China has 33 administrative units directly under the central government; these consist of 22 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, 4 municipalities (Chongqing, Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin), and 2 special administrative regions (Hong Kongand Macau). The island province of Taiwan, which has been under separate administration since 1949, is discussed in the article Taiwan. Beijing (Peking), the capital of the People’s Republic, is also the cultural, economic, and communications centre of the country. Shanghai is the main industrial city; Hong Kong is the leading commercial centre and port.
Within China’s boundaries exists a highly diverse and complex country. Its topography encompasses the highest and one of the lowest places on Earth, and its relief varies from nearly impenetrable mountainous terrain to vast coastal lowlands. Its climate ranges from extremely dry, desertlike conditions in the northwest to tropical monsoon in the southeast, and China has the greatest contrast in temperature between its northern and southern borders of any country in the world.
Probably the single most identifiable characteristic of China to the people of the rest of the world is the size of its population. Some one-fifth of humanity is of Chinese nationality. The great majority of the population is Chinese (Han), and thus China is often characterized as an ethnically homogeneous country, but few countries have as wide a variety of indigenous peoples as does China. Even among the Han there are cultural and linguistic differences between regions; for example, the only point of linguistic commonality between two individuals from different parts of China may be the written Chinese language. Because China’s population is so enormous, the population density of the country is also often thought to be uniformly high, but vast areas of China are either uninhabited or sparsely populated.
China stretches for about 3,250 miles (5,250 km) from east to west and 3,400 miles (5,500 km) from north to south. Its land frontier is about 12,400 miles (20,000 km) in length, and its coastline extends for some 8,700 miles (14,000 km). The country is bounded by Mongolia to the north; Russia and North Koreato the northeast; the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea to the east; the South China Sea to the southeast; Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), India, Bhutan, and Nepal to the south; Pakistan to the southwest; and Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan to the west. In addition to the 14 countries that border directly on it, China also faces South Korea and Japan, across the Yellow Sea, and the Philippines, which lie beyond the South China Sea.
China is a multinational country, with a population composed of a large number of ethnic and linguistic groups. The Han (Chinese), the largest group, outnumber the minority groups or minority nationalities in every province or autonomous region except Tibet and Xinjiang. The Han, therefore, form the great homogeneous mass of the Chinese people, sharing the same culture, the same traditions, and the same written language. For this reason, the general basis for classifying the country’s population is largely linguistic rather than ethnic. Some 55 minority groups are spread over approximately three-fifths of the country’s total area. Where these minority groups are found in large numbers, they have been given some semblance of autonomy and self-government; autonomous regions of several types have been established on the basis of the geographic distribution of nationalities.
Urbanization and industrialization often have been closely related in China. The first major post-1949 urbanization push began in the mid-1950s, as the government intensified its efforts to convert the country into an industrial power. Urban growth accelerated even more rapidly from the mid-1980s, with China’s serious entry onto the global economic stage.
Thus, the rapid development of modern manufacturing industries and of communications in China produced a dramatic change in the urban landscape. Many new towns and cities have been built around manufacturing and mining centres. In the remoter areas of China, the first appearance of railways and highways contributed to the rapid growth of some entirely new towns, such as Shihezi in northern Xinjiang and Shiquanhe in western Tibet. Among larger cities, Ürümqi (Urumchi; capital of Xinjiang), Lanzhou (capital of Gansu), and Baotou (in Inner Mongolia) are examples where expansion has been extremely rapid. Lanzhou lies midway between southeastern and northwestern China. Baotou, formerly a bleak frontier town of traders, artisans, and immigrant farmers, has become one of the country’s largest steel centres.
More than one-half of China’s population is urban, up from less than one-fourth in 1975. While the urban-rural proportion is relatively low compared with more highly industrialized countries, it represents an enormous number of people—comparable to the total population of North America. Some four dozen cities have populations of more than 1,000,000, and the populations of several other dozen are between 500,000 and 1,000,000. The distribution of China’s large cities mirrors the national population distribution, with heavy concentrations in the eastern coastal provinces, lesser but still significant numbers in the central provinces, and considerably fewer in western regions.
since the late 1970s as the country has moved away from a Soviet-type economic system. Agriculture has been decollectivized, the nonagricultural private sector has grown rapidly, and government priorities have shifted toward light and high-technology, rather than heavy, industries. Nevertheless, key bottlenecks have continued to constrain growth. Available energy has not been sufficient to run all of the country’s installed industrial capacity, the transport system has remained inadequate to move sufficient quantities of such critical commodities as coal, and the communications system has not been able to meet the needs of a centrally planned economy of China’s size and complexity.
