East Asia

East Asia includes, in the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) and Japan, two of the world’s largest States. According to the 1982 census, the population of the PRC exceeded 1,000 million and the 55 distinct national minorities totalled 67 million, or 6.7% of the total. The population of Japan in 1986 was almost 122 million. The spatial extent of the PRC, and the variety of climate and topography, coincides with a considerable range of ethnicity, language and religion, including, according to the census, 15 minorities of more than one million people each. The census claimed only 3,870,000 Tibetans; the true figure is more probably of the order of six million. Approximately 90% of the PRC’s border is inhabited by minority nationalities. There are smaller numbers of minorities in Japan but together they form 4% of the population.

The principal descriptive characteristics and human rights issues raised by the groups are, as always, a variable. Questions of international law have persistently been raised by the Chinese occupation of Tibet. On one view, the case is a simple example of the violation of Tibet’s right to self-determination and independence; the Chinese view is that Tibet is an integral part of China, and the Chinese mission is to assist the region in getting rid of poverty and backwardness. Another feature of Chinese minority culture is the very large number of religious groups: there are reputed to be some 15 million practising Muslims, millions of practitioners of Buddhism (including those of Tibet) and Daoism, and anywhere from six to 20 million Christians (many of these religious minorities are ethnically Han Chinese). This creates peculiar tensions in a Communist State, which, despite greater openness since the ending of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, is still highly authoritarian. China has also been greatly concerned with security issues in its relations with the USSR; this affects the minorities considerably, since they, in effect, guard the borders of the PRC. Thus, for example, the Sinkiang region has experienced considerable Han immigration and “sinification” pressures have at times been intense. The profile of the PRC is therefore that of a State dominated by a Han “core” people, which has attempted to control a vast and ethnically heterogeneous area of Asian territory.

Japan provides a rather different profile. Japanese education tends to emphasize the homogeneity and uniqueness of the culture. There are, however, groups such as the Koreans, who, despite being designated as foreigners, clearly constitute a well established ethnic minority in Japan; the Ainu of Hokkaido are another much smaller group, in many ways different from the majority Japanese. But the most characteristic minority group of Japan are the Burakumin, products and victims of the hierarchical nature of traditional Japanese society, with its conceptions of acceptable and unacceptable castes and clean and unclean occupations — the closest analogy to this group is the caste of Untouchables in Hindu society. Discrimination against this group, much of it hidden, continues to exist throughout Japanese society.

Relations of mutual hostility between Japan, China and the USSR in this century have produced other minorities such as the Koreans of Sakhalin; intra-Chinese disputes between Communists and Nationalists have led to rival forms of authoritarian government in the PRC and Taiwan, creating problems for the Taiwanese, including its minority tribal Mountain Peoples.

Instruments on Minority Rights

The record of adherence to human rights instruments by the States in the region shows notable gaps. The PRC is not a party to either of the UN Covenants on Human Rights. Japan is a party to the UN Covenants, but not to the Convention against Racial Discrimination, nor the Genocide Convention. The position of Taiwan is bedevilled by questions of recognition and representation at the United Nations. Until 1971, China was represented at the United Nations by the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek; since that time, China has been represented by its effective Communist government, excluding Taiwanese representatives. As with other regions, the absence of a regional human rights treaty means that constitutions assume singular importance (as well as general human rights procedures at the UN).

