Although the US presidential election has dominated media coverage for months now, China is also choosing a new leader.
The Communist Party of China’s 18th Congress will pick a new General Secretary, the most powerful position in this country of 1.3 billion people, to lead for the next 10 years. Since the 1990s, the General Secretary has also held the office of president of the country.
Billed by many as the world’s next hegemon, China sprawls over almost 10 million square kilometres, from the East Asian Sea to Tibet; from the frigid winters of Manchuria to the steamy subtropics of Guangxi. It borders 14 countries, more than any other state after Russia.
As much a civilisation as a country, China’s history stretches back thousands of years. Unlike most states today, much of the land that comprises China’s eastern heartland has been a polity for centuries.
After a brutal occupation by the Japanese and a gruelling civil war in the mid-20th century, Communist forces won control of the country in 1949 and set up the People’s Republic of China. Remnants of the Communists’ rivals, the Nationalists, regrouped on the island of Taiwan and proclaimed the Republic of China. Relations between the two entities are tense, although they have warmed in recent years.
|China: Fact Box
Population: 1,343,239,923 (July 2012 estimate)
Religions: Daoist (Taoist), Buddhist, Christian 3-4 percent, Muslim 1-2 percent (2002 estimate)
Ethnic groups: Han Chinese 91.5 percent, Zhuang, Manchu, Hui, Miao, Uighur, Tujia, Yi, Mongol, Tibetan, Buyi, Dong, Yao, Korean, and other nationalities 8.5 percent (2000 census)
Life expectancy: 74.84 years (2012 estimate)
GDP growth: 9.2 percent (2011 estimate)
Source: CIA Factbook
China suffered from devastating famine from 1958-61, a consequence of Communist chairman Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward industrialisation programme. Tens of millions are estimated to have perished. Mao also initiated the Cultural Revolution, a radical initiative aiming to destroy traditional mores and reify Communist thinking. After Mao’s death in 1976, more moderate party members gained power, most notably Deng Xiaoping.
Under Deng, China moved towards a market economy. Hundreds of millions of Chinese have escaped from poverty in recent decades as the economy continues to boom. In 2008, Beijing hosted the Summer Olympic Games, which many saw as a sort of coming-out party for the world’s biggest country.
Although its economic system has liberalised, China’s political system remains closed, and the government closely monitors activists and dissidents. For instance, Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, but was serving a prison term for subversion and therefore was not permitted to collect the prize.
Although officially a Communist state, in practice China has been liberalising for decades.
China has enjoyed several decades of breakneck economic growth, powered by massive amounts of exports. Critics say China’s positive trade balance is boosted by keeping its currency, the renminbi, artificially low compared to the US dollar. As a result, China has accumulated huge foreign exchange reserves, and is one of the largest holders of US Treasury bonds.
Many speculate China’s GDP will exceed that of the US in less than 20 years, making it the world’s biggest economy – although GDP per capita is still low compared to Western standards.
China’s major exports include electronics, clothing, and textiles. China is also a major mineral producer, home to some of the world’s largest known deposits of rare earth metals and substantial coal reserves.
In recent years, China has begun to flex its muscles as it emerges as a regional power. China has made bold claims to large portions of the South China Sea, which are belived to contain large oil and gas deposits. These claims have thrust it into diplomatic spats with Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia.
China also disputes Japan’s ownership of the uninhabited Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu Islands in Chinese) in the East Asian Sea – an issue that has caused tensions to flare in the region.
China and the US resumed diplomatic relations in 1972 with President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to the country. Today, Sino-American relations are neither especially close nor distant. US politicians often condemn Chinese currency and trade policy, and China has recently expressed concerns about an increased US military presence in the Pacific.
With 2.3 million people in the armed forces, nuclear-armed China has the largest military in the world.
It is also one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, giving it the authority to veto any council initiative.