China’s underdeveloped transport system—combined with important differences in the availability of natural and human resources and in industrial infrastructure—has produced significant variations in the regional economies of China. The three wealthiest regions are along the southeast coast, centred on the Pearl (Zhu) River Delta; along the east coast, centred on the lower Yangtze River; and near the Bo Hai (Gulf of Chihli), in the Beijing–Tianjin–Liaoning region. It is the rapid development of these areas that is having the most significant effect on the Asian regional economy as a whole, and Chinese government policy is designed to remove the obstacles to accelerated growth in these wealthier regions. At the same time, a major priority of the government is the economic development of the interior of the country to help it catch up with the more-prosperous coastal regions.
China is the world’s largest producer of rice and is among the principal sources of wheat, corn (maize), tobacco, soybeans, peanuts (groundnuts), and cotton. The country is one of the world’s largest producers of a number of industrial and mineral products—including cotton cloth, tungsten, and antimony—and is an important producer of cotton yarn, coal, crude oil, and a number of other products. Its mineral resources are probably among the richest in the world but are only partially developed. China has acquired some highly sophisticated production facilities through foreign investment and joint ventures with foreign partners. The technological level and quality standards of many of its industries have improved rapidly and dramatically.
The labour force and the pricing system are still areas of concern. Underemployment is common in both urban and rural areas, and there is a strong fear of the disruptive effects that widespread unemployment could cause. The prices of some key commodities, especially of industrial raw materials and major industrial products, are still determined by the state, although the proportion of these commodities under state control continues to decline. A major exception is energy, which the government continues to regulate. China’s increasing contact with the international economy and its growing use of market forces to govern the domestic allocation of goods have exacerbated this problem. Over the years, large subsidies were built into the price structure, and these subsidies grew substantially from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, when subsidies began to be eliminated. A significant factor was China’s acceptance into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, which carried with it stipulations about further economic liberalization and government deregulation.
Western China, comprising Tibet, Xinjiang, and Qinghai, has little agricultural significance except for areas of oasis farming and cattle raising. Rice, China’s most important crop, is dominant in the southern provinces, many of which yield two harvests per year. In North China wheat is of the greatest importance, while in the central provinces wheat and rice vie with each other for the top place. Millet and kaoliang (a variety of grain sorghum) are grown mainly in the Northeast and some central provinces, which—together with some northern areas—also produce considerable quantities of barley. Most of the soybean crop is derived from the North and the Northeast, and corn (maize) is grown in the centre and the North. Tea comes mainly from the hilly areas of the southeast. Cotton is grown extensively in the central provinces, but it is also found to a lesser extent in the southeast and in the North. Tobacco comes from the centre and parts of the South. Other important crops are potatoes, sugar beets, and oilseeds.
Animal husbandry constitutes the second most important component of agricultural production. China is the world’s leading producer of pigs, chickens, and eggs, and it also has sizable herds of sheep and cattle. Since the mid-1970s, greater emphasis has been placed on increasing the livestock output.
China’s most important mineral resources are hydrocarbons, of which coal is the most abundant. Although deposits are widely scattered (some coal is found in every province), most of the total is located in the northern part of the country. The province of Shanxi is thought to contain about half of the total; other important coal-bearing provinces include Heilongjiang, Liaoning, Jilin, Hebei, and Shandong. Apart from these northern provinces, significant quantities of coal are present in Sichuan, and there are some deposits of importance in Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan, and Guizhou. A large part of the country’s reserves consists of good bituminous coal, but there are also large deposits of lignite. Anthracite is present in several places (especially Liaoning, Guizhou, and Henan), but overall it is not significant.