Country profile: China
Country profile: China
China is the world’s most populous country, with a continuous culture stretching back nearly 4,000 years.
Many of the elements that make up the foundation of the modern world originated in China, including paper, gunpowder, credit banking, the compass and paper money.
After stagnating for more than two decades under the rigid authoritarianism of early communist rule under its late leader, Chairman Mao, China now has the world’s fastest-growing economy and is undergoing what has been described as a second industrial revolution.
In the early 1980s it dismantled collective farming and allowed private enterprise again. Now it is one of the world’s top exporters and is attracting record amounts of foreign investment. In turn, it is investing billions of dollars abroad.
As a member of the World Trade Organization, China benefits from access to foreign markets. In return it must expose itself to competition from abroad. But relations with trading partners have been strained over China’s huge trade surplus and the piracy of goods; the former has led to demands for Beijing to raise the value of its currency, which would make Chinese goods more expensive for foreign buyers and, in theory, hold back exports.
Some Chinese fear that the rise of private enterprise and the demise of state-run industries carries heavy social costs such as unemployment and instability.
Moreover, the fast-growing economy has fuelled the demand for energy. China is the largest oil consumer after the US, and the world’s biggest producer and consumer of coal. The country spends billions of dollars in pursuit of foreign energy supplies. There has been a massive investment in hydro-power, including the $25bn Three Gorges Dam project.
The economic disparity between urban China and the rural hinterlands is among the largest in the world. Many impoverished rural dwellers are flocking to the country’s eastern cities, which are enjoying a construction boom.
Social discontent manifests itself in protests by farmers and workers. There were 87,000 protests, or “mass incidents”, in 2005, according to official figures. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people travel to Beijing each year to lodge petitions with the authorities in the hope of finding redress for alleged corruption, land seizures and evictions.
Other pressing problems include corruption, which affects every level of society, and the growing rate of HIV infection. A downside of the economic boom has been environmental degradation; China is home to many of the world’s most-polluted cities.
The rate of economic change hasn’t been matched by political reform, with the Communist Party – the world’s biggest political party – retaining its monopoly on power and maintaining strict control over the people. The authorities still crack down on any signs of opposition and send outspoken dissidents to labour camps.
Human rights campaigners continue to criticise China for executing hundreds of people every year and for failing to stop torture. The country is keen to stamp down on what it sees as dissent among its ethnic minorities, including Muslim Uighurs in the north-west. The authorities have targeted the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which they designate an “evil cult”.
Chinese rule over Tibet is controversial. Human rights groups accuse the authorities of the systematic destruction of Tibetan Buddhist culture and the persecution of monks loyal to the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader who is campaigning for autonomy within China.
Beijing says the island of Taiwan is a part of Chinese territory that must be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary. It has threatened to invade should Taiwan declare independence.
Head of state: President Hu Jintao
Little was known about the low-profile Mr Hu when he was elected by the National People’s Congress in March 2003.
His position as the presidential heir-apparent had been cemented at the 16th Communist Party Congress in 2002, when he succeeded Jiang Zemin as head of the party.
Mr Jiang’s decision to stand down as head of the powerful Central Military Commission in 2004, three years earlier than planned, was said to have completed the first orderly transition of power since the communist revolution in 1949.
Mr Hu has made the fight against corruption a priority; he has promised to promote good governance, saying the fate of socialism is at stake. But he has rejected Western-style political reforms, warning that they would lead China down a “blind alley”.
Responding to rising social tensions and China’s wealth gap, he advocates a drive to build a “harmonious society” and has promised greater spending on health and education in rural areas.
Hu Jintao was born in Anhui province in 1942, according to his official biography. He studied hydroelectric engineering at university in Beijing and worked in the Ministry of Water Conservancy and Power after he graduated.
A committed Communist Party member since 1964, his party career took off in the late 1970s. In the 1980s he served as party chief in Guizhou and Tibet, where he oversaw crackdowns on pro-independence protests. In 1992 Mr Hu became the youngest member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s main decision-making body.
He was re-elected as president in March 2008.
He is said to enjoy dancing and table tennis and has been described as a cautious, intelligent man with remarkable powers of memory. Party loyalty and obedience are believed to have contributed to his political rise.
China’s media are tightly controlled by the country’s leadership. The opening-up of the industry has extended to distribution and advertising, not to editorial content.
Beijing tries to limit access to foreign news providers by restricting rebroadcasting and the use of satellite receivers, by jamming shortwave radio broadcasts, including those of the BBC, and by blocking web sites. Ordinary readers have no access to foreign newspapers.
Fears that the media in Hong Kong would lose their independence when the territory reverted to Chinese control in 1997 have generally not been borne out. Hong Kong still has editorially-dynamic media, but worries about interference remain.
The press reports on corruption and inefficiency among officials, but the media as a whole avoid criticism of the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. Each city has its own newspaper, usually published by the local government, as well as a local Communist Party daily.
With more than one billion viewers, television is a popular source for news and the sector is competitive, especially in urban areas. China is also becoming a major market for pay-TV; it is forecast to have 128 million subscribers by 2010. State-run Chinese Central TV, provincial and municipal stations offer a total of around 2,100 channels.
The availability of non-domestic TV is limited. Agreements are in place which allow selected channels – including stations run by AOL Time Warner, News Corp and the Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV – to transmit via cable in Guangdong province. In exchange, Chinese Central TV’s English-language network is made available to satellite TV viewers in the US and UK.
Beijing says it will only allow relays of foreign broadcasts which do not threaten “national security” or “political stability”. Of late, it has been reining in the activities and investments of foreign media groups. The media regulator – the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television – has warned local stations that foreign-made TV programmes must be approved before broadcast.
The internet scene in China is thriving, though controlled. Beijing routinely blocks access to sites run by the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, rights groups and some foreign news organisations. It has moved to curb postings by a small but growing number of bloggers.
An international group of academics concluded in 2005 that China has “the most extensive and effective legal and technological systems for internet censorship and surveillance in the world”.
The media rights group Reporters Without Borders describes the country as the world’s “largest prison for journalists”.