(From Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia)


China, located in East Asia, is the third-largest country in the world in terms of area (after Russia and Canada). It is the world's most populous nation, with a population of more than 1.3 billion; it is home to about one-fifth of the world's total population. China's coastline borders on the Yellow Sea, East China Sea, and South China Sea; it is about 12,000 km (7,500 mi) long. China shares a land border of about 21,260 km (13,210 mi) with 14 other countries: North Korea, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Mongolia, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and Vietnam. Taiwan is a separate political entity from China, which has continued to demand the return of the island to its political jurisdiction since 1949. China contests the ownership of the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands with several other countries. Demarcation of China's border with Russia was the subject of long-standing territorial disputes; the border was finally agreed on in 1999, after seven years of negotiations. A controversial border accord that ceded 90,000 ha (222,400 acres) to China was finally approved by the Kyrgyzstan legislature in 2002.

The official name of China is the People's Republic of China (Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo). The republic was established in 1949, but the name China, which is commonly used by foreigners, is probably derived from the Qin (Ch'in) dynasty (221-206 B.C.), which first unified the nation. The Chinese themselves use the name Zhongguo (Chung-kuo; Middle Country), which originated with the early Chinese concept that China was in the middle of the world.

China is divided into 23 provinces (including Taiwan), 2 special administrative regions, and 5 autonomous border regions, where other ethnic groups constitute a majority of the population. For ease of reference the provinces and autonomous regions are usually grouped into six large administrative regions. These units are as follows: 1) the Northeastern Region, which includes the provinces of Heilongjiang (Heilungkiang), Jilin (Kirin), and Liaoning (see also Manchuria); 2) the Northern Region, which includes the provinces of Hebei (Hopei) and Shanxi (Shansi), the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (Nei Menggu Zizhiqu; see Inner Mongolia), and the centrally controlled municipalities of Beijing (Peking) and Tianjin (Tientsin); 3) the Eastern Region, which includes the provinces of Shandong (Shantung), Jiangxi (Kiangsi), Jiangsu (Kiangsu), Anhui (Anhwei), Zhejiang (Chekiang), and Fujian (Fukien) and the centrally controlled municipality of Shanghai; 4) the South Central Region, which includes the provinces of Hainan, Henan (Honan), Hubei (Hupei), Hunan, and Guangdong (Kwangtung), the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao (Macau), and the Guangxi Zhuang (Kwangsi Chuang) Autonomous Region; 5) the Southwestern Region, which includes the provinces of Sichuan (Szechwan), Guizhou (Kuei-chou), and Yunnan (Yünnan), the centrally controlled municipality of Chongqing (Chungking), and the Xizang Zizhiqu (Tibetan) Autonomous Region (see Tibet); 6) the Northwestern Region, which includes the provinces of Shaanxi (Shensi), Gansu (Kansu), and Qinghai (Tsinghai) and the Xinjiang Uygur (Sinkiang Uighur; see Xinjiang) and Ningxia Hui (Ningsia Hui) autonomous regions.

China's written history began during the Shang dynasty (c.1600-c.1027 B.C.). China was ruled by a series of dynasties (see China, history of) until 1912, when a republic was established. In 1921 the Chinese Communist party was founded. Five years later the long civil war between the ruling nationalists, or Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communists, led by Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), began. The Communists took over the mainland in 1949. They established the People's Republic of China. The Kuomintang retreated to the island of Taiwan, continuing as the Republic of China. The United Nations recognized Taiwan as the legitimate government of China until 1971, when the People's Republic assumed the UN seat formerly held by Taiwan. In 1979 the United States recognized the legitimacy of the People's Republic, and diplomatic relations between the two nations were established. The sovereignty of Taiwan is still disputed.

