If you’re here with questions about the autonomous regions of China, it helps to start with a quick overview of how China’s levels of government operate. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is broadly divided into five levels. In descending order, we’re looking at the provincial level, prefecture level, county level, township level, and village level. While autonomous bodies can exist in different levels of the Chinese administrative division, the five autonomous regions we’ll be discussing in this post refer to those at the provincial, or first-level, of administration.
Within the first-level of China’s administrative power are 23 provinces, four municipalities, five autonomous regions (in discussion today), and two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau). The five autonomous regions are Tibet, Guangxi, Xinjiang, Ningxia, and the region of Inner Mongolia.
What Is an Autonomous Region of China?
Now that you’re not totally in the dark on where these regions sit in the political hierarchy, some important context regarding how China’s government treats these regions might be in order.
Autonomous regions in China are defined within the Chinese constitution under the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Regional National Autonomy. In short, they are classified by China’s ethnic minorities, and are semi-self-governing regions for those minorities. While granted the ability to independently govern themselves, autonomous regions must still answer to the PRC. At the same time, under the aforementioned law, autonomous regions are legally instructed to place the interests of the larger Chinese state above all else, on top of making efforts to improve that state where possible (including but not limited to tasks directly assigned by the state).
It should be noted that while these five regions were created to grant China’s ethnic minorities autonomy, Tibet and Xinjiang are the only 2 where the Han Chinese (China’s overall ethnic majority by over 90%) do not hold absolute majority by population.
List of the Autonomous Regions of China
Tibet’s direct ties, according to the PRC, date as far back as the Yuan Dynasty, most associated with the Mongols and Genghis Khan. Its Tibetan population hovers around 90%, and is also home to Mount Everest.
At this time, tensions between Tibet and China are extremely high. The PRC’s claim to maintaining power over Tibet lies in the vast amount of time Tibet has been considered a part of China, and the PRC considers Tibet an integral part of the nation. Tibet, however, sees things differently, often referring to the PRC as a body unlawfully occupying their space. This has led to the formation of the CTA (Central Tibetan Administration) in 1959.
The CTA is based in India, as China does not recognize it as a governing body, leading to the CTA’s other common name as the Tibetan Government in Exile.
Further reading: What Is Tibet?
Guangxi gained status as an autonomous region in 1958, and is titularly Zhuang (however the Zhuang population numbers around 30%, while the Han Chinese population is around 60%). Assimilation into China is more pronounced in Guangxi, particularly given that it joined the PRC two months after the latter was founded.
Today, Guangxi is in part an economic center and tourist destination for the PRC. As recently as January 2019, China has announced plans to use Guangxi as a gateway to institute economic ties with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).
The only other autonomous region where the Han Chinese do not hold an absolute majority, Xinjiang is 45% Uyghur (about 40% Han).
Today, the PRC has come under recent human rights violations in Xinjiang due to high tensions between the primarily Muslim Uyghur population and the Han Chinese population. These tensions have only increased since the Ürümqi Riots and subsequent crackdown by the Chinese government. Terrorist attacks outside of (but nearby) Xinjiang have also prompted further restriction of Uyghur rights.
As of April 2019, US lawmakers have called for sanctions against Chen Quanguo (the top-ranked Chinese official in Xinjiang) for the use of political re-education camps, among other human rights violations, that have been referred to by others as cultural genocide.
Ningxia serves as the autonomous region for the Hui people, who make up about 38% of the region’s population (the Han make up around 60%). Like Xinjiang, Islam has a strong presence in Ningxia, and the PRC has sought to limit freedoms of the Muslim population (albeit in less violent or aggressive manners when compared to Xinjiang). This includes but is not limited to the removal of Arabic signs, banning of new Arab-style mosques (with the added intention of renovating them to appear like traditional Chinese temples), and the barring of daily prayer or pilgrimage to Mecca for government workers.
While the PRC’s hold on Ningxia is nowhere near as severe as the events taking place in Xinjiang, Hui scholars believe it is within reason for similar measures in Xinjiang to be imposed on Ningxia in the near future.
Ethnically Mongolian, this region is only 17% Mongol while the Han Chinese represent 79% of the population. While Mongolia is seeing increasingly friendly relationships with the Chinese administration, relations between the Mongolian people and China are less so.
With respect to Inner Mongolia, the region saw major economic reformation under Deng Xiaoping, which has led to efforts attracting Han Chinese migration into Inner Mongolia. In turn, this has created vast economic disparity, culminating in protests and riots in 2011 as well as 2013.
Did you like this post? Want to learn more about China and its neighbors? If so, you might enjoy these other articles from the Sporcle Blog.
- Who Built the Great Wall of China?
- Why Is Beijing the Capital of China?
- Is Hong Kong Part of China?
- Is Taiwan a Country?
- Interesting Geography Facts – Asia