China is reforming into an economic superpower, but the Communist Party retains its political grip
China's vast landmass incorporates immense topographical and climatic diversity. But it can be divided into three broad areas. First, there is the north-western region, which is predominantly mountainous, including the Tien Shan ranges that average around 4,000 metres—though this area also includes the Tarim and Dzungarian basins and the Takla Makan Desert. A second main region lies to the south-west and includes the Tibetan Plateau and other highlands. The remainder of the country, extending east to the coast, has some mountains but is mostly low-lying and includes extensive river systems flowing west to east: the Huang Ho (Yellow River) to the north and the Yangtze to the south.
This huge territory also has considerable climatic variation—colder and drier to the north and on the mountains and steppes in the interior, and warmer and wetter to the south and east.
Most people live in the eastern part of the country and are ethnically fairly homogenous—more than 90% are Han Chinese. Nevertheless the Han differ regionally, particularly in language. The standardized common language is based on the Mandarin dialect and is used in government as well as in schools and universities, but there are also a number of Han dialects that share most of the same characters though are mutually incomprehensible.
In addition to the Han there are around 100 million Chinese who belong to any of 55 or more different ethnic groups that are settled across more than half the territory. These include the Zhuang, the Hui (Muslims), the Miao, the Mongols, and the Tibetans. Where they are concentrated in specific areas, they theoretically have some autonomy, though this is fairly limited.
China has more men than women
One of China's central preoccupations has been population growth. Population control efforts intensified after 1979 with the introduction of the ‘one-child family’ policy—with fines for parents who had two or more children. Although subsequently relaxed, this had a dramatic effect. Birth rates are now well below replacement level. This has slowed the growth of the population, which is expected to stabilize at around 1.5 billion by 2040. But it has also increased the average age: by 2030 on current trends, one in five people will be over 60. An unusually high proportion will be men. By 2009, there were 106 men for every 100 women.
Poverty has fallen, but 16% of the population still live on less than $1.25 per day. The cities have seen the emergence of a property-owning middle class, but life in the countryside is often harsh. In 2007 household incomes in urban areas were three times those in rural areas. Rural services remain poor. Few people have access to safe sanitation and their health services are inferior to those in the cities. Another pressing health issue for the country as a whole is HIV and AIDS. China currently has around 700,000 people who are HIV-positive.
As a result of economic reforms, China is becoming a steadily more unequal society. The richest 10% of the population earn on average 13 times more than the poorest 10%. The imbalances between rural and urban areas have also generated up to 150 million unregistered migrant workers who have travelled to the cities, many off to work on construction sites.