Land and Resources

The topography of China is often described roughly as forming three levels of elevation. These rise, like steps, from the lowlands along the east coast to the high mountains in the west. Each step, or level, of elevation occupies approximately one-third of the country. The highest level, with altitudes above 2,000 m (6,600 ft), occupies all of Tibet and adjacent areas of southwestern and south central China. The intermediate level, at altitudes from about 1,000 to 2,000 m (from about 3,300 to 6,600 ft), occupies the northern border regions of Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang and extends southwestward across the center of the country to the rugged province of Yunnan. The third and lowest level, at elevations below 1,000 m (3,300 ft), occupies the eastern and most populated section of the country. The three elevation steps cross China in roughly north-south trending bands. They are themselves crossed by prominent east-west trending mountain ranges that subdivide the three elevation regions into nine subregions.

Tibetan Highland

The highest elevation step is the Tibetan highland. At its core is the Tibetan Plateau, with an average elevation of more than 4,000 m (13,000 ft). The plateau is rimmed by mountain ranges with peaks that rise to more than 6,100 m (20,000 ft). Forming the northern edge of the plateau are the Kunlun Mountains and the Nan Shan range, which enclose the Koko Nor (Qing Hai, or Ch'ing Hai), a lake. On the southern edge of the plateau are the Himalayas, which rise to the world's highest elevation (8,850 m/29,035 ft) at Mount Everest, on the Tibet-Nepal border. The plateau is bordered on the west by the Karakoram and Pamir ranges. The eastern edge of the plateau is cut off from the rest of China by canyons and intervening rugged mountain ranges. From these ranges flow China's principal river, the Yangtze, and some of the major rivers of Southeast Asia, including the Yalu Zanbo (Ya-lu-tsang-pu, or Upper Brahmaputra), Salween, and Mekong. Three Parallel Rivers National Park, in northwestern Yunnan province, is one of the most geologically and biologically diverse areas on Earth.


The second elevation step lies between 1,000 and 2,000 m (3,300 and 6,600 ft). It consists of five subregions. These are, from north to south: the Xinjiang-Mongolian upland, the Mongolian border upland, the Qin Ling (Tsinling, or Ch'in Ling) Mountains, the Sichuan Basin, and the Yunnan-Guizhou (Yünnan-Kweichow) Plateau upland. The Xinjiang-Mongolian upland covers most of Inner Mongolia, Gansu, and Xinjiang. A semidesert region, it includes, in the west, the Junggar (Dzungarian) and Tarim basins of Xinjiang; the latter contains the Taklimakan (Takla Makan) Desert. These basins are separated from each other by the Tian Shan (Tien Shan) range. The eastern portion of the upland lies mainly within the Gobi and Ordos deserts.

The second subregion of the middle elevation step is the Mongolian border upland; it lies between the Gobi and Ordos deserts of Inner Mongolia and the North China plain to the southeast. The main features of this subregion are the Da Hinggan (Greater Khingan) range and the Loess Plateau. The Loess Plateau occupies most of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, and Gansu provinces. The loess for which it is named is a fertile windblown deposit that covers the plateau to depths of more than 30 m (100 ft).

The third subregion of the middle elevation step is the Qin Ling (Tsinling) Mountains, a range that extends east-west from the Kunlun Mountains. The Qin Ling are important as a divide between the Huang He (Hwang Ho, Yellow River) and Yangtze River basins.

The fourth subregion, located south of the Qin Ling Mountains, is known both as the Red Basin, on account of its underlying red sandstones, and the Sichuan Basin, because of its location in Sichuan province. The basin is traversed by the Yangtze River.

The fifth and most southerly of the five middle elevation subregions is the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau upland; it is located in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces. Underlain mainly by limestone, the plateau is known for a spectacularly eroded karst scenery, often depicted in traditional Chinese painting.


The lowest elevation step, occupying lands less than 1,000 m (3,300 ft) above sea level, lies in eastern China. It consists of three subregions: the eastern lowland, the eastern Manchurian upland, and the southeastern upland.

By far the most important subregion is the eastern lowland. While it covers only about 10% of China's total area, the eastern lowland is where most of China's huge population is concentrated. The principal lowlands of this region are the lowlands of the Manchurian plain, which are drained by the Liao River and upper reaches of the Songhua (Sungari) River; the alluvial North China plain, drained by the Huang He; and the vast plains of the Yangtze lowland, drained by the Yangtze and Huai rivers, in central China. The Yangtze and Huang He are both exceptionally flood prone.