The PRC Constitution of 1982 represents by far the most interesting attempt to create a participatory regime for minorities. In terms of state structure, Article 1 of the Constitution describes a “. . . Socialist State under the people’s democratic dictatorship”. It is the people “... of all nationalities in China ...” who are invoked as the creators of a glorious revolutionary tradition in the Preamble to the Constitution. The PRC is envisioned in the Preamble as “. . . a unitary multinational State built up jointly by the people of all its nationalities . . .”, with the goal of safeguarding this unity by combating “... big-nation Chauvinism, mainly Han Chauvinism, and . . . local-national Chauvinism”. Further, “The State does its utmost to promote the common prosperity of all nationalities in the country”. The PRC is in concept a unitary State with democratic centralism (Article 3) tempered by a degree of regional autonomy in areas inhabited by minority nationalities. The Constitution recognizes the right of equality between citizens (Article 33), and refers specifically to minorities being guaranteed equality in this area: “All nationalities in the PRC are equal. The State protects the lawful rights and interests of the minority nationalities and upholds and develops the relationship of equality, unity and mutual assistance among all of China’s nationalities. Discrimination against and oppression of any nationality are prohibited; any acts that undermine the unity of the nationalities or instigate their secession are prohibited. The State helps the areas inhabited by minority nationalities to speed up their economic and cultural development in accordance with the peculiarities and needs of the different minority nationalities” (Article 4). The same article promises that “The people of all nationalities have the freedom to use and develop their own spoken and written languages, and to preserve or reform their own ways and customs”. The concessions to autonomy, it may be noted, are coupled with a warning against encouraging secession, and this is reinforced by Article 52 by which citizens have a duty to safeguard the unity of all China’s nationalities.

There is some tension on the issue of minority languages in the Constitution. Article 4 (above) is reinforced by Articles 22 and 34 regarding minority languages in cultural activities and official proceedings. But the State Council is empowered by Article 19 §5 to promote the official common language. Freedom of religious belief is guaranteed by Article 36. The freedom is modified by the requirement that religious activities do not disrupt “the public order”, and are not subject to “foreign domination”. Minority nationalities are entitled to “appropriate representation” in the National People’s Congress and its standing committees which has a nationalities committee as one of its responsibilities (Articles 59, 65 and 70). The State Council, or highest organ of State administration, has as one of its purposes, to “. . . direct and administer affairs concerning the nationalities, and to safeguard the equal rights of minority nationalities and the right of autonomy of the national autonomous areas” (Article 39 §11). Local people’s congresses of nationality townships may, to a limited degree, tailor certain legal measures to the peculiarities of the nationalities concerned (Article 99). Article 121 provides that “in performing their functions, the organs of self-government of the national autonomous areas, in accordance with the autonomy regulations of the respective areas, employ the spoken and written language or languages in common use in the locality”. The implementing text for the constitutional provisions, the law on regional autonomy for minority nationalities of the PRC, was adopted by the second session of the National People’s Congress on May 31, 1984 (see Appendix 8.1).

Treatment of minorities

The PRC provides a major example (as also does Yugoslavia) of an attempt to combine Marxist-Leninist principles with respect for local ethnic, religious and linguistic characteristics. The theory did not have a great deal to say about associative factors based on ethnicity as opposed to class, but Marxist States have in practice made considerable claims for their structures and policies in this area. The Soviet and Yugoslav experiments are showing signs of considerable strain in the wake of the new motifs of glasnost and peres-troika and renewed ethnic consciousness. China does not appear to be experiencing a similar scale of ethnic unrest, though such dissatisfaction is always difficult to gauge in a closed society. The reaction of the Chinese authorities to student demonstrations in Beijing and other major cities gives substance to previous reports of the ferocity of reaction to minority disaffection in Tibet and elsewhere. It is unclear how and to what extent the broad guarantees in the Constitution and autonomy laws are being implemented, but it is apparent that most powerful posts in the Communist Party committees in autonomous regions are occupied by Han Chinese, and the same appears to be true of the People’s Liberation Army.

Japanese attitudes to minorities stem more from the continuation of social attitudes under the To-kugawas than from official state policy and ideology. Japan provides evidence of a liberal, human rights constitution but maintains regressive attitudes to many of its own citizens. There is also a strong element of racialist attitudes in the treatment of Koreans. In neither case can these attitudes be put down to economic pressures in one of the world’s most economically advanced societies.

The East Asian cases reinforce the truth that racialist attitudes resulting in oppression of minority groups are not a variable depending on the particular political system, but rather to some degree underlie all societies. The worth of a system may be gauged by the intensity and sincerity of the efforts it makes to combat such prejudice.

Ainu of Japan

Burakumin of Japan

Koreans of Japan

Mountain Peoples of Taiwan