China is set to scale back its affirmative action policies for ethnic minorities, which could result in curbs on education opportunities as well as the removal of tax benefits and other subsidies for minority groups.
China has 56 officially recognized ethnic groups. The majority Han Chinese make up more than 90% of the population, while the other 55 groups, including ethnic Mongols, Tibetans and Uygurs, have about 110 million people, or four times the population of Australia.
Many minorities live in less-developed regions and face prevalent discrimination in the Han-dominated society. For decades, the government has granted them certain benefits, which resemble the affirmative action policies for the underprivileged population in the US.
For example, ethnic minority families were allowed to have more children under China's population control. Minority students could speak their non-Chinese mother tongues in school and receive bonus points in the national college entrance exam.
But in recent years, such policies have prompted heated debates, with some Han Chinese complaining about what they see as unfair benefits and subsidies handed out to minorities.
Ethnic minorities are now being put under increasing oversight. In tandem, the state will expand campaigns that stress national identity over ethnic roots, a drive that has been spurred by the past inter-ethnic conflicts in the far western Xinjiang region.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has thrown his weight behind the move. In a speech in September, he said "national role models" were needed for ethnic unity and progress. "All citizens of all ethnic groups are equal before the law," he said.
The South China Morning Post has learned that Beijing ran studies in the past two years to assess the impact and repercussions of the policy changes. Some provinces have already started to make the shift, especially in education fields.
The existing policies amount to "reverse discrimination" on Han Chinese, said Mei Xinyu, a researcher at the Ministry of Commerce. "(The ethnic minorities) receive bonus points in all national exams for entering high school, colleges, civil service and higher-level education. From birth to death, they have so many privileges," he said on Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media platform.
Preferential policies for ethnic minorities are already being rolled back in a number of regions, according to a Beijing-based researcher specialized in ethnic minority issues.
"In college entrance exams, a number of provinces this year scrapped the practice of adding extra marks for students from ethnic minority backgrounds, while other places reduced the additional marks by half," said the researcher, who asked that his name not be used because of the sensitivity of the issue.
One example of this is in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region in the northwest, where students of Muslim Hui or other minority backgrounds receive an extra 10 to 30 points on their college entrance exam. Ningxia will abolish the practice next year, according to a report by state tabloid Global Times.
Criminal and corruption cases involving ethnic minorities were also in for different treatment, said an ethnic affairs researcher in western China.
"In regions beset by drug trafficking, convicted members of ethnic groups often receive lighter sentences than their Han counterparts, but this is changing," said the researcher, who also declined to be named.
Both of the researchers said that when it came to corruption, Beijing was cracking down on cadres regardless of their ethnic background.
Economic benefits for regions with a large ethnic minority population, such as a policy that allows tax revenues to be invested locally, could also be changed in the future.
President Xi Jinping's speech on September 27 was a significant statement that showed how Beijing's policy towards ethnic groups was shifting, said James Leibold, an expert on China's ethnic affairs at La Trobe University in Australia.
Xi was quoted by Xinhua as saying, "We must make sure all are treated equally and in accordance to the law, ensure citizens of all ethnic groups enjoy equal rights and perform their duties on an equal footing."
The speech was "the most formal and comprehensive statement" of his views on ethnic policy published by state media, Leibold said, adding that it was the first time Xi had elaborated on China's overall ethnic policy since 2014.
Leibold said China's approach to ethnic groups under former presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao focused on economic development in deprived regions, while Xi was stressing intensive propaganda work to promote Han Chinese culture as a core foundation of the nation.
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