The second subregion is the eastern Manchurian upland; it is located in northeastern China, east of the Manchurian plain. Although referred to as an upland, the region consists of low hills with elevations of less than 900 m (3,000 ft).

The third subregion is the southeastern upland. It occupies all of eastern China south of the Yangtze lowland and consists mostly of low mountains. The Guangzhou (Canton) plain is the largest lowland in the southeastern upland.


China's most productive soils for agriculture are alluvial soils, chernozems, and brown and chestnut brown soils. The alluvial soils are found mainly in the lowlands of the North China plain, the Yangtze River valley and delta, the Guangzhou plain, and most other flood-prone valleys. They are well-suited to rice and wheat cultivation. The small chernozem belt is located mainly in the northern area of the Manchurian plain and along the southern border of Inner Mongolia. Chernozems are fertile, black soils that are rich in humus and plant nutrients and excellent for grain cultivation. Somewhat less productive agriculturally are brown and chestnut brown soils, which are found on the drier margins of the chernozem zone. Such soils are moderately fertile, especially when irrigated. Nevertheless, they are used mainly for pasture because they are found in areas of limited rainfall. Where developed on loess (as in Shaanxi, Shanxi, and Henan provinces), the brown soils are fertile, but they are also subject to heavy erosion.

Less productive agriculturally are podzols and gray brown forest soils and gray desert, saline, and lateritic soils. The podzols and gray brown forest soils develop in temperate climates under forests; they are associated with coniferous forests in northeastern Manchuria, the Qin Ling Mountains, and other central uplands. The gray desert soils, low in humus, are formed in semiarid regions. Such soils occur widely in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. They are used mainly as pasturage. Saline soils are found both in the inland desert basins and along the seacoasts. After removal of the salt, the maritime saline soils are fertile for cotton or rice cultivation. The lateritic red and yellow soils in the subtropical areas of southern China are used for growing rice, tea, and mulberry trees.

Food supplies in China are being polluted by heavy metals and other contaminants that have found their way into the soil. Some of these contaminants include sulphur dioxide from acid rain, caused by China's heavy reliance on coal to produce electricity.


Most of China lies in the temperate mid-latitude climate zone. Southeastern China has a subtropical climate with heavy summer rains. Central and southwestern China have a continental climate with cold, dry winters. A belt of arid mid-latitude climate prevails in the desert lands. Subarctic conditions characterize the uplands of Tibet and northern Manchuria.

The distribution of the major types of climate and of the precipitation and temperature conditions associated with them primarily results from the marked seasonal, or monsoonal, reversal of winds that occurs between winter and summer. In winter the air over the interior cools, sinks, and forms a high-pressure system centered on Mongolia, above which cold polar air flows. In summer the reverse process occurs. Overheating creates an intense low-pressure system in the interior of Asia. The Pacific polar front moves northward from the southern coast and brings rains to the Yangtze Basin. These are known as the Maiyu (Mai-yü, or Plum Rains) because they occur when the plums are ripening. The advent of the Maiyu in June and July marks the beginning of the monsoon in central China; after the Maiyu the rainfall belts shift to northern China. The average annual precipitation decreases markedly from 2,000 mm (80 in) along the southeastern coast to 750 mm (30 in) in central China south of the Qin Ling Mountains. Northern China generally receives less than 500 mm (20 in). As little as 100 mm (4 in) of annual rainfall are recorded in parts of the Taklimakan and Gobi deserts.

Temperatures also vary considerably from north to south and between summer and winter. In winter the isotherms, or lines connecting points of equal temperature, are remarkably regular in their east-west alignment. Average January temperatures are below freezing throughout the north and west. They rise steadily southward to an average of 5° C (40° F) at Wuhan (Wu-han) and 16° C (60° F) at Guangzhou. China's summer temperatures are more uniform, with isotherms running in a north-south direction. Average July temperatures are above 20° C (70° F) in most of China; they decrease toward the western highlands. The annual temperature range increases between summer and winter from 9° C (48° F) in Hainan, an island province in the extreme south, to more than 27° C (80° F) in northern Manchuria.


