GENEVA - China defended its record on minority rights Wednesday to a U.N. panel on racial discrimination - but critics said Chinese claims that it protects minorities mask a grim reality of ethnic oppression.
"China is a united multiethnic state," said Beijing's U.N. Ambassador Qiao Zonghuai. "Mutual respect and human coexistence among all groups is an important Chinese tradition."
The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination began its two-day consideration of a Chinese government report on minority rights Tuesday. The committee is expected to release its conclusions in mid-August.
A Chinese report defending its treatment of minorities cited China's constitution, which says that ``discrimination against and oppression of any nationality are prohibited.''
Some 92 percent of China's 1.2 billion people are members of the Han Chinese ethnic group. Minority groups - including Tibetans, Mongolians, Uighurs, Koreans and Tujia - make up around 109 million people.
Qiao told the committee China had managed "significant achievements" in eliminating discrimination, but conceded there was still a need for "continued efforts."
The Chinese report said government policies promote minority language education in areas with large minority population. China's strict family planning laws are ``more flexible'' for minorities, it said - adding that the minority population was growing faster than the Han.
It said minorities are well represented in political life - particularly in the country's 155 autonomous regions - and their different religious and cultural beliefs are respected.
The report cited China's ``Western Development'' program, which is expanding road and rail networks in the part of the country where many minorities live. The program demonstrates the government's commitment to lifting minority regions out of poverty, it said.
Beijing's opponents, however, questioned the Chinese assertions.
"Racial discrimination severely affects minorities in China, in particular the Tibetans, the people of Inner Mongolia and the Uighurs," Chungdak Koren, Swiss-based representative of the Dalai Lama, said.
The Uighurs are a mainly Muslim people who live in China's western Xinjiang province. Chinese authorities crack down hard on minority activists whom they accuse of ``separatism,'' said Ngawang Drakmargyapon, an officer at the Tibet Bureau, a Geneva-based human rights group. Ordinary members of minorities also suffer regular discrimination in employment, education and health care, he said.
The "Western Development" program was simply another way for China to control minority regions, he said.
"We cannot forget the Chinese superiority mentality - when they refer to Tibetans or other minorities as 'backward' they basically mean that they are the ones who should tell us how to develop," he said.