Ethnic minorities have always been an integrated part of development reality. Taking Nu people, one of the 56 ethnic minorities in China, for case study, the present article is an attempt to examine the multiple discourses concerning ethnic minority development in the country. Evidence based analysis is conducted to reveal the existence of three major layers of discourses in the arena of ethnic development and to compare in detail the cognitions, orientations, expression mechanisms and encounters between government, intermediary and community discourses. The paper proposes an intervention selection system to enlarge room for manoeuvre at the bottom. It also calls for a development warning system for ethnic minorities in development. Copyright © 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.