China's main rivers carry about 2,800 km3 (670 mi3) of water to the sea every year. This amounts to 40% of Asia's total annual runoff. By far the largest system is the Pacific Ocean drainage basin; it covers some 5,400,000 km2 (2,100,000 mi2). Five major river systems lie within this basin: the Amur, Huang He, Huai He, Yangtze, and Zhu Jiang (Chu Chiang). The Amur has a total length of roughly 4,700 km (2,920 mi). It is joined by the Songhua (Sungari) and the Wusuli (Ussuri) rivers. The Huang He is approximately 4,830 km (3,000 mi) long and has a basin area of about 750,000 km2 (290,000 mi2). In the North China plain, its bed is enclosed on both sides by dams. The People's Victory Canal (1953) diverts some of the water of the Huang He into the Wi He. The Huai He is roughly 1,100 km (680 mi) long; it drains a basin area of about 210,000 km2 (81,100 mi2). The Yangtze River is China's principal river; it drains a basin of more than 1,827,000 km2 (705,400 mi2). The Zhu Jiang, the most southerly of the five rivers in the Pacific drainage basin, is a composite river consisting of the Xi Jiang (Hsi Chiang), Bei Jiang (Pei Chiang), and Dong Jiang (Tung Chiang), which converge close to the outlet into the sea. The Zhu Jiang drainage basin is approximately 448,000 km2 (173,000 mi2).

China's three other drainage basins are the Arctic Ocean, Indian Ocean, and inland basins. Least important is the Arctic drainage basin. It covers only 40,000 km2 (15,450 mi2) in the northwest. The Indian Ocean drainage basin contains two major rivers, the Yalu Zangbo Jiang (Upper Brahmaputra) and Nu Jiang (Upper Salween). It has an area of 780,000 km2 (301,160 mi2). The inland drainage basin includes most of the rivers in northern Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia; it covers 36% of China's total area. Most rivers are intermittent streams, ending in playas, or salty swamps. The large interior lakes are Koko Nor, Lop Nor, and Nam (Na-mu).

A controversial plan to divert huge quantities of water from the Yangtze River in southern China to Shandong and other drought-stricken provinces in the north was first proposed in 1952. This plan was revived after the turn of the century. The first phase of construction on the South-to-North Water Transfer Project, the largest water-diversion plan in Chinese history, had an estimated cost of $22 billion. It involved building the bulk of the central and eastern portions of an enormous pipeline and canal network that would link the Yangtze to the Huai and Hai rivers. It was expected to become operational in five to ten years. The building of the final western route of the project, which would have to cross high mountains to link the Yangtze to the Huang He, would be built later. The entire project, with a total estimated cost of more than $60 billion, would eventually transfer up to 48 billion m3 (62.8 billion yd3) of water each year and displace hundreds of thousands of people. Despite the opposition of environmentalists, the government contended that the benefits of the project—cleaning up pollution and providing water for agricultural and industrial development—outweighed its human and environmental impact. By 2004, China's plans to construct several hydroelectric plants along the Nu Jiang were raising concerns in Southeast Asia. It was feared that these installations would have devastating effects downstream. In April of that year China's prime minister ordered a halt to the project pending a major review of its environmental effects.

Meanwhile, adequate and clean water remained one of China's most serious problems. It has some of the lowest water resources per capita of any nation. The northern and western parts of the country experience regular droughts because most of the water is in the south. Factories frequently discharge untreated industrial waste directly into rivers, and the water supplies for about half of the nation's population are contaminated with animal and human waste. One study estimated that more than 70% of the water in five of China's seven major river systems was unfit for human contact. Simply to treat half of its sewage, China would have to build 10,000 wastewater treatment plants.


