China has the largest population in the world, currently at 1.3 billion people. It is also the second-largest country on earth. The economy has grown fast and is now the second largest on the planet. It is one of the oldest of the world’s civilisations dating back possibly to 2000 BC. The first unified Chinese state emerged as long ago as 221 BC, under the Qin dynasty. From 206 BC to 220 AD China was under the rule of the Han dynasty and China’s cultural identity is traced back to that time.
Powerful dynasties, including the Tang and the Song, followed and the latter was the first government in the world to use paper money. During this time the famous trade route, called the Silk Road, running through Central Asia, was established. In 1271 Kublai Khan and the Mongols took control of China and during his reign the merchant-explorer, Marco Polo, arrived from Europe.
The Ming dynasty took over in 1368 and ruled until 1644 when the Qing dynasty, commonly called the Manchu, came to power. During much of this period China was characterised by large populations, a rich and, by the standards of the time, a developed economy, and sometimes a powerful navy.
The rise of and expansion of the European powers increasingly affected China’s position and during the nineteenth century the country was on the defensive, epitomised by the two Opium Wars with Britain. A nationalist backlash developed, the most famous incidents being the Taiping Rebellion of 1851-1862, suppressed on behalf of the Chinese Emperor by the British General Charles Gordon, and the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, defeated by international intervention by all the then Great Powers. A number of these powers controlled ports along the Chinese coast, the most well-known being British-ruled Hong Kong.
In addition China was confronted by a Westernised Japan who defeated China in a war in 1894-1895.The continued slide in China’s power to resist outside encroachments continued under the Empress Cixi, who acted as Regent, until her death in 1908. In 1912 the child Emperor, Puyi, later subject of Bernardo Bertolluci’s 1987 film The Last Emperor, was deposed and what was perhaps the world’s oldest empire came to an end.
A republic was proclaimed under Sun Yat-sen but General Yuan Shikai, who later tried to make himself Emperor in 1915, took power until his death in 1916. Deep divisions emerged in the country and Chiang Kai-shek became the principal leader of the nationalist Kuomintang party which tried to unify the country. This was a period of civil war with warlords controlling parts of the country and the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party which commenced its long struggle against the Kuomintang for control of China.
However, external dangers also existed with the Japanese invading the semi-independent Chinese province of Manchuria in 1931, where they installed Puyi as puppet Emperor, and then attacking China itself in 1937. To resist this invasion the Communists and the Kuomintang called a truce and fought the Japanese.
On Japan’s defeat in 1945 their struggle resumed culminating in the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek, his retreat to Taiwan and the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949 by the Communist leader, Mao Zedong.
Under Mao Zedong China became unified and a force to be reckoned with on the world stage, as demonstrated when she intervened in the Korean War in 1950. However, domestically some of the policies pursued by Mao Zedong resulted in disaster. Millions died in the Great Leap Forward he instituted in the period 1958-1961, and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 caused more deaths and suffering. Externally Mao Zedong broke with Russia and started co-operating increasingly with the West after the ground-breaking visit of American President Richard Nixon to Beijing in 1972.
A power struggle followed the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 with Deng Xioaping emerging as victor and paramount leader. He pursued a careful policy of opening up China to the world and allowing the development of a more mixed economy at home calling it “a socialist market economy”. In the years since his death in 1997 there has been something of a struggle within the political elite between the reformers and the hardliners. The most graphic demonstration of these tensions was the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 when the Government suppressed calls for political change.
Under the Presidency of Jiang Zemin and his Prime Minister, Zhu Ronji, in the 1990s there was substantial economic growth. However, such rapid change has had environmental consequences and not all of China’s population has benefited equally from the new prosperity. Under President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabo, who came into office in 2003, these questions may be addressed.
The country is divided into 23 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, 4 municipalities and 2 Special Administrative Regions, the latter being the former British colony of Hong Kong and the former Portugese colony of Macau.
The Communist Party of China (CPC) is enshrined in the country’s constitution. Local People’s Congresses are elected directly but after that the system becomes hierarchical. This structure works up to the unicameral National People’s Congress (NPC) or Quanguo Renmin Daibao Dahui. This body is elected by the municipal, regional and provincial congresses and by the People’s Liberation Army for a five year term. It has 2,987 members.
The President and Vice-President are elected by the NPC for five years and can serve two terms. The Prime Minister is nominated by the President and then confirmed by the NPC. Other parties are permitted and can go on the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). There are some open contests but these are at a low level and there has even been occasional outbursts of dissatisfaction with aspects of the system. However, in practice only the CPC, eight allied parties and CPC-approved independent candidates are elected.
There are tensions in parts of the People’s Republic with separatist elements in Xinjiang (Sinkiang) in the West amongst the Uyghur (Uighur) people in a region with a majority Moslem population. Tibet (Xizang) remains a controversial issue with the exiled Dalai Lama maintaining he is not seeking independence from China but genuine autonomy. Hong Kong and Macau, are Special Administrative Areas enjoying some freedoms, at least a limited period. China upholds its claim to Taiwan, to certain areas on its border with India, and to a couple of island groups in the South China Sea.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places China at joint 79th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 40 (where 100 is least corrupt).