China - A Country Overview

Information on China; its place geographically, history, government, climate, security, tourism and foreigners living in China...

Geography

China is the fourth largest country in the world. It borders the Yellow Sea, the South China Sea and the Bay of Korea. Much of the country is mountainous with high plateaus. The west is an area of high mountains and deserts, with hills, plains, fertile lowlands and large river deltas in the east. The Tibetan Plateau is the highest plateau in the world, with an average elevation greater than 4,500m. It covers Qinghai province in western China, Ladakh in India and much of Tibet.

Everest, the world's highest mountain at 8,848m above sea level, has its summit on the border between China and Nepal. The high mountains of the Himalayas in the west provide water to two of China's major rivers: the Yellow and the Yangtze. The Yangtze is the largest river in China and the third largest in the world. It provides the irrigation necessary for rice cultivation in the south of the country. The Yellow gets its name from its colour, which is the result of windborne clay dust, or loess, which is blown across northern China into the river from the steppes of Central Asia. These two rivers have had an enormous impact on China's economy, history and culture.

The lowest point in China is the depression at Turpan Pendi, which is at 154m below sea level; the area is famous for being extremely hot. There are some volcanoes in China which have been active in the past: Changbaishan, Hainan Dao and Kunlun. Most of the country's volcanoes have been largely inactive for the last hundred years.

The capital city, Beijing, is home to more than 12 million people, though Shanghai is more populous, with a population in excess of 16.5 million. Other major cities in the country include Chengdu, Shenzhen, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Harbin, Chongqing, Dalian and Shenyang.

History

China was a dominant civilisation during much of human history, leading the world in the arts and sciences. It was here that economic activity first developed; the Yellow River valley was farmed 5,000-6,000 years ago. Records of Chinese civilisation extend back 3500 years, making it the longest-lasting major civilisation. This longevity can be ascribed to three elements: the bureaucratic control maintained over successive dynasties; the development of a common written language, which united the many local languages and dialects; and a Confucian ideology. Whenever the country was invaded, the conquerors always ended up adopting the supposedly better ways of Chinese civilisation.

The 19th century and the Opium Wars

The final Qing dynasty began in 1644 when the Ming dynasty was overthrown by the Manchus. The 19th century was a time of great change in China; prosperity declined and the control of the Qing dynasty weakened. Western influence was felt in the country for the first time, and it was a century of severe social strife characterised by little economic growth, famines and a massive increase in population. The 19th century also saw considerable military activity, much of which was the result of the United Kingdom's desire to maintain opium trading with the country; imperial edicts in China prohibited the drug. The first opium war broke out in 1840; China lost, which resulted in the United Kingdom, the United States and other western countries gaining concessions and special commercial privileges.

Hong Kong was ceded to the British in 1842, and following the end of the opium wars in 1898 the British expanded the colony and obtained a 99-year lease for the Territories.

Mao Zedung and the birth of the People's Republic of China

Western powers continued to gain economic and political privileges, largely as a result of their superior military technology. The last member of the Qing dynasty abdicated following an uprising in 1911, after which many important members of the dynasty were given senior roles in the new republic.

The years that followed were dominated by conflict and war between the Chinese Communist Party, eventually under the leadership of Mao Zedong, and the Chinese Nationalist Party, led first by Sun Yat-sen and then by Chiang Kai-shek. Their disputes continued during and following the 14-year Japanese invasion of the country (1931-45).

By 1949 the Chinese Communist Party occupied most of China. Mao Zedong proclaimed the formation of the People's Republic of China on 1 October 1949 and installed a new economic and political system modelled on that of the Soviet Union.

The 1950s were a time of popular and major economic and social changes. The Party controlled much of Chinese life; control was maintained by loyal security and military forces. In 1958 Mao Zedong broke with the Soviet model and announced the "Great Leap Forward", an economic plan to increase production rapidly. The plan failed dramatically; agricultural production declined and the population was exhausted by producing low-quality goods. Within a year famine was a problem even in fertile regions; it was the start of one of the most extreme famines in human history.

The Cultural Revolution and the rise of Deng Xiaoping

The 1960s was a decade of political anarchy resulting from disagreements between Mao Zedong and other parts of the Party leadership championed by Deng Xiaoping. Deng Xiaoping's pragmatic economic policies were at odds with Mao's revolutionary ideals and Mao launched the "Cultural Revolution". The conflict amongst the leadership came to a head in 1971 when the Party Vice Chairman and Defence Minister reportedly attempted a coup against Mao; it is said that he died in a plane crash. Following this, many dismissed officials, including Deng Xiaoping, were reinstated.

However, clashes between veteran and pragmatic Party officials restarted towards the end of 1975. Mao's death in 1976 sparked fierce competition to be his successor. Hua Guofeng the former Minister of Public Security was made Party Chairman. In 1977 Deng Xiaoping was reinstated to all of his previous posts in the Party. He subsequently led efforts to put control in the power of officials opposed to the excesses of the past.

