This article investigates the dynamic relationship between economic development and the identification of ethnic minorities and argues that identification of China’s ethnic minorities manifests itself at various levels. At the national level, the introduction of market mechanisms and economic growth initiatives have been concentrated predominantly in the coastal areas and metropolises, and are thus increasingly distant from ethnic minorities, a disproportionate majority of which reside in the western parts of the country. This growing regional disparity has placed ethnic regions and populations in a distinctly unfavourable position in terms of economic engagement and development. Regional development in the ethnic‐minority homelands has been characterized by the representation and reinvention of ethnic cultural traditions and the production of cultural economies. Unequal economic growth has resulted in a massive migration of ethnic minorities to the cities. Simultaneously, urban development has reinforced ethnic identity, particularly through urban labour‐market development. Urban and regional development has, in turn, led to the production, activation and magnification of ethnic identity at individual and group levels.