People's Republic of China

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Map of East Asia showing the People's Republic of China (PRC).

The People's Republic of China (Chinese: 中华人民共和国 Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó, PRC) is a one-party totalitarian dictatorship state in East Asia.[1] The PRC is not only the largest state in East Asia by a considerable margin, but is also home to the largest human population in the world: over 1.4 billion people. It also holds the record as the largest and most successful communist nation, in that it has survived and in some ways prospered while others, such as the Soviet Union, have not.


At the end of 2005, the PRC's population was 1.31 billion.[2] The population density was 135 people per square kilometer. As a comparison, this population density is about four times that of the United States. The population distribution is highly uneven. If a line was to be drawn form the north east to the south west such that the land area was bisected 50/50, then fully 95% of mainland China's population would be found to the South and East of the line while the other 50% of the land area, in the north and west, would contain just 5% of the people. The coastal areas are most densely populated with 400 people per square kilometer. Inland provinces have a typical density of just 90 people per square Kilometer. When looking at the high plateaus of the west of China, there may be as spars a population as 10 per square kilometer.

The population in mainland China is predominantly rural. 745 million people, or 57% of the population, live in rural areas. Migration from the country side to the cities has been discouraged by the state. People are registered to a city as either urban or rural. Migrants to the cities often have to forgo benefits and may not be able to send their children to the cities schools. The general education level remains low. Although the education system has developed since 1949, the number of people with higher education is just 75 million or 6% of the national population and secondary (high school) graduates account for just 15%. In the adult population, 4% are considered illiterate compared to the general figure of just 1% in developed countries.[3]

The PRC's population accounts for one in five humans. The population soared over the last two hundred years and particularly in the 1950s. It is estimated that in 1750 there were just 250 million people in China. By the beginning of the 1950s the population had more than doubled to 535 million. It continued to rise at an accelerated rate to 700 million in 1964. The state encouraged population growth at this time with slogans such as, "There is strength in numbers." and, "The more people, the stronger we are." It was thought that population growth was essential for economic growth and also that the people lost during the wars, revolutions, and invasions that marked the first half of the 19th century must be replaced.

Other factors also played a significant role. Mortality rates declined as the health system was improved and modernized. In 1949 there were just 3,670 medical institutions but by 1998 the figure had risen to 314,000. In the same period, the number of trained health personnel went from 0.93 per thousand of the population to 3.64. The effect of improved health care can be seen in the mortality rates. Previously the mortality rate or pregnant or postnatal women was 1.5% were as current figures are just 0.056%. Another factor in population growth is the traditional culture which encouraged early marriage, early child birth and large families. It was seen as a sign of good fortune to have many children. Small families and those with no children were looked down upon especially in remote and rural areas.

The rate of growth increased yet further during the 1970s. By this time, problems caused by population growth were becoming apparent. The government began to encourage responsible family planning. In 1971, the government introduced a new family planning policy. This encouraged late marriage, late childbearing and a four year interval between births. One child was considered good, two were acceptable and three considered too many.

A policy of "One child per couple." was introduced in the 1980s as the population neared 1 billion soles. Family planning is now more strictly encouraged than before. As a result the population growth has decelerated and in some cities, such as Shanghai, negative growth has been seen.

One Child policy

Year Population (millions) Population Increase
1841 413
1931 475 60
1949 535 60
1959 656 120
1969 785 130
1979 970 180
1989 1100 140
1999 1250 115

The growth in population in the PRC has caused problems. The PRC is a developing country and lacked much of the infrastructure required to support it's population. Based on world bank figures, by Gross National Product (GDP), China would be ranked 8th in the world however when a per capita GDP is used, the country is only 133rd out of 182. Though China is physically a vast country, much of its land is unproductive. China accounts for 21% of the world total population but possesses only 7% of the world's agricultural land. This statistic has worsened over the last 50 to 60 years. In the 1950s there was (one mu equals 1/15 of a hectare) of cultivated land per head of population. Currently, this has fallen to just 1.8mu per head.