Political protest and Tiananmen Square

The new leadership advanced economic development and introduced policies to increase rural income. Writers, artists and journalists were encouraged to have a more critical approach; open critiques of party authority were not permitted. The general standard of living increased and Chinese scholars could communicate with academics in other countries.

However, it was also a time of political dissent, inflation and migration. High inflation was causing hardship and provided the seed for large protest demonstrations. University students and others camped in Beijing's Tiananmen Square; despite the government's attempts to manage the protest it continued to grow, with the protesters calling for greater democracy and an end to political corruption.

The protests spread to other cities. Martial law was declared on 20 May 1989; in June military force was used to clear demonstrators from Beijing's streets. It is thought that hundreds of people were killed. Despite worldwide revulsion, protesters were detained and the remaining sources of political opposition eliminated; there was a resurgence in conservative politics. Deng Xiaoping returned to political dominance two years later and pushed for a market-orientated economy and the importance of improving living standards.

Deng Xiaoping died in 1997 and the People's Republic of China continues.

Politics and Government

The People's Republic of China is run as a Communist state. The most recent revision of the country's constitution, which is the fundamental law of the state, was in 2004.

The president is the head of state and the premier is the head of government. A State Council is appointed by the National People's Congress (NPC). This congress elects the president and vice-president for five-year terms of office; a second term is possible. The president then nominates a premier who is confirmed by the NPC. The NPC is made up elected deputies from all of China's administrative regions. They have legislative power, refine the constitution, ensure it is enforced and discuss and approve budgets and economic and social plans.

In addition to the Chinese Communist Party there are eight small independent parties; ultimately they are controlled by the Communist Party. There are no significant opposition parties.

The country is split into 23 provinces, five autonomous regions and four municipalities. The system of civil law in China is influenced by both the European and Soviet systems.

Economy

China had a closed economy until the late 1970s. Since then it has become much more market-orientated, playing an ever-increasing role in the global economy. In 2010 the country became the world's biggest exporter. China's agricultural and industrial output has a value in US dollars greater than that of the United States itself; it is also just behind the United States in having the second highest value globally for the services it produces. However, the country's per capita income remains less than the global average.

The opening of the economy to foreign trade and investment and the economy in general resulted in the decentralisation of government financial policy, the development of stock markets, rapid growth in the private sector, a more varied banking system and liberalised pricing. Reforms were introduced gradually and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has grown more than ten-fold since 1978. The result has been the fastest reduction in poverty ever seen.

For many years the Chinese currency was closely tied to the US dollar. However, China revalued its currency in 2005 and moved to an exchange rate linked to a collection of currencies.

China is rich in natural resources, and is among the world's leading producers of many agricultural products including rice, wheat, tea, millet and barley. It is also rich in mining and ore processing, as well as the production of arms, textiles, chemicals, electrical goods, satellites, telecommunications equipment and cars. However, despite rapid and dramatic economic growth, much of rural China remains very poor.

Climate

China has an extremely diverse climate reflecting its size. The south of the country has a tropical climate while much of the north experiences subarctic weather. The country's weather is dominated by the effects of the changing winds of the Asian monsoon, with large seasonal changes in temperature and plenty of rain in summer. The country frequently experiences droughts and floods.

In northeast China winters are very cold; temperatures as low as -33°C have been recorded here. Strong winds are frequent, increasing the winter cold; in the north of the region rivers can be frozen for half of the year. Summers tend to be warm and humid, though droughts do occur. In central China rainfall is high in the summer. The winter has spells of cold weather with frost and snow, alternating with periods of warmer and wetter conditions. Summers are typically humid and warm, and typhoons occur in the coastal regions. Southern China has a warm and wet tropical climate. Typhoons are common and the winters are mild; frosts are rare. In southwest China winters are warm and sunny and summer temperatures drop with altitude; this region has the most pleasant climate in China.

Security

China is generally a safe country; the most common problems encountered are pickpocketing and other petty street crimes. Violent crime is rare, but it is not uncommon for demonstrations, which can become violent, to start suddenly. The Chinese authorities enforce order severely, so any form of demonstration or protest should be avoided.

Visitors should be aware of the widespread use of counterfeit bank notes. In popular tourist areas there are a number of scams which target travelling foreigners.

Foreigners Living in the Country

Increasing numbers of foreigners are choosing to live in China. Most are attracted by the lower cost of living and thriving opportunities the country offers. The majority of foreigners in China are from Korea, the United States and Japan, but there are also significant numbers from Canada, France, Vietnam, Australia, Myanmar and India. The majority are found in the areas around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong province.

  • For information from the National Bureau of Statistics of China page on foreign residents: Click here

Tourism

Millions of people visit China for a holiday every year, drawn to its dramatic landscapes, good food, fascinating history and culture. Popular attractions include the Great Wall of China, the Yangtze River and the Terracotta Warriors of Xi'an. Beijing is popular for its ancient and modern architecture, temples, mansions and royal gardens. Chengdu is famous for its landscape, arts and crafts and traditional folklore. It also provides easy access to the Terracotta Warriors, the Giant Buddha of Leshan and the Yangtze River. Other popular tourist destinations include Shangha and Lijiang Yunnan.

Further Information