China falls within two major vegetation zones. They are separated by a line running diagonally across the country from the Da Hinggan Range in the northeast to the Himalayas in the southwest. South and east of this line is the forested vegetation zone. North and west of the line is the northwestern steppe-desert vegetation zone. The forested vegetation zone contains more than 20,000 species of flora. Much of the deciduous forests of central China and Manchuria's steppe grasses have been depleted so that crops could be planted, but recently reforestation projects have been started as part of flood-control programs. Coniferous forests are found in the mountainous regions and in northern Manchuria. In the northwest, arid grasslands gradually give way to desert vegetation. In 2001 the government announced a 70-year project to plant a "Great Green Wall" of trees extending some 4,500 km (2,800 mi) across the edge of the Gobi Desert in northwest China to prevent the further advance of the desert. The area around Beijing, where sandstorms caused by desertification were common, was another, more immediate focus of the reforestation effort. Nevertheless, nearly all of north central China, including Beijing, remains at risk; an area of about 3,885 km2 (1,500 mi2) is lost to the desert each year.

Animal Life

China has about 3,440 species of vertebrate fauna. The country can be divided into two zoogeographical regions: the palearctic region in the north and the oriental region in the south. The palearctic region covers the Tibetan Plateau, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and northeast and north China. There horses, camels, tapirs, river foxes, and forest jerboa are the major native mammals. The oriental region includes southwest, south, and central China. Common mammals in the oriental region are Chinese pangolins, monkeys, apes, gibbons, and tree shrews. Since the late 1960s the government has instituted programs to protect wildlife, most famously the giant panda.


China is well endowed with mineral resources. It has the world's largest reserves of antimony and tungsten. Antimony resources come mainly from southwestern Hunan province. China currently produces almost 20% of the world's output. Tungsten reserves are found primarily in Jiangxi, Hunan, and Guangdong provinces. The nation produces about 15% of the world's output. It also has considerable reserves of bauxite (from which aluminum is made), iron ore, tin, lead, manganese, mercury, and molybdenum. Nevertheless, in many cases (most notably steel) its needs outstrip its production capacity; China consumes about 30% of the world's steel and 40% of its cement. Significant deficiencies other than steel include copper (for which aluminum can be substituted), nickel, and phosphates.

Unlike most developed nations, China depends very heavily on coal to produce electricity. The nation has the world's largest coal reserves—one-third of the world total. Most of the coal is located in its northeast, north, northwest, and central regions. An estimated 30 to 40 new coal-fired power plants open each year. There are also plans to convert some of China's coal to liquid fuel. This has made China a major contributor to global warming. China's potential hydroelectric power is in the range of 500,000,000 to 1,000,000,000 kW. Installed capacity today is far less, providing only a small portion of China's total electricity production of 2.5 trillion kW h (2005). Southwest, central, and south China have nearly 84% of the country's waterpower resources. In 1991, China had proven oil reserves of 24 billion barrels; by 1994 it had become the world's fourth-largest oil producer. Oil fields are spread east-west in a curve from the Manchurian plain through the North China plain, Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu to Xinjiang. Another belt runs north-south along the offshore seas from the Bo Hai (Po Hai) in the Yellow Sea southward along the continental shelf to the South China Sea. A major new offshore oil find in the Bo Hai, perhaps the largest in China in 40 years, was announced in 2000.

China's petroleum reserves are rapidly being exhausted by the demands of breakneck industrialization, however. Its energy needs were expected to more than double between 2004 and 2020, leading to a program to double its nuclear-power-generating capacity by 2020. The country has become the world's largest consumer of copper, tin, zinc, platinum, steel, and iron ore. It is the world's second-largest user of petroleum, aluminum, and lead, and its third-largest consumer of nickel. This growth had caused China to aggressively seek new sources of many raw materials elsewhere. As a result world prices for a variety of minerals have risen, to the advantage of suppliers and the detriment of other users.


