The Economic Status of China’s Ethnic Minorities

Type Conference Paper - International Research Conference: Poverty, Inequality, Labor Market and Welfare Reform in China, Canberra, Australia
Title The Economic Status of China’s Ethnic Minorities
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2004
In the late 1970s the Chinese leadership embarked on a program of economic reform
motivated in response to economic stagnation, low productivity, and disguised
unemployment in both rural and urban sectors. These reforms initiated a process of
gradual transition to a market economy that resulted in two decades of remarkable
change. At the macroeconomic level improvements in income and welfare were rapid and
sustained—real per capita GDP increased more than 5-fold from 1978 till 2000 (NBS,
Table 3-4, p.58) and hundreds of millions were lifted out of absolute poverty. However
the benefits of reform have been distributed unevenly and inequality has risen rapidly in
recent years. The eastern seaboard provinces have developed at a much faster rate than
the interior and western provinces (Chen and Fleisher 1996, Fleisher and Chen 1997,
Gustafsson and Li 1998, Lee 2000 ). The urban/rural income gap has widened. The
gender wage gap has also increased (Maurer-Fazio, Rawski, and Zhang, Maurer-Fazio
and Hughes). The questions we want to address in this paper focus on how China’s ethnic
minority people are faring in this transition.
According to the 2000 Census, the 106.43 million ethnic minority people in China
constituted only 8.41 % of the Chinese population, yet they are approximately equivalent
in number to the sum of the entire populations of France and South Korea combined
(NSB, p.99 and U.S. Census Bureau, International Data Base). When we use the terms
ethnic minority, national minority or minority people here we are referring to the 55
national minorities that, with the Han majority, make up the 56 ethnic groups officially
recognized by the Chinese central government.
According to the Information Office of the State Council, minority groups are identified
on the basis of past and current conditions, scientific principles, and the wishes of a given
ethnic group regardless of the sizes of its inhabited areas or population. (p.9). The
Chinese government initially used a set of four characteristics—common territory,
language, economy, and culture -- developed by Joseph Stalin to identify its national
minority groups (Smith, p.273). However, members of an ethnic minority group often do
not fulfill all four of these characteristics and in practice the Chinese government has
allowed group members to claim ethnic minority status based on ancestry. Smith reports,
“The government has ruled that anyone with at least one minority parent or grandparent
can be reclassified as a minority person” (p.278). Hoddie reports that 24 million more
people identified themselves as ethnic minorities in the 1990 census than in the 1982
census. He further claims that fertility trends were such that an increase of only 10
million was expected. He argues that government policy increased the benefits to
minority identification and thus provided an incentive for change in ethnic identity.

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