Attempts were first made from the beginning of the 1970s to leash in population growth. These controls and incentives were further strengthened in the 1980s. Traditionally, marriage was encouraged early and couples were expected to bare children quickly and frequently. The law was changed to raise the legal age of marriage. Currently the law is 20 years old for women and 22 years old for men. Family planning information encourages a further delay of at least three years. The couple are then encouraged to wait further before having children. Another element of traditional culture was to raise a large family. This has be curtailed and couples are encouraged to have only one child per family. In a few cases a second child is allowed such as for ethnic minorities living in rural areas or for parents of children who are disabled by illness and thus not able to mature to normal adulthood. However, even where the second child is permitted, family planning and social stigma discourage it. A heavy focus has been placed on ensuring that the one child achieves his or her optimum. Family planning has to not only control population growth but also attempt to improve the quality of the children produced. In 1949, there were just five children's hospitals in the whole of China with only 139 beds between them. By 2005 there were hundreds of specialist hospitals and around 12,000 beds plus more than 20,000 county or higher level hospitals had set up gynecology, obstetrics and pediatric departments. Along with health care, education has been improved; especially for younger ages. In 1980, 32% of children attended kindergarten between the ages of 3 to 6. By the beginning of 2006 there were over 200,000 kindergartens with 40 million children in attendance. Around 80% of children attend kindergarten for at least one year before starting primary school.

The government manages population growth in fine detail. Five year and one year plans for the population are drawn up as part of the national economy planning. These can be as fine in detail as setting a desired birth level or a scale of individual villages or factories. Most urban families are limited to a single child, while farmers are often allowed to have two. Minority families can sometimes have two or more children. Critics say the policy is coercive and has led to numerous abuses, including forced abortions, which continue to occur in some areas.[4]

Family planning policies make use of radio, television, press and film. There are also financial incentives. Families with only one child may receive welfare benefits for the first 18 years of the child's life and the woman may be given up to 6 months paid maternity leave. Couples who remain childless gain supplements to their pension to compensate for the support that their offspring would provide during their retirement. The retirement benefit is especially strong for farmers who may receive up to 100 RM per month extra for remaining childless. The lone child is also given benefits through his or her life including preferential admission to nurseries, schools, access to medial treatment and even preference with respect to employment and housing allocation. Families in urban areas that fail to follow the family planning guidelines my have their salaries reduced by 5 to 10% for a period of 7 to 14 years. In rural areas, a fine may be imposed.

The family planning measures are not enforced uniformly across the whole country. In certain mountainous or heavily forested areas where the population levels are low, couples may have a second child. Ethnic minorities in rural areas may be allowed two, three or even four children. Urban areas and areas with high population density see tighter controls. Some cities have also relaxed their policy in recent years. Shanghai has seen a negative population growth for 11 years with a 3.24 decrease in 2005. The city has curtailed some benefits to couples who remain childless and thus hinted that they should start families. In other cities, couples who are themselves form single child families are permitted to have a second child.

The strict family planning controls in China have not been without some negative side affects. There is a historical cultural preference to have male children. In Chinese culture, a daughter will belong to her husband's family after marriage so will not support her parents in their old age. In contrast a son will continue the family business or farm and so provide for his parents. Parents will thus try to select a son for their only child. Females may sometimes be aborted during pregnancy. Further more after birth, female children may be neglected, abandoned and in some cases infanticide has been reported. As a result, the population distribution of surviving babies by sex is 117 boys for every 100 girls. Another negative effect of family planning has been an aging population. A large retired population will eventually be supported by a small workforce. It is estimated that by 2050, there will be more retired people than workers. In some areas, population control has caused labor shortages.

The government believes that population control is essential to ensure stable economic growth. If the population was allowed to grow it would counterbalance the countries development and slow modernization. To that end, the family planning measures will continue for the foreseeable future. China’s top population official said in March 2008 that the one-child family planning policy would not change for at least another decade. The announcement refutes speculation that officials were contemplating adjustments to compensate for mounting demographic pressures. Government officials claim the policy has prevented roughly 400 million births, though some independent demographers cite a figure of around 250 million. The population is growing by about 17 million people a year and should peak at 1.5 billion by the mid-2030s.[5]

Ethnic Minorities

Mainland China is made up of 56 ethic groups or nationalities. Of these, the Han, account for the majority (91.6%) of the population at, 1,159,400,000 people . The other 55 ethic groups are considered minority groups and as such have special rights in China constitution. The largest minority group is the Zhuang with 16,178,800 people. Of the 55 minorities only 18 have a population of more than one million in people and 20 have populations below 100,000.[6] However, despite their small numbers, the ethnic groups receive special rights under the country's constitution. At the beginning of New China in 1949, the ethnic minorities in China were poorly developed and their populations in decline. There were, according the first national census in 1953, 34,013,000 ethnic people. By 2005 there were around 120 million ethnic people in China.