China is a multiracial state. Its population includes about 92% Han Chinese and about 8% of some 60 other ethnic groups, the largest being Hui, Mongols, Uighur, Zhuang (Chuang), Yi, Tibetans, Miao, Manchu, Buyi (Pu-i), and Koreans. National autonomous regions, districts, or counties have been established in areas where these ethnic groups are concentrated. In 2002, however, the government began to revive a controversial practice that resettled thousands of Han and Hui Chinese into areas traditionally peopled by Tibetans and Mongolians.


China's languages are classified into four major linguistic families: the Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Ural-Altaic, and Mon-Khmer. Mandarin dialects, the largest group of the Sino-Tibetan family, are spoken by about two-thirds of China's population. The Mandarin Beijing dialect (Putonghua), one of an estimated 1,500 dialects spoken by the Han majority that are often mutually unintelligible but share the same written Chinese characters, is now China's national spoken language. It is spoken by barely half of the population but is likely to become more widely used as rural Chinese flock to the cities in search of opportunity.

The Ural-Altaic linguistic family includes the Turkic linguistic groups (Kazakh, Kirghiz, Uzbek, Salar, and Uighur); Mongolic groups (Meng, Tu, Dongsiang/Tungsiang, Baoyin/Paoan, and Daghurs); and Tungusic groups (Manchu, Evenki, Orochon Gold, and Sibo). The Mon-Khmer linguistic family of Southeast Asia is represented in Yunnan province by the Wa (Kawa), the Puland (Palaung), and the Penglung. The Indo-European linguistic family is represented only by Tajik speakers.


Traditionally, the major religions of China were Buddhism and Daoism (Taoism). Most Chinese also believed in ancestor worship and Confucianism, a system of social and political values. Tibetan Buddhism was the religion of the Mongols and the Tibetans. Large Muslim and Christian (primarily Roman Catholic) minorities were also important.

After 1949, under the Communist government, the practice of religion was discouraged, although freedom to believe in religion was guaranteed under the constitution of 1954. During the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s, religious institutions were destroyed. Since 1978, however, the government has become more tolerant of religious observance. In 2004 it introduced new laws on religious groups; these stated that organizations and individuals were not allowed to forcibly impose religious or atheistic beliefs or discriminate against citizens because of their beliefs. Nevertheless, many religious groups who do not belong to state-sanctioned organizations are still repressed.


China contains more than 20% of the world's people; the latest estimates, for 2006, placed the country's population (excluding Taiwan) in excess of 1.3 billion. Nearly 21% are under the age of 15. During the 1950s the population grew at a rate of 2% per year; by 2006 the rate of growth had slowed to less than 0.6%. Current laws (which aim to limit the total population to 1.4 billion by 2010) obligate couples to practice family planning. Penalties are imposed on most families with more than one child. Members of minority groups are exempt from the one-child rule, however. Recently, efforts have been made to use education and contraceptive choice rather than coercion to limit population growth. The adoption of a new farming system since 1982, however, increased the economic value of offspring in rural areas.

Owing in part to China's unprecedented one-child policy, the nation is aging faster than any other major country. This poses a threat to future growth and has badly strained the public welfare system. The average Chinese citizen now lives more than 30 years longer than in 1949. By 2050, people over 60 are expected to make up 31% of the population, up from 11% in 2006.

About 95% of China's people are crowded into the eastern and southeastern sections of the country. Most densely populated are the Yangtze plain and the Guangzhou delta.

In 2006 an estimated 37% of China's population were urban, up from 13.3% in 1952. About 13 million Chinese move to the cities each year. The pace of urbanization had accelerated in 1984-86, when many rural counties were incorporated into metropolitan areas; this reorganization added 90 million people to the urban population. The largest urban centers, all with populations exceeding 2 million, are Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin (Tientsin), Guangzhou, Wuhan, Chongqing (Chungking), Shenyang (Shen-Yang), Nanjing (Nanking), Harbin (Haerbin), Chengdu (Ch'eng-tu), Xi'an (Sian), Jinan (Tsinan), Changchun (Ch'ang-ch'un), Dalian (Ta-lien), and Hangzhou (Hangchow). During the 1980s and much of the 1990s, living standards for city residents rose steadily. Official urban residents (as opposed to peasants who migrated to the cities illegally in search of work) generally enjoyed housing, pensions, subsidized food, and free medical care guaranteed by their work units. By 1998, however, millions of these residents were unable to afford basic shelter, food, or clothing; this was due to the shutdown of state companies or their failure to provide promised benefits. The situation sparked official efforts to aid the urban poor during the country's difficult transition to a market economy.

