Unused Powers: Contestation over Autonomy Legislation in the PRC

Yash Ghai*, Sophia Woodman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

The most important power granted to autonomous areas in China’s system of Nationalities Regional Autonomy should allow them to modify higher-level laws and policies through autonomy legislation. This is one of the two principal methods for the exercise of autonomy, with the other being the holding of key government posts by minority members. Yet efforts by the five autonomous regions to exercise their powers to enact autonomy legislation have been repeatedly blocked. The granting of autonomy powers in the PRC has been half-hearted, and few powers commonly associated with autonomy systems are available to autonomous areas. Even so, in China as elsewhere, giving autonomy legal expression, however vague, has made the law a field for contention over its proper meaning and scope.
Based primarily on Chinese documentary sources, this article focuses on contestation over the meaning of autonomy in the terrain of law. In their explorations of the modifi cation power and the relative status of autonomy legislation, legal scholars and minority activists articulate a vision of autonomy under a future constitutionally governed state. Such an “extensive” autonomy, defined by its historical roots to allow for different “systems,” could potentially provide some space for real self-government. In contrast, some powerful central government institutions block development of this fi eld of law, implicitly supporting the view that autonomy is history and economic development holds the key to the future. Even given the necessary political will, in the absence of the key components of autonomy systems, divisions within the Chinese state could create barriers to the realization of “genuine autonomy.”
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)29-46
Number of pages18
JournalPacific Affairs
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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