The constitution states that all 56 nationalities in China are equal and that the rights and interests of all people should be given protection by the state. To this end, a system of positive discrimination is practised in favour of the minorities. Each compact ethnic community, regardless of size, must be represented at their local people's congress. Also each minority must be represented at the National People's Congress (NPC). This policy meant that the 8% of the population that belongs to ethnic minorities is represented by 15% of the total delegates at the ninth NPC.

All ethnic groups, except form the Manchu and Hui, use their own spoken languages and many have their own writing too. Ethnic languages are encouraged and developed. Ethnic minority school often use their own language as do local news papers, TV, radio and other publications.


In the face of economic collapse, the Communists won the civil war in 1949 under Mao Zedong, driving the KMT to Taiwan. Mao liquidated millions of opponents, fought the United States in the bloody Korean War (1950-53), and broke with the Soviet Union over the issue of who best represented the Marxist orthodoxy. Mao's regime imposed strict controls over everyday life and cost the lives of tens of millions of people. After 1978, Mao's successor Deng Xiaoping focused on market-oriented economic development, and by 2000 output had quadrupled, population growth ended (by imposing a one-child policy), and good relations were secured with the West. For much of the population, living standards have improved dramatically and the room for personal choice has expanded, yet political controls and Internet censorship remain tight.



The existence of the PRC has remained controversial these last sixty years or so; it was not until 1972 that the country was recognised by the United Nations, which until then had accepted only the Republic of China, i.e. the de facto state of Taiwan. The UN gave the PRC the seat held by Taiwan, and the U.S. extended de facto, then de jure recognition. To this day, some commentators prefer to refer to the PRC as 'Mainland China'.

Diplomatic relations with other states are mixed. On the one hand, relations between the PRC and Taiwan have gradually improved, with open hostility much rarer nowadays. Likewise, the PRC has developed closer economic ties with Japan, though arguments persist over the role of that nation in China during World War II. Relations with the United Kingdom have been friendly since the sovereignty of Hong Kong, a former British colony, passed to the PRC in 1997. On the other hand, the PRC is eyed with some unease in Asia and the wider world, as a potential spark for possible conflict and even, through coal mining and burning to power the country, as a future source of runaway global warming.

Human rights

Of more general concern than what country is the 'true' China is the PRC's uneven record on human rights; the Chinese Communist Party has been reluctant to engage with Western ideas of what constitutes fair treatment of its citizens, such as the promotion of multi-party democracy. In a country where 70% of the population live a rural lifestyle, the PRC has often resisted calls to place these issues at the top of the agenda. Critics would argue that it places its own rule as the main priority. Also, freedom of speech and religion are mostly disregarded in the PRC, and many groups, such as the Falun Gong, are strictly monitored.

Under Mao, millions of Chinese were killed by famines or government action against the middle classes. The "Cultural revolution" in the 1960s was a counterattack against intellectuals endorsed by Mao. Human rights violations lessened after Mao's death in 1975, but the sharp crackdown on students demanding democracy at Tienanmen Square (in central Beijing) in 1989 disappointed hopes for continued liberalization.[7]

Unrestricted internet access is not generally available in China; though restrictions have been relaxed on occasion, the 'Great Firewall' usually blocks many websites. To do business in the Chinese market, Google agreed to comply with government restrictions and censors.[8] China loosened its restrictions as it prepared to showcase its achievements for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Freedom of speech and religion are strictly controlled, and groups such as the Falun Gong are monitored, with periodic crackdowns involving imprisonment, coercion and harassment;[9] Falun Gong is a particularly controversial group, with a variety of opinions within and outside China as to their activities and how threatening to Chinese 'social harmony' they may be.[10]

China retains the death penalty and has permitted the use of torture, as have other countries; however, reform has also occurred, with the U.S. State Department correspondingly removing China from its 'top ten' list of human rights violators in 2008.[11] China also allows local village elections, which independent candidates may contest.

1989 Tiananmen Square protests and massacre; "Tank Man" temporarily stops the advance of Type 59 tanks on June 5, 1989, in Beijing. This photograph (one of six similar versions) was taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press.
Detainees listening to speeches in a camp in Lop County, Xinjiang, April 2017


The PRC's economy during the last quarter century has changed from a centrally planned system that was largely closed to international trade, to a more market-oriented economy that has a rapidly growing private sector and is a major player in the global economy.

China's economy, based on rice and wheat farming, was generally prosperous until the 18th century. Population pressures and failure to adopt new technology led to an impoverished nation by 1900.

