Ethnic minorities and rural migrants suffer discrimination and oppression in China

Racism is not a part of normal life in China

Racism is not a part of normal life in China. You will not witness racial violence on the streets, or feel racial oppression as you go about your daily business. But discrimination and oppression do exist and impact on the lives of dozens of ethnic and minority groups in the country. In the firing line also are millions of rural migrant workers heading for the cities in search of work.

Through the ages, there has been no mass immigration into China and it remains largely monocultural. The Han ethnic group makes up 92 per cent of the 1.2 billion population, while minority groups which include Tibetans, Mongolians, Uighurs, Koreans and Tujia make up around 109 million people.

Human rights groups claim that the Chinese authorities crack down hard on minority activists, whom they accuse of "separatism". Ordinary members of minorities also suffer regular discrimination in employment, education and health care.

At a UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination hearing to consider a Chinese government report on minority rights recently, China was accused of having a superiority mentality, especially in its reference to Tibetans and other minorities as "backward".

Beijing ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1981, and China's constitution states that all of its 56 officially recognised ethnic groups are equal.

"Discrimination against and oppression of any ethnic group are prohibited," it says.

However, the UN committee has recommended that China broaden its legislation to protect against all discrimination "on the basis of race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin".

According to the US-based group, Human Rights in China, rural residents and migrants are now victims of emerging "institutionalised discrimination".

Prejudice against migrants is based largely on their darker, weather-beaten complexions and strong local dialects, according to the group.

The prejudice against migrants centres on the Hukou system, which requires Chinese people to live or work in their place of permanent residence. This means, officially, that China's rural population cannot come to Beijing or other cities to find work. In the past 10 years, an estimated 100 million rural residents have ignored the rules to find jobs in urban centres.

Because of their rural Hukou status they are denied equal access to jobs, welfare and legal protection. They cannot get a decent place to live, and their children do not qualify to attend local school.

According to official statistics, China has another 150 million excess workers in the countryside, with that number forecast to increase by five to six million annually with the accession to the WTO, resulting in job losses in state enterprises all over the country.

The government has announced plans to eliminate the Hukou system over the next five years, a move that should in theory give the migrant underclass the right to compete for jobs and homes in the cities.

But the segregation, which the Hukou system has created, has resulted in a unique racial rivalry in Beijing and other Chinese cities. Migrant ghettos have sprung up all over Beijing. For example there is Henan town where thousands of migrant workers from that province live in isolation from the city around them. They speak Henan dialect, eat Henan food and share rooms with fellow migrants from Henan villages.

Tibetan exile groups have consistently accused the Chinese government of deliberate discrimination and racism against the Tibetans. They claim a new form of apartheid has been created with Tibetan culture, religion and national identity considered a threat.

For the first time ever, Tibetan groups have succeeded in getting accreditation for a UN conference on racism, and they are being represented in Durban.

There is another discrimination in China which goes beyond the issue of national minorities. It is the discrimination towards little girls as a direct result of the one child policy.

Because more value is placed on having a boy, selective abortions of baby girls are common in rural areas. Proof is reflected in official figures for 1999, which show that for every 117 boys born in China there were only 100 female births.

Infanticide of female newborns is also a huge problem: 95 per cent of children in Chinese orphanages are girls, abandoned because of their sex.