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All autonomous areas highlighted in green.
Administrative divisions
of the People's Republic
of China
This article is part of the
Political divisions of China
Province level
Autonomous regions
Special Administrative
Regions (SARs)
History of its political divisions
Prefecture level
Autonomous prefectures
Prefecture-level cities
Sub-provincial cities
County level
Autonomous counties
County-level cities
Sub-prefecture-level cities
City districts
Autonomous banners
Township level
Townships (ethnic)
Sumu (ethnic)
County districts
Village level

In a similar fashion to the former Soviet Union's titular nations, a number of areas associated with one or more ethnic minorities are designated as autonomous within the People's Republic of China (PRC). These areas are recognized in the PRC's constitution and are nominally given a number of rights not accorded to other administrative divisions. The actual degree of autonomy of such regions is questioned. This is because their authority rests with the Constitution and the Law on Regional Autonomy, requiring leaders to seek prior approval from the National People's Congress (NPC) to pass legislation. This is not true for other provinces, which can pass legislation without such prior approval. For this reason, it has been contended that Autonomous regions are in fact "less autonomous."[1]

The PRC's autonomous regions may be found in the first (or top) to third levels of its national administrative divisions thus:

Level Type Chinese Pinyin Number*
province (1)   Autonomous regions of China 自治区 zìzhìqū 5
prefecture (2)   Autonomous prefectures of China 自治州 zìzhìzhōu 30
county (3)   Autonomous counties of China 自治县 zìzhìxiàn 117
Autonomous banners of China 自治旗 zìzhìqí 3
* as of June 2005

Although not named as autonomous areas, some third-level settlements and areas that are identified as county-level cities and county-level districts enjoy the same autonomy as autonomous areas. At the fourth ("township") level, 1 ethnic sumu and over 270 ethnic townships also exist, but are not considered to be autonomous and do not enjoy the laws pertaining to the larger ethnic autonomous areas.

As these autonomous areas were created by the PRC, they are not recognised by the Republic of China on Taiwan which ruled Mainland China before the PRC's creation.



The names of most of the PRC's autonomous areas are made from linking together:

  • the name of a geographical area;
  • the name or names of the predominant ethnic minority or minorities;
  • the word "Autonomous";
  • a type of administrative division.

For instance:

Level Geographical area + Ethnic name/s + "Autonomous" + Admin. division = Result
1 Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region
2 Dehong Dai & Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture
3 Shizhu Tujia Autonomous County Shizhu Tujia Autonomous County
3 Evenk Evenks Autonomous Banner Evenk Autonomous Banner

In the Chinese name of the administrative area, the nationality name is always suffixed with -族 ("nationality"), unless both of the following conditions apply: the division is found in Xinjiang (or is Xinjiang); the nationality name consists of more than one syllable. This distinction is not reflected in translation into English.

Some autonomous areas have more than one specified minority, which tend to be listed in the name of the prefecture, creating rather long names. Two autonomous counties simply use "Various Nationalities" in their names as placeholders, rather than listing out all of their designated ethnicities:

Full name Geographical Nationality Administrative
Enshi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture Enshi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture
Shuangjiang Lahu, Va, Blang and Dai Autonomous County Shuangjiang Lahu, Va, Blang and Dai Autonomous County
Longlin Various Nationalities Autonomous County Longlin Various Nationalities (Miao, Yi and Gelao) Autonomous County
Longsheng Various Nationalities Autonomous County Longsheng Various Nationalities (Dong, Yao, Miao) Autonomous County

A few autonomous areas break the regular nomenclature pattern, because the name of the nationality is already contained within the geographical name, or because there is no geographical name:

Full name Geographical Nationality Administrative
Tibet Autonomous Region Tibet (Tibetan) Autonomous Region
Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Inner Mongolia (Mongol) Autonomous Region
Dongxiang Autonomous County Dongxiang Autonomous County
Evenki Autonomous Banner Evenks Autonomous Banner
Oroqin Autonomous Banner Oroqin Autonomous Banner

Legal basis

Autonomous regions, prefectures, counties, and banners are covered under Section 6 of Chapter 3 (Articles 111-122) of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China, and with more detail under the Law of the People's Republic of China on Regional National Autonomy (《中华人民共和国民族区域自治法》). The constitution states that the head of government of each autonomous areas must be of the ethnic group as specified by the autonomous area (Tibetan, Uyghur, etc). The constitution also guarantees a range of rights including: independence of finance, independence of economic planning, independence of arts, science and culture, organization of local police, and use of local language. In addition, the head of government of each autonomous region is known as a "chairman", unlike provinces, where they are known as "governors".


Of the five autonomous regions, only Tibet has an absolute majority (>50%) of the designated ethnic group, namely, the Tibetans. Xinjiang has a plurality (<50%) of the designated ethnic group, the Uyghurs, though this is disputed by Uyghur independence advocates, who claim that the Han Chinese population in Xinjiang has been severely understated. The remaining 3 autonomous regions have absolute majorities of Han Chinese, the majority ethnicity of China.


Autonomous regions, prefectures, counties, and banners were established after communist takeover, following Soviet practice. At first, the nomenclature of these autonomous areas were somewhat confused, with autonomous regions appearing at the province, prefecture, county, and township levels. Eventually the nomenclature was standardized to the conventions used today.

The first autonomous region to be established was Inner Mongolia, created within communist-held territory in 1947, two years before the establishment of the People's Republic. Xinjiang was converted from a province to an autonomous region in 1955. Guangxi and Ningxia followed in 1957, and Tibet Autonomous Region was formally established in 1965.


  1. ^ Justin J. Stein, “Taking the Deliberative Turn in China: International Law, Minority Rights, and the Case of Xinjiang,” Journal of Public and International Affairs, Volume 14/Spring 2003: 13-14.


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