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Xianggang - Hong Kong

The third largest country in the world, and the most populous, not to mention the amount of tourists that visit each year due to cheap traveland the amazing culture, China is today something of an enigma: it has an increasingly capitalistic economy but with an old-style Communist Party Leadership remaining in political control. Much depends on how successfully this 'socialist market economy' works. With a civilization going back 5,000 years, China's history has combined long periods of dynastic stability with shorter periods of sudden change. In the last 100 years it has gone through a series of convulsive social, political, and economic transformations. Once isolated, agrarian, and indifferent to other societies and cultures, China's future is now that of a modern industrial nation trading with much of the world. Politically it remains a one-party state. The political reforms needed for greater democracy are widely discussed in western media, as are civil liberties and human rights issues, but they are not yet on the agenda of China itself.

Physical features and land use China can be divided into three major regions: the mountains to the west, including the vast Plateau of Tibet; the series of deserts and desert basins starting in the northwest with the Tarim Basin and the Taklimakan Desert, reaching across the Nei Mongol Plateau (Nei Mongol Gaoyuan) to Manchuria (Taklimakan Shamo) in the northeast; and the largely low-lying eastern region consisting of the valleys and floodplains of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze) and Huang (Yellow) rivers, extending to the coastal plains including the Pearl River in the south.

The melting snows of the Plateau of Tibet feed several major rivers-the Brahmaputra, flowing south to India, the Salween (Nu) of Myanmar (Burma), and the Mekong which skirts Laos and Thailand before passing through Cambodia and reaching the sea in Vietnam. In addition it is the source of both the Huang (Yellow), and the mighty Chang Jiang (Yangtze), China's two main rivers which drain into the East China Sea. In some parts permanently covered in snow, the Plateau of Tibet is the highest region in the world, averaging about 4,900 m (16,000 ft), with ranges rising from 6,100 to 7,300 m (20,000 to 24,000 ft). It is bounded to the north by the Kunlun Shan Range and to the south along the borders of India, Nepal, and Bhutan by the mountain system of the Himalayas. A harsh environment, hostile to human settlement, most of the plateau's 2 million people live in the south. The Himalayan ranges also have a political significance. Forming a massive rampart along China's southwestern frontier, for centuries they have provided a natural defensive barrier against the west. This is one reason why China is unwilling to allow the pressure for Tibetan independence to take it beyond the status of an 'autonomous region.'

The second region, stretching from the Tarim Basin and Dzungarian Basin (Junggar Pendi) in the northwest, past the southern fringes of the Gobi Desert to Northern Manchuria, is mostly too arid and cold for agriculture. Here, pastoralists such as the Uighurs of Xinjiang keep sheep, goats, and herds of horses. Some oasis crops, however, are grown around the rim of the Taklimakan Dese11, and there are small farming settlements in the Gansu corridor to the north of the Qilian Mountains. The Turfan Depression (Turpan Pendi) (both the lowest and the hottest place in China at -154 m [-505 ft]) lies northeast of the Tarim Basin. East of the Gobi Desert lies the agricultural area of the Manchurian Plain, where coarse grains and soya beans are cultivated. In Northern Manchuria the growing season is short: only 90 days a year are frost free.

The eastern region of central China is where two-thirds of the country's people live. This was the cradle of Chinese civilization. On the region's fertile alluvial plains the most distinctive failures of China's economic and social life developed intensive irrigated agriculture and the Chinese peasant family. Known as 'China's Sorrow,' the Huang (Yellow) River makes its way across the North China Plain. For hundreds of years it caused frequent flooding, with serious loss of life, but today modern flood-control schemes have reduced this danger.

Further south, near the Chang Jiang (Yangtze) delta, the plain changes into a land of large lakes and intricate networks of canals, many of them centuries old. The Chang Jiang is China's largest and most important river, much of it navigable. When the river level is high, vessels of 10,000 tons may reach Wuhan; and 1,000-tonne barges can reach Chongqing in Sichuan. What is called the 'Red Basin' of Sichuan is a fertile and highly productive area far up the Chang Jiang, separated from the lower valley by steep-sided gorges. It is intensively cultivated, the landscape dominated by rice fields arranged in terraces up the hillsides. Summer weather in the central valley of the Chang Jiang is hot and humid, temperatures at Nanjing reaching 44°C (111°F).

