new internationalist
issue 225 - November 1991

Country profile: China

Where is China? Long the darling of Western idealists, China's image crumbled when the tanks went into Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989. Since then China has been gradually wooing back tourists, investors and bankers.

China's Open Door policy is still very new for, with a civilization stretching back thousands of years, the country has suffered from its contact with outsiders.

For the first half of this century, life in war-torn China was painful and short. When Mao Zedong and the Red Army declared liberation in October 1949, they swept away feudalism and made their priority delivering the basic needs of long-suffering peasants. A country that had endured regular famines found there was enough food when it was fairly distributed; ordinary villagers were trained as primary health workers decades before the United Nations started promoting the idea. Life expectancy which stood at just 36 years in 1948-9 rose swiftly and steadily and has now reached 70.

But Mao made terrible mistakes too. The Great Leap Forward of 1958-59 pressed ahead with agricultural collectivization and industrialization and was designed to bring China to the economic level of Britain within 15 years. Instead it brought widespread famine. In 1966 Mao plunged China into the Cultural Revolution which ended only with his death in 1976. Overtly this aimed to stop the revolution stagnating and in that at least it succeeded - the period is now remembered as 'ten years of turmoil'. Students humiliated and tortured teachers; gangs of teenage Red Guards swarmed across the country destroying ancient monuments; and intellectuals were sent to labour in the countryside.

Since the deaths of Mao and the much-loved Zhou Enlai, the country has been controlled by Deng Xiaoping. Denounced by Mao as 'a capitalist roader' Deng has retained much of the economic edifice of communism, while encouraging foreign investment and market forces. Whole villages working on the land in collectives have been replaced by solitary figures tilling their separate patches - and by the re-emergence of rich peasants.

The Communist Party has maintained its political dictatorship. This rigid control extends to the most intimate areas of people's lives. Power is centred in the work unit, which allocates housing and runs a neighbourhood spying system feeding into the local Party network. Corruption is everywhere.

Minority groups suffer. As China was meting out long prison sentences to Tiananmen demonstrators under cover of the Gulf War, the exiled Dalai Lama was asking why the West had been so keen to defend Kuwait but was silent during China's decades-long occupation of Tibet.

And as 1997 approaches, Hong Kong citizens shift uneasily at the prospect of reverting to the control of their large neighbour to the north.

Sue Robson



LEADER: Premier Li Peng. Deng Xiaoping has now resigned his party and army posts and has an 'elder statesperson' role.

ECONOMY: GNP per capita $330 (US $19,840)
Currency: The monetary unit is renminbi yuan (literally, 'people's money'). Black market is rife.
Exports: Food and oil, clothing and textiles.
Imports: Industrial products; machinery and chemicals.

PEOPLE: 1,139,100,000

HEALTH: Infant mortality 27 per 1,000 live births (US 10 per 1,000).

CULTURE: Around 80 per cent of people are peasants. Communist Party has 48,000,000 members. Minorities include Tibetans, Uighurs, Kazakhs and Mongols.
Religion: Buddhism, Daoism, Islam and Christianity. Around 40,000 temples, monasteries, mosques and churches are officially open to the public.
Language: Mandarin Chinese, written in characters. Also Cantonese in the south, numerous dialects, and minority languages.

Sources: The State of World Population 1991, The State of the World's Children 1991, World Development Report 1990, Beijing Review.

Last profiled in January 1983



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INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Cheap housing through work units. Unemployment 2.6 %

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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Adult literacy 69%, less for women. Complexity of Chinese characters: children learn to read slowly and late.

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Increasing reliance on foreign aid; external debt is 8.75% of GNP.

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FREEDOM [image, unknown]
Dissidents jailed without trial. Neighbourhood spying systems. Less freedom since Tiananmen clampdown.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Great victory over feudal oppression, but widespread prejudice and very few women at the top.

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
70 years. Good basic medicine and self-help prolong life. (US 77 years).

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Politics now

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Communist party rules, but now combining planned economy with market sector


NI star rating

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