Ethnic Minorities and the Fight Against Poverty in China: The Case of Yunnan

As one of China’s least developed areas, Yunnan Province in the country’s southwest is at the epicenter of the Chinese state’s efforts to eradicate poverty. Yunnan is also a historically diverse area with several ethnic groups. Less well off than the dominant Han majority, China’s ethnic minorities are the most beset by economic hardship. The Chinese state’s ethnic minorities policy in Yunnan serves as a microcosm of its handling of minorities and their material welfare in the country at large. The case of Yunnan illustrates that the Chinese state must update its ethnic categories and that it needs to manage its policies of poverty reduction in better harmony with local traditions and avoid creating new tensions.

Poverty reduction is an urgent and major political goal in China. President Xi Jinping vowed in 2015 that it would be completely eradicated in the country by 2020. The official narrative about poverty reduction often focuses on “lifting” less well-off ethnic minority groups or counties above the officially defined poverty line of 2,300 Yuan per year. However, this narrative glosses over the fact that ethnic minorities are often the victims of controversial measures such as relocations of entire villages in the name of combating poverty and improving living standards.

On May 17, 2020, the Yunnan Provincial Government was reported by Xinhua to have “officially approved” the removal of 31 county-level regions from the official list of impoverished counties in the province. The Chinese state news outlet described Yunnan as “the main battlefield of the national poverty alleviation efforts,” one where more than six million rural residents have been “lifted out of poverty” since 2014 and where the “poverty headcount ratio” has fallen from around 17 percent in 2014 to around 1 percent in 2019. A Xinhua article from April 27, 2020, similarly declared that “people of Lahu ethnic group shake off poverty” in Yunnan, describing the relocation of a Lahu village along with infrastructure improvements. 

Treading the Line

The World Bank estimates that “residual poverty” in China is concentrated in ethnic minority areas like Yunnan at a level of 48 percent. Official Chinese indicators clearly show that Yunnan is certainly in need of poverty relief: illiteracy in the province stood at 11.76 percent in 2018 (sixth out of China’s provinces and regions), according to the National Statistics Bureau of China. In June 2019, the minimum wage in the province was, together with Hunan Province – also landlocked in the south – the lowest in the country at 13-15 Yuan per hour, according to the Chinese Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.

The political ambition to eradicate poverty by improving the living standards of socially and economically underprivileged ethnic minority groups is at times accompanied by harsh measures such as forcible relocations, another way for local governments to acquire, develop, and sell land at a profit. However, other groups risk being excluded because they are not officially recognized as ethnic minorities, effectively putting them under the radar of poverty relief. In China, 55 ethnic minorities are recognized by the government, a figure that some claim misses the mark by as many as hundreds of existing minority groups. In Yunnan Province, the officially recognized ethnic minorities number 25 – half of the official nationwide count – and comprise roughly a third of the provincial population.

Most of the officially unrecognized minorities in China reside in the southwestern Guizhou Province, which borders Yunnan, and which is another area that is severely afflicted by poverty. As Yin Yijun describes at Sixth Tone, ethnic groups, like the officially unrecognized Chuanqing, miss out on affirmative action in education, modern family planning measures, and more autonomy through a system which reserves a certain number of official decision-making positions for local ethnic groups. While the Chuanqing in Guizhou were de facto often given preferential treatment as a minority in the past that practice was never codified, and is now being successively abandoned, which illustrates that ethnic minorities who are not officially recognized as such, are vulnerable to changing circumstances and practices.

The Double-Edged Sword of Ethnic Tourism

Explicit efforts to improve the economic status of underprivileged ethnic groups have on occasion – albeit not to the same extent as the state policies that have provoked negative reactions in Tibet and Xinjiang – also unwittingly created new social tensions, while at the same time succeeding in bringing about greater material wealth. In Yunnan, the officially recognized Naxi has in particular benefited from what has been dubbed “ethnic tourism,” or tourism based on ethnic heritage.

However, as Yang Fuquan at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences argues, this has worked like a double-edged sword in the province. On the one hand, tourism to Yunnan – and particularly to Naxi-majority Lijiang in its northwestern corner – is booming, with a focus on traditional, ethnic music, rural life, and culture. This is contributing to the rise of the economic welfare of the local communities and the ethnic minorities of the region. Yet on the other hand, this “ethnic tourism” has resulted in a commodification of the ethnic cultures, which in turn has provoked tensions within the local communities. As Yang describes, locals in Lijiang have taken to renting out their homes in the Old Town to live elsewhere, attracted by the potential profit and the chance to avoid the tourist crowds.

A Melting Pot with Chinese Characteristics

Since the economic opening up of China under Deng Xiaoping, the country has gone through massive changes, with over 700 million Chinese taken out of poverty. However, the official number of ethnic minority groups has remained unchanged, even though there had been a gradual increase before 1979. Since then, the official narrative emphasizing “ethnic harmony” between the 56 groups has been repeated so often that among the general population it has almost been taken-for-granted that everyone is included in the number 56.

China’s ambition to eradicate poverty and the special attention that is being paid to improving the living standards of socially and economically underprivileged ethnic minority groups is laudable. However, this effort is in part hampered by the fact that significant numbers of ethnic minority groups remain officially unrecognized and thus deprived of the material benefits that official recognition would bestow. As any failure to elevate living standards is fraught with the risk of potential social unrest, China would be well served by having its ethnic categories updated. Also, as the case of Yunnan demonstrates, the Chinese state must take care to manage its policies of poverty reduction in better harmony with local traditions and avoid creating new tensions.