A distinctive landscape in southern China (famous for centuries as an inspiration for Chinese landscape painters) is found in northeastern Guizhou Province, where limestone spires and pinnacles rise above small, intensively cultivated plains. This heavily eroded area is marked by sinkholes, caverns, and underground streams. In the coastal lowlands of Guangdong Province, in the far south, the climate is tropical and farmers enjoy a year-round growing season. On Hainan Island, flanking the Gulf of Tongking, three crops of rice per year are possible, while other crops in the south include sugar, bananas, and tropical fruits. During the summer, cyclones and typhoons often strike the southeast coast.

Early history

Civilization arose along the margins of the North China Plain. Here, about 1700 BC, the Shang Dynasty originated in the Huang Valley. Noted for craftsman­ship in bronze, along with the use of the wheel, the calendar, and a form of writing, the Shang lasted until 1122 Be. During the next dynasty, the Zhou, the teachings of the philosopher-teacher Confucius (551-479 BC) provided a pattern for Chinese society for centuries to come. Iron casting, metal coinage, and silk were also introduced at this time. During the short-lived Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) a ruler arose named Qin Shihuang. He unified the nation, fOl1ified China's northern bounda1Y with the Great Wall, established the civil service, and was buried at Lintong with an army of 6,000 terra cotta warriors which are today a major tourist attraction.

In 206 BC the Han Dynasty was begun. During the four centuries of the Han, paper and the seismograph were invented, steel was first made, and Buddhism was introduced from India. And the boundaries of China were extended nearly to their present limits. Under the Sui (AD 581-618) a large pal1 of the Grand Canal linking the nOl1h with the Chang Valley was built. During the 300 years of the Tang Dynasty which followed, China became the world's biggest empire. Paper money was adopted; block printing invented, and priceless ceramic vases produced. In these centuries, and those of the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1269) China's population, threatened by incursions of nomads from the north, began to concentrate in the warmer, more productive south. By the thirteenth century most people lived in the south, including the Chang Valley. The Song Dynasty is sometimes regarded as China's Golden Age. Trade expanded, and Chinese shipping took porcelain and silk to the East Indies, India, and Africa.

Northern invaders ended the Song Dynasty. By 1223 Ghengis Khan's Mongols held much of the north and in 1260 Kublai Khan proclaimed himself emperor, with Beijing as his capital. Unified by the conquests of the Mongol tribes, the empire by 1300 reached from Kiev to the Persian Gulf and from Burma to Korea. Muslims, Christians, and Armenians all came to China at this time-among them the Italian Marco Polo, who served under Kublai Khan. After the Mongols were overthrown, Chinese rule was re-established under the Ming Dynasty in 1368, and the Great Wall was restored and extended to its present length of 6,400 km (4,000 miles). In the three centuries of Ming rule many palaces were built, including the Imperial Palace at Beijing, and ships explored as far field as the Red Sea. It was during this period that the first Christian missions began to appear in China, the Jesuits establishing themselves with the Portuguese at Macao in the sixteenth century.

Chinese civilization's main features, however, had been laid down in the time of the Han, Tang, and Song. During their rule Confucianism became the pervasive social ethic, the individual becoming subordinated to both family and state; porcelain manufacture and silk production reached a rare perfection; and various inventions were made which found their way to the West, notably that of gunpowder. Despite the development of large cities, and the growth of educated bureaucratic elite, Chinese society was largely agricultural, and its economic base depended on the productivity of the rural peasantry.

The Qing Dynasty (1683-1912) represented a return to power of northern people, the Manchus, descendants of the Mongols. Aggressive at first, seizing Taiwan and garrisoning Tibet, by the nineteenth century the Qing government had become weak and corrupt. Famine and unrest had made the country vulnerable to outside pressure and by the century's end China had been divided into spheres of influence among the major Western powers, a disintegration hastened by peasant uprisings (the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-64), and military defeats (the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95). In 1912 the last of China's emperors abdicated and a republic was proclaimed.

Modern history

Political and military disorder prevailed during the next 40 years. At first the country was fought over by rival warlords. Two hostile competing political movements offered solutions to this chaos-the Kuomintang (or Chinese National Party), and the Communist Party (founded in 1921)-but neither gained overall control. Then in 1931 Japan seized Manchuria, and in 1937 war broke out between China and Japan. During this time the communists sharpened their military and political skills, Mao Zedong winning the support of the peasantry and showing it was possible to succeed at guerrilla warfare. Hostilities between the Kuomintang and the communists were suspended in order to defeat Japan. But once this was achieved, in 1945, civil war broke out, costing 12 million lives. Victory went to the communists, and the People's Republic of China was proclaimed in October 1949.

