National Autonomy Law Revised To Support Western Development Policy
[Tibet Information Network (TIN); March 13, 2001.]
13 March 2001.
China has made significant revisions to its law on "national minorities" in order to bring it into line with new policies to accelerate economic development in the western regions of China, including the Tibet Autonomous Region and Tibetan areas in the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Yunnan and Gansu. Chinese President Jiang Zemin signed an order to amend the 1984 Regional National Autonomy Law at the China's National People's Congress on 28 February, according to a Xinhua report. The amendments will focus on the development of autonomous regions according to the Party's political and economic priorities and the further integration of these areas into the rest of China. The Xinhua report on the new amendments, dated 28 February, makes little mention of the exercise of regional autonomy, and the new legislation appears to strengthen the rights of the state as opposed to the rights of autonomous peoples.
The 1984 law focused on the structure, administration and exercise of nationality autonomy, with at least the superficial purpose of taking into account the right of minority nationality populations to retain some control over their local affairs and protect local economic interests [*NOTE 1]. However, the new amendments described by Xinhua do not deal with issues of autonomy, but focus largely on outlining the priorities of the central authorities regarding the control and economic development of "autonomous" areas in accordance with a centralised plan. According to Xinhua, resource extraction and major infrastructure construction are to be the main priorities for minority nationality areas and development will be carried out under the "unified plans" of the central authorities and according to "market demand". This suggests that the guiding factors will be the needs of the more developed and populous eastern coastal region of China and the policies devised at central government level; local interests will not be a significant factor in decisions.
According to Xinhua, amendments and additions to the 1984 autonomy law focus on "the economic system and the support and help that State organs at higher levels offer to localities under ethnic autonomy" (28 February).
Their aim is to solve "some practical problems in the economic and social development in localities under ethnic autonomy, so as to accelerate the economic and social development in ethnic regions and promote nationality solidarity" (Xinhua 28 February). This reflects the link made in June 2000, by Li Dezhu, Minister of the State Ethnic Affairs Commission, between the development of the western regions and "China's nationality problem". In an article that appeared in the Party journal Qiushi, Li Dezhu wrote that the acceleration of economic and social development of the western regions and "the minority nationality regions in particular", has "extremely important significance" in "solving China's current nationality problems". These "nationality" or "ethnic relations" problems refer to "far-reaching" religious influence, "deep-seated" traditional culture, and "frequent disputes" over borders and resources. (1 June 2000). The revised autonomy law has 74 articles, compared to the original 67. It "involves multiple modifications and eletions", according to Xinhua, although none of the deletions are specified.
One of the declared and fundamental aims of the revisions is to "accelerate economic development and social progress in localities under ethnic autonomy and gradually narrow the gap between these localities and developed areas" - reflecting the ethos of the Western Development campaign launched in June 1999 by Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Methods to achieve this, such as increasing state investment and subsidies, attempts to "guide" and "encourage" foreign and domestic investment and the prioritisation of resource exploitation and infrastructure projects, also fit closely with state plans for the western regions. The revisions will facilitate the implementation of large-scale state projects in areas that cannot financially support them by promising central subsidies, bank loans and waivers of local investment obligations.
Increased central involvement in economy of autonomous areas. According to Xinhua, the revised law provides for "higher levels of support" for "ethnic regions", in areas of policy, infrastructure development and finance. Although under the 1984 law "autonomous areas" were also only able to act "in accordance with the plans for national economic and social development", the revisions provide for a much greater degree of direct central involvement in the economic development of autonomous areas. The revisions suggest that the development model for autonomous areas will be based on the wider needs of the Chinese market, rather than local needs and interests. Tibetans make up such a small percentage of the domestic market (less than half of one per cent) that any economic reform in Tibetan areas based primarily on "market demand" is likely to cater to the demands of the relatively rich and populous, but resource-poor, eastern regions of China rather than Tibetan needs and interests. Recent announcements highlighting key projects for the Tenth Five Year Plan period (2001-2005) in the western regions focus on the implementation of key large infrastructure construction projects that will facilitate the transportation of resources from west to east.
The revised law reportedly stipulates that the state will "adopt measures" to give a "certain level" of financial compensation to minority nationality areas that supply natural resources and those that have "made contributions to the country's ecological equilibrium and environmental protection" (Xinhua, 28 February). The language is vague and gives no indication of what a "certain level" may mean and whether it would be sufficient to benefit the local population. However, it does indicate acceptance of the principle that these areas should receive compensation for the exploitation of their natural resources - a right not currently recognised in the Chinese constitution, which simply states: "In exploiting natural resources [which according to Article 9 are owned by the state] and building enterprises in the national autonomous areas the state shall give due consideration to the interests of those areas" (Article 118).
The revised law also stipulates that "the organs of autonomy" in autonomous areas are to set up state-run nationality primary and middle schools in pastoral and mountainous areas, mainly as boarding schools, to fulfil requirements for compulsory education. Unlike the infrastructure and resource extraction projects, the funding for these schools will not come from the state, but will be the responsibility of the local authorities. This would be an extremely expensive undertaking for local authorities in poor areas, and additional taxation would be unpopular. The law stipulates that higher tiers of government must provide funding if local governments cannot, though it is not clear how far local governments must go in order to demonstrate that they cannot afford to fund the schools. Such burdens may be resented by higher levels of government.
Minority nationalities account for 8.98 per cent of the population of the People's Republic of China according to official figures, but autonomous areas occupy over 60 per cent of the total land area. A large portion of the "western regions" of China which are included in the Western Development campaign are made up of "minority nationality autonomous" areas, including the TAR and Tibetan areas in the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan. Most of the border regions of the PRC, crucial to China for both national defence and internal stability, are "minority nationality autonomous" areas.
*NOTE 1: The TAR (Xizang Zizhiqu) was set up by the Chinese government in 1965 and covers the area of Tibet west of the Yangtze river, which was previously under the jurisdiction of the 14th Dalai Lama's government and is often referred to as Central Tibet in English. After 1949, other Tibetan-inhabited areas were incorporated into the neighbouring Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan. Where Tibetan communities were said to have "compact inhabitancy" in these provinces they were designated as autonomous Tibetan prefectures or counties.
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