Geography and climateDepending on criteria, China is the world’s third or fourth largest country by area. It occupies most of East Asia, borders 14 other countries, and has a long eastern coastline. China is split into 33 administrative regions of varying autonomy, including the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau since the late-1990s. It's capital city is Beijing, while the metro areas of Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou all have over 20 million inhabitants. Topographically, China is often viewed in three sections: the western Tibetan Plateau is an incredibly mountainous and sparsely populated region that extends into the Himalayas; the northern Xinjiang-Mongolia region includes the Taklimakan and Gobi desert, is also mountainous in parts, and sparsely populated; while Eastern China is much greener, at lower elevation, includes most major river basins, sees more precipitation, and has fertile soil. Eastern China is also very urbanized; it is split from the rest of the country by the imaginary Heihe-Tengchong Line”, which runs from China’s southern to northeastern border – up to 94 percent of the population lives east of the line in roughly 43 percent of China’s territory.
The east is also very susceptible to tropical storms and severe flooding, and the concentration of population, manufacturing, and food production here means that natural disasters can potentially affect hundreds of millions of people with long-term economic and agricultural consequences. China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and its industrialization has been primarily fueled by coal (the dirtiest fossil fuel). The impact of rising temperatures, pollution, and erosion in China have far-reaching implications for millions of people in condensed areas, however, China has adopted some of the most ambitious climate change policies of any major power – it remains to be seen whether it can achieve these goals without sacrificing economic growth.
HistoryAs one of the six “cradles of civilization” and birthplace of countless inventions and philosophies, China is steeped in history and has shaped global development. Traditional Chinese history begins over 4,000 years ago, while the various cities and states that emerged in ancient times first united as Imperial China in 221 BCE, with dynastic rule lasting until 1912. Borders and monarchies changed regularly, and the transfer of power between dynasties often followed large-scale civil wars, but China is still considered the second-oldest state in continuous existence (after Japan). Long periods of relative unity meant that languages, writing, technology, belief systems, and trade networks flourished across large areas. In the Middle Ages, these spread further via the Silk Road and sea trade, reaching as far as Europe – many inventions that revolutionized Western development originated in China, including paper, gunpowder, and the nautical compass. However, Imperial China's population development was also plagued by some of the largest wars, famines, and pandemics in history (often concurrently), and it became the target of foreign attempts to invade or exploit its resources, most notably the Mongols in the 13th century and Europeans from the 16th century on.
The 1911 Xinhai Revolution ended imperial rule, leaving a power vacuum - the nationalist Kuomintang then established the Republic of China (ROC) but faced challenges from communist forces and regional warlord cliques that emerged from the dissolved Imperial Army. This developed into a full-scale civil war from 1927-1949: the Kuomintang controlled most of China by 1937 before hostilities were paused until 1945 for a united resistance against Japan during WWII, thereafter communist forces established a foothold in the north and then pushed southward, taking the mainland by 1949. As population figures are unknown, estimates of fatalities for the civil war and WWII remain unclear, but may be somewhere in the region of 10 and 20 million deaths respectively. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) then established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland, while the Kuomintang were driven to Taiwan. With Chairman Mao Zedong as its leader, the PRC’s first decades were tumultuous – the Great Leap Forward sought to rapidly industrialize China but mismanagement resulted in famine and the deaths of tens of millions; while the Sino-Soviet split saw China lose its largest ally and grow internationally isolated; before a series of anti-opposition campaigns, most infamously the Cultural Revolution, saw large-scale oppression and the persecution of perceived opponents, with a death toll of several million.
Following Mao’s death in 1976 and the ascent of Deng Xiaoping, a series of reforms brought stability to the PRC, in a system now known as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. The Deng administration dismantled Cultural Revolution policies and loosened controls over citizens; it began China’s transition from a command economy to a “socialist market economy”; and it opened China up to foreign investment by re-establishing international relations. While these reforms were overwhelmingly progressive compared to the Mao era, student protests in Beijing in 1989 called for further expansions of democracy and human rights, which then culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre where the state quelled the protests and killed hundreds or thousands of protesters in the process. This event is heavily censored in China but was significant as it helped maintain Chinese communism as European communism collapsed, and the CCP consolidated its power by re-introducing limits on political expression. The Chinese economy then continued to grow rapidly over the next three decades as foreign investment poured into China, and civilian life was transformed, with over 750 million people lifted out of poverty between 1990 and 2020.
DemographicsWith a population exceeding 1.4 billion people, China was the world’s most populous country until it was overtaken by India in 2023. The reason for China’s slowdown was because its demographic transition was greatly accelerated by restrictive family planning policies, which is now having negative consequences. The most famous was the “one-child policy” introduced in 1979 to combat overpopulation through methods such as raising the marriage age, enforcing penalties for having multiple children, or even forced birth control. The policy was very effective in stemming population growth, but negative side effects include a wide gender ratio among young adults due to a strong son-preference, and the policy eventually led to population decline in 2022. The CCP lifted all restrictions by 2021 and began incentivizing childbearing, but reversing this decline may be difficult as it will require a cultural shift for young people. Additionally, China’s aging population means caregiving responsibilities for the elderly often falls on the shoulders of their children, meaning many couples may have to care for four parents, further restricting time and financial resources.
EconomyChina has the world’s largest economy by GDP (PPP), and second largest by nominal GDP. China has a unique economy combining free market policies and large scale foreign direct investment with heavy state control. The PRC was founded with a command economy, but economic reforms after 1978 and accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 saw explosive growth that has transformed Chinese society. A combination of low labor costs, laxed regulations, and low taxes (among others), saw Western businesses relocate manufacturing to China from the 1980s on, while Chinese enterprise emerged to meet the global demand. China became the world’s largest exporter of goods in 2009 and growing prosperity also saw the emergence of a lucrative domestic market, and it is now the world's second largest importer. Additionally, while China was the manufacturing center of the world for basic items, it has recently begun diversifying and producing more high-tech goods (electronics, machinery, pharmaceuticals). Yet, 2023 has been challenging for the Chinese economy as it has struggled with post-pandemic recovery, experiencing high youth unemployment, a bursting property bubble, and deflation – economic struggles that will be compounded by the slowdown of globalization and increased protectionism in the West.
PoliticsChina is one of just five communist countries globally and has been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party as a one-party state since 1949. The highest position of power in China is the General Secretary of the CCP, followed by the President, however these positions have been held by the same person since 1993. Xi Jinping has been president in 2013 and was unanimously elected to an unprecedented third term in 2023 after removing pervious term limits. There are no general elections in China; the President is chosen by the legislative body, The National People’s Congress (NPC), and the members of the NPC are also chosen by regional governing bodies – direct elections occur only at a local level or in special administrative regions (SARs).
Internationally, as China develops more into a global superpower it faces increasing challenges from the United States. Since 2018, the U.S. has introduced numerous tariffs and sanctions against China for what it deems to be unfair trading practices, as well as purported offenses such as the CCP’s alleged mistreatment of ethnic minorities or the extension of natural security powers in Hong Kong. Internationally, China is building on its economic ties with developing countries through infrastructure and development projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the BRICS alliance, and loans, often capitalizing on anti-Western sentiments by providing an alternative source of capital. Some commentators point to Taiwan as having the greatest potential to see this rivalry develop into a global conflict, as China has claimed it is willing to use force in the pursuit of unification, while the U.S. has intermittently vowed to defend Taiwan in the event of an invasion. However, both China and the U.S. are eachother’s largest trading partners, and the economic stability of both countries is dependent on future cooperation.