Mass starvation, malnutrition, and disease were all brought under control in the initial years of communist rule and land reform began. As part of a planned economy the rural population was organized into 50,000 communes-units which farmed the land collectively. Communes also ran rural industries, schools, and clinics. During these years morale and dedication were high. Many of the old middle classes suffered grave privations in 're-education camps' but living standards improved for most people, and corruption and bureaucratic sloth were not a major problem. But Mao Zedong was determined to push ahead with radical programs of industrialization and political change. In 1958, the 'Great Leap Forward' movement tried to industrialize the country using the organization of the communes, and increase steel production~ by using backyard furnaces. It was a disaster.

Between 1959 and 1961 failed economic policies led to famine, disease, and attempted rebellion. As many as 20 million people died. Mao increasingly suspected his associates of disloyalty, believing some wanted to take 'the capitalist road.' In 1966 he launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to extirpate 'old thought, old culture, old customs and old habits.' China's local authorities were, in effect, put on trial, many community members were abused and tormented, and the Red Guards rampaged through the many cities destroying property and wrecking ancient works of art. In 1967 the army was called in to restore order. Mao's death in 1976 brought change. There was even, in 1978, a brief flirtation with free speech. Deng Xiaoping, a new leader with a different vision of Chinese communism but no less determined to assert his power, began the process of economic liberalization which has led to today's state-managed capitalism and rigid political regime.

Taiwan and Tibet complicate China's relations with the West. China insists that Taiwan must rejoin the mainland as a province. Tibet has suffered under the regime, and thousands of its people have been killed, China's historic use of the region as a defensive bulwark in the west means that independence is unlikely. Civil rights do not exist in China. Law is arbitrary, the courts usually being conducted by army personnel without legal training. Students demonstrating in Beijing in 1989 for greater democracy were met with tanks and hundreds were killed and injured. In 1998 an attempt to organize an independent political party was crushed and its leaders jailed.

The economy

Coal deposits exist in most provinces, and there are 70 production centers, of which Hebei, Shanxi, Shandong, Jilin, and Anhui are the most important. China also has deposits of iron ore, and is a major producer of tungsten. Industries produce iron, steel, coal, machinery, armaments, textiles, and petroleum, while the main exports are textiles, oil and oil products, chemicals, light industrial goods, and armaments. Questions about the economy are not centered on resources, skills or capacity. They concern the ideological clash between a market­ oriented economy and the rigid controls of the Communist Party.

In 1978 the leadership began moving away from Soviet-style central planning. In agriculture, household responsibility replaced collectivization and brought an immediate rise in productivity. In industry, the power of plant managers and local officials was increased, small-scale private enterprise was allowed, and foreign investment and trade encouraged. As a result, agricultural output doubled in the 1980s and industry made major gains. Gross domestic product has tripled since 1978.

The present system, however, combines some of the worst features of communism (bureaucracy inertia, and corruption) and of capitalism (windfall gains and high inflation). Additional difficulties arise from revenue collection of every kind; from extortion and other economic malpractices; and from inefficient state enterprises. Up to 100 million rural workers are adrift between country and city. The amount of arable land continues to decline. Serious environmental problems exist-air pollution from the use of coal, and water pollution from industrial effluents; falling water tables and nation-wide water shortages; and the fact that less than 10% of sewage is treated.



Guangxi Zhuangzu:Nanning
Nei Monggol:Hohhot
Ningxia Huizu:Yinchuan
Tibet (Xizang):Lhasa
Xinjiang Uygur:Urumqi

Xianggang (Hong Kong)

MUNICIPALITIES:Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin
OFFICIAL NAME:People's Republic of China
FORM OF GOVERNMENT:Communist republic with single legislative body (National People's Congress)
AREA:9,596,960 sq km (3,705,386 sq miles)
TIME ZONE GMT:+ 8 hours
PROJECTED POPULATION:2005 1,296,199,683
POPULATION DENSITY:129.9 per sq km (336.4 per sq mile)
OTHER LANGUAGE:Yue (Cantonese), Wu (Shanghaiese), Minbei (Fuzhou), Minnan (Hokkien-Taiwanese), other minority languages
RELIGIONS:Officially atheist; traditionally Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist; small Muslim and Christian minorities
ETHNIC GROUPS:Han Chinese 92%, other (including Zhuang, Uygur, Hui, Yi, Tibetan, Miao, Manchu, Mongol, Buyi, Korean) 8%
ECONOMY:Agriculture 74%, industry 14%, services 12%
CLIMATE:Varies widely: subtropical in southeast; temperate in east; cold and arid on southwestern Tibetan plateau; arid in northern deserts; cold temperate in northeast
HIGHEST POINT:Mt Everest 8,848 m (29,028 ft)


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This webpage was updated 22nd January 2024