Susan D. BLUM

Sun-dappled sitting platform in the garden home of a Uygur family in the Turpan oasis, Xinjiang Uygur, China. Grape vines provide shelter from the Taklamakan desert sun and heat. Turpan is located in a great depression 76 meters (250 feet) below sea level. Water for the oasis is carried from the Heavenly Mountains hundreds of miles underground in a karez irrigation system to permit life to grow on the desert. Uygur people are a Turkic minority who settled in Xinjiang during the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE). PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN

A fundamental aspect of China’s policy regarding ethnic diversity is the constitutional establishment of autonomous areas, where the majority of inhabitants are traditionally ethnic minorities. Autonomous areas, occupying 64 percent of China’s total territory, exist at several levels, the largest being the province-level autonomous regions, followed by autonomous prefectures, autonomous counties and banners, and, since 1993, autonomous or ethnic townships.

China has many policies and practices directed at ethnic minorities. Some have aimed to improve the situations of such groups; others have targeted relations between minority groups and the Han majority. Still others have aimed to pacify such groups. And yet others have aimed to integrate and assimilate such groups. One such policy, emulating the Soviet model, involved the establishment of a set of autonomous areas—commonly referred to specifically as autonomous regions, prefectures, or countries—even before establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Autonomous areas come in three sizes, the largest being provincial-size autonomous regions (zizhiqu, 自治區 of which there are five). There are also 30 autonomous prefectures (zizhizhou 自治州) and 120 autonomous counties (zizhixian 自治縣) or autonomous banners (autonomous areas the size of counties in Inner Mongolia, zizhiqi 自治旗). Because some areas are too small, or too much mixing of ethnic groups prevents the formation of an autonomous county, in 1993 autonomous or ethnic townships (zizhixiang 民族鄉) were established to supplement the other three types of autonomous areas; by 2003 there were 1,173 of these townships.

TABLE 1 Autonomous Regions of China

(SQ. KM.)
Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region 1 May 1947 Hohhot 1,197,547 23.9
Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region 1 October 1955 Urumqi 1,655,826 20.5
Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region 15 March 1958 Nanning 237,693 49.6
Ningxia Hui Augonomous Region 25 October 1958 Yinchuan 62,818 6.0
Tibet Autonomous Region 1 September 1965 Lhasa 1,274,910 2.8
Source: System of ethnic regional autonomy (2007). China Facts and Figures 2007.

Autonomous areas occupy 64 percent of China’s total territory. Of the fifty-five recognized ethnic minorities, s name. (Areas can be named after more than one ethnic group.) Minority representation in government is encouraged, although usually not at the highest levels.

The term translated as “autonomy” is zizhi (self-governing), but the autonomous areas have no actual autonomy, and the inseparability of the autonomous areas from the rest of the Chinese nation was specified immediately with the introduction of the idea of regional autonomy in the First Constitution (September 1954): “Regional autonomy applies in areas where a minority nationality lives in a compact community. All the national autonomous areas are inseparable parts of the People’s Republic of China.” By law governments of these areas are required to “safeguard the unification of the country.” This policy was reaffirmed in 2001 in the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Regional Ethnic Autonomy. Article 2 states, “Regional autonomy shall be practiced in areas where minority nationalities live in concentrated communities. National autonomous areas shall be classified into autonomous regions, autonomous prefectures and autonomous counties. All national autonomous areas are integral parts of the People’s Republic of China.” Further, as a result of many migrations since 1949, it is no longer necessarily the case that the ethnic group after which an autonomous area is named is in fact the majority resident of that area now. Most areas now have a majority Han population.

Further Reading (n.d.). Government white paper: Guarantee of rights and interests of ethnic minorities. Retrieved February 8, 2008, from

Heberer, T. (1989). China and its national minorities: Autonomy or assimilation? Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Kaup, K. P. (2000). Creating the Zhuang: Ethnic politics in China. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

Mackerras, C. (1994). China’s minorities: Integration and modernization in the twentieth century. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

National People’s Congress. (1984). Law of the People’s Republic of China on regional national autonomy Retrieved February 19, 2008, from

National People’s Congress. (2001). Law of the People’s Republic of China on regional national autonomy. Retrieved February 22, 2008, from

Organs of self-government of national autonomous areas. (n.d.) Retrieved May 27, 2008, from

System of ethnic regional autonomy (2007). China Facts and Figures 2007. Retrieved May 27, 2008, from

Source: Blum, Susan D. (2009). Autonomous Areas. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 131–133. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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