equivalent to townships where ethnic minorities live in compact communities. Ethnic townships have been established for nine of the 11 ethnic minorities where the regional autonomy policy is not implemented because the populations and areas of the ethnic minorities are relatively small.
Areas where the system of regional autonomy for ethnic minorities is practiced can be divided into three levels, namely, autonomous regions, autonomous prefectures and autonomous counties, according to how big the population of the ethnic group is and how large the area it occupies. All areas where the system of regional autonomy for ethnic minorities is practiced are inseparable parts of the territory of the People's Republic of China. Organs of self-government of autonomous areas must safeguard the unification of the country and guarantee that the Constitution and laws are carried out and implemented in those areas. State organs at higher levels and organs of self-government of autonomous areas should safeguard and develop a relationship of equality, unity and mutual assistance between ethnic groups.
In places where ethnic minorities live in compact communities, after due consideration has been given to the relationships among the ethnic groups and the economic development of those localities, as well as to historical situation, an autonomous area based on one ethnic group can be established, such as the Tibet Autonomous Region, Sichuan Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture and Zhejiang Jingning She Autonomous County. Or an autonomous area based on compact communities of two or more ethnic groups may be established, such as the Qinghai Haixi Mongolian-Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Jishishan Bao'an-Dongxiang-Salar Autonomous County, and so on.
If other ethnic groups live in compact communities within the autonomous area of one bigger ethnic group, the former may establish their own autonomous areas or ethnic townships. For example, the Yili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture and Yanqi Hui Autonomous County have been established in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Depending on the actual situation of each locality, ethnic autonomous areas may include communities, cities or towns where Han people or people of other ethnic groups live.
If communities of one ethnic group of various sizes occupy several areas, they may establish several autonomous areas of different administrative status. Take the Hui ethnic group for example. There are the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Gansu Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture and Hebei Mengcun Hui Autonomous County.
Except for special cases, the name of an ethnic autonomous area normally consists of the name of the place, name of the ethnic group and the word indicating the administrative status, in that order. Take the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region for example. Guangxi is the name of the place; Zhuang is the name of the ethnic group and Autonomous Region indicates its administrative status.
The establishment of an ethnic autonomous area, the delimiting of its boundaries and what name this autonomous region is to assume shall be decided after these matters are fully discussed among state organs at a higher level, the state organs of the locality concerned and the representatives of the relevant ethnic group(s), and then their decision shall be submitted for approval in accordance with the procedures prescribed by law. The establishment of an autonomous region is to be approved by the National People's Congress. The delimiting of the boundaries of an autonomous region, the establishment of an autonomous prefecture or county and the delimiting of their boundaries are to be decided by the State Council. Once an ethnic autonomous area is established, it shall not be dissolved or amalgamated without going through the procedures prescribed by law. Once the boundary lines of ethnic autonomous areas are determined, they shall not be altered without going through the procedures prescribed by law. If an ethnic autonomous area really needs to be dissolved or amalgamated, or if its boundaries really need to be altered, the matter shall be fully discussed by the relevant departments of the state organs at higher levels and the organs of self-government of that autonomous area, and their decisions shall be submitted for approval in accordance with the procedures prescribed by law.
(3) The Composition of Organs of Self-Government of Ethnic Autonomous Areas
Organs of self-government of autonomous areas are the people's congresses and people's governments of autonomous regions, autonomous prefectures and autonomous counties. In addition to deputies from the ethnic group or groups exercising regional autonomy in the area concerned, the people's congresses of the autonomous areas should also include an appropriate number of members from other ethnic groups living in that autonomous area. Among the chairman or vice-chairmen of the standing committee of the people's congress of an autonomous area there shall be one or more citizens of the ethnic group or groups exercising regional autonomy in the area concerned. The head of an autonomous region, autonomous prefecture or autonomous county shall be a citizen of the ethnic group exercising regional autonomy in the area concerned. Other members of the people's governments of the autonomous areas shall include an appropriate number of members of the ethnic group exercising regional autonomy as well as members of other ethnic minorities. The functionaries of the working departments subsidiary to the organs of self-government shall be composed in a similar fashion.