As China gradually began to ease the restrictions that legally bound most Chinese to their place of birth, it was predicted that the nation's percentage of urban dwellers was likely to exceed 50% by 2010; by 2020, it could increase to 60%. In 2001 the government announced plans to shape the anticipated large-scale urbanization of the country. To stem the flow of migrants from the countryside to the larger cities, it said that it planned to build some 10,000 new towns in an effort to create millions of new jobs. Many of these new towns were to be built in rural areas. To lessen the environmental impact of such urbanization, the government mandated that 35% of all cities must contain substantial amounts of parks and other green areas by 2005. It also promised to reduce the urban use of coal and expand urban sewage-treatment facilities. By 2003, many of the regulations that had formerly bound urban residents to a state-controlled work unit had been abolished. China already had more than 165 cities with populations exceeding 1 million, and its cities were growing by about 2.5% a year.

By 2005, China was experiencing one of the largest income disparities between its urban and rural citizens in the world. Urban residents earn six times as much as their rural counterparts. This gap is exacerbated by the fact that rural residents are more heavily taxed. They also have to pay for their own health care and schooling. This situation is likely to be made worse by predictions that China will have only 2 working-age people for every person over the age of 60 by 2040, compared with 6.4 in 2000. In late 2005 the government announced plans to end the controversial residency permit system that discriminated against China's rural inhabitants by depriving them of most of the rights enjoyed by those born in urban areas in 11 of China's 23 provinces, mostly along the eastern coast. It hoped that this would stem ever-widening protests over the rising rural/urban inequality and abuses of power by the wealthy and well connected.


Major changes have occurred in China's educational system since 1949. During the 1950s and early 1960s educational policy was directed toward producing college and secondary school graduates who were politically reliable and technically qualified. Students were required to spend half of their school hours on academic subjects; the other half was spent learning practical skills in factories and fields.

During the Cultural Revolution the emphasis was on political indoctrination in revolutionary ideology. Workers, peasants, and soldiers were invited to lecture in universities. University students were required to work on farms and in factories. The traditional university entrance examinations were abolished. Students were selected on the basis of work performance and party loyalty.

In 1977 the educational policies of the Cultural Revolution were abandoned. Entrance examinations were reintroduced. Tuition for higher education was reinstituted in 1985. Thousands of bright students were sent to study in colleges and universities in Western Europe, Japan, and the United States. After the 1989 prodemocracy demonstrations, however, students were required to complete a year of political education before entering college. Restrictions were also imposed on study abroad. Efforts have been made to extend the years of schooling to ten in urban areas and nine in rural (five years at the elementary level and four to five of secondary school). By 1997, 100% of school-age children were enrolled in primary school and 70% in secondary school. Nine years of compulsory education was to be enforced in 85% of the country by the year 2010. Nevertheless, between 2000 and 2005 the number of people in China unable to read and write increased from 86 million to 116 million. In part, this is because government subsidies to schools have been reduced as China moves toward a market economy. Tuition for rural students was abolished in 2006. The poorest rural children now receive free books and a small stipend. Many rural children lack access to schooling, however. There are also few schools for the children of migrants who move from the country to the cities. This has sparked a new focus on vocational training for such children.

In 1998 the government announced that its overall spending on education would be increased to at least 4% of the gross national product, but by 2002 the percentage was still less than 3%. This meant that China was trying to provide schooling to some 25% of the world's students while spending just 1% of the world's education budget—even though the money devoted to higher education more than doubled between 1998 and 2003.