After Mao's death the policy of modernization along Western lines has led to a remarkable rate of economic growth in the industrial cities, which have pulled in millions of peasants from the still poor rural areas. Slack environmental standards have led to serious pollution problems.

The modern Chinese economy has benefited from investments from Taiwan and Hong Kong. They jumped far ahead of China by 1970 in terms of technology, and in recent years have invested in mainland industries.

These two factors have changed Chinese economy, from a command economy to a more socialist state, with the Chinese economy increasingly in the hands of privately-owned businesses, not state- or military-run enterprises. The 2001 declaration by Jiang Zemin (former leader of the Communist Party) of the "theory of three represents" -- that the CCP represents not only workers, but also intellectuals and entrepreneurs -- was an explicit affirmation of what had been a trend for the previous years.

Energy and transportation

The rapid increase in trucks and automobiles has made China a major importer of oil, helping raise world prices. However coal produces over 80% of the nation's energy; 2.3 billion metric tons of coal were mined in 2007. Despite the health risks posed by severe air pollution in cities (see Beijing) and international pressure to reduce greenhouse emissions, China’s coal consumption is projected to increase in line with its rapid economic growth. Most of the coal is mined in the western provinces of Shaanxi and Shanxi and the northwestern region of Inner Mongolia. However most coal customers are located in the industrialized southeastern and central coastal provinces, so coal must be hauled long distances on China’s vast but overextended rail network. More than 40% of rail capacity is devoted to moving coal, and the country has been investing heavily in new lines and cargo-handling facilities in an attempt to keep up with demand. Despite these efforts, China has suffered persistent power shortages in industrial centers for more than five years as electricity output failed to meet demand from a booming economy. Demand for electricity increased 14% in 2007. Severe snowstorms in late January 2008 seriously disrupted the rail and electrical systems, at a time when some 200 million city workers were attempting to visit their home villages during the Lunar New Year holiday. .[12]


2008 Olympics

Perhaps the PRC's most visible, recent cultural achievement was to win the right to stage the 2008 Summer Olympics in the capital Beijing. While the modern PRC was established only in 1949, its people are the latest generation of one of the oldest continuous cultures in the world, stretching back over 4000 years.


In addition to the native folk religions, China is home of two of the world's oldest surviving religions, Confucianism and Taoism. Buddhism, carried over from India and Tibet, has strongly influenced China, and today there are several schools of Buddhism in the country.

In addition, China has several religious minorities. Islam in China is rather moderate, and Chinese Muslims (majority are of Hui ethnicity) often define their faith in Taoist or Confucian terms, although they do not believe in the supernatural elements of those faiths. Christianity was suppressed or taken over by the state after 1949. In recent years, the restrictions have eased. However, several religious groups that reject governmental control are subject to monitoring and government crackdowns, notably the Falun Gong (see human rights, above).


  2. Duncan, Sue; Wan Mingjie (2006). “Chapter 1”, China 2006 (in English), 1st Edition. Foreign Languages Press, Page 5. ISBN 7-119-04423-0.  This figure excludes Hong Kong SAR, Macao SAR and Taiwan.
  3. (September 2007) “Chapter 6”, The outline of China (in English). Ocean Press, Page 31. ISBN 978-7-5027-6866-9. 
  4. Jim Yardley, "China Sticking With One-Child Policy," New York Times March 11, 2008
  5. Jim Yardley, "China Sticking With One-Child Policy," New York Times March 11, 2008
  6. Wang, Can; Wang Pingxing (May 2005). Ethnic groups in China (in English). China Intercontinental Press. ISBN 7-5085-0490-9. 
  7. Dinkin Zhao, The Power of Tiananmen: State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement (2004) excerpt and text search
  8. James S. O'Rourke IV, Brynn Harris, Allison Ogilvy, "Google in China: government censorship and corporate reputation," Journal of Business Strategy, (2007) 28#3 pp 12-22.
  9. David Ownby, Falun Gong and the Future of China (2008).
  10. e.g. San Francisco Chronicle: 'Falun Gong Derided as Authoritarian Sect by Anti-Cult Experts in Seattle'. April 29, 2000; New York Times: 'A glimpse of Chinese culture that some find hard to watch '. February 6, 2008.
  11. New York Times: 'U.S. drops China from list of top 10 violators of rights'. March 12, 2008.
  12. David Lague, "Chinese Blizzards Reveal Rail Limits," New York Times Feb. 1, 2008.