In 2005, 20% of China's college-age students were attending school, up from 1.4% in 1978. This percentage was likely to go up as the government spent billions of dollars on an effort to establish first-class high-technology scientific research universities that would make China an even greater economic power, and as some 1,300 private universities were established to train the skilled labor needed by the nation's burgeoning economy. Between 1995 and 2005 the number of university students and those holding doctoral degrees increased fivefold. (See also Chinese universities.)


Between 1952 and 1982 infant mortality in China fell from 200 per 1,000 live births to 34, and life expectancy increased from about 35 years to 68. General health conditions significantly improved. Major diseases were brought under control. This resulted in a steady reduction in the mortality rate. The number of hospitals, clinics, and physicians—both Western-style doctors and doctors of traditional Chinese medicine—also rose sharply. Health-care and other social-welfare benefits were customarily provided by work units; this social safety net was shredded, especially in rural areas, as China began to privatize its economy.

In 2001 the government announced plans to create a new health-care system. It was designed to improve conditions in rural areas, where access to affordable health care had declined dramatically following the abolition of rural communes. Under this scheme, farmers were to pay an annual $1.20 health-insurance premium that was to be matched by the local and central governments. They were to be reimbursed for health care on a sliding scale, depending on the seriousness of the illness. But many rural districts lacked the funds to pay their share. The fact that local doctors and hospitals have to live off their profits (mostly by overprescribing expensive drugs and high-technology tests) worsened the problem. It contributed to the reappearance of infectious diseases that had been virtually eliminated and, in some rural areas, to a rise in infant mortality. The central government's share of total health-care funding declined from 36% in 1980 to 17% in 2004 as the overall cost of health care increased. With less than one-third of the population having health insurance, out-of-pocket costs for health care tripled during the same period.

The Chinese government admitted in 2001 that it faced a serious AIDS crisis. The problem was particularly severe in Henan province in central China, where more than 65,000 people were believed to have become infected with the HIV virus in the 1990s by selling their blood to local, government-run blood banks using unsanitary procedures. In 2006 a new survey indicated that the number of existing HIV/AIDS cases in China had been overestimated, and stood at only 650,000. The rate of infection was rising, however, with 70,000 new cases and 25,000 deaths in 2005 alone.

A mysterious new health hazard, which came to be known as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), apparently originated in Guangdong province in 2003. The pneumonia-like ailment, which swiftly spread to Hong Kong and elsewhere, aroused worldwide concerns. It was believed to be caused by a new strain of coronavirus similar to those commonly found in animals. SARS killed up to about 15% of its victims, many of whom were young and healthy. By early June the disease had infected more than 5,300 people in mainland China (well over half the number of cases worldwide). The government, which had been slow to address the gravity of the SARS threat, finally brought it under control. Subsequently, there were fears that local governments were not responding quickly enough to a new public-health threat, avian flu (see influenza). The central government pledged in November 2005 to vaccinate all of the nation's estimated 14 billion poultry to curb the spread of the disease, which remained largely confined to birds but had killed more than 60 people in Southeast Asia since 2003.

The SARS epidemic and the difficulties in containing the spread of avian flu highlighted the weaknesses in China's health-care system, which 25 years earlier had been more similar to that of a middle-income country than that of a developing one. It was unclear whether the experimental rural health-care insurance plan introduced in 2001 could be extended throughout the country by 2010 as proposed. In part this was due to a lack of resources. In part it was because medical costs were increasing much faster than the rise in wages. In addition, the severe water- and air-pollution problems that accompanied rapid economic development had led to a dramatic increase in various cancers and other diseases. Roughly 80% of all health resources are in the cities. Rural areas are seriously underserved. In 2000, in an evaluation of the health-care systems of 191 countries, China's formerly much-praised program was ranked 144th by the World Health Organization.

The Arts

After 1949, traditional Chinese culture was largely replaced by a new culture, intended to serve the masses and help build socialism. Painting, poetry, fiction, drama, opera, film, and storytelling are all used to implement the government's political programs. (See also Chinese art and architecture; Chinese literature; Chinese music.)