China is the world's most populous country and in recent years has become a dominant economic force in the world, especially with the ebbing of Japanese economic influence since the mid-1990s.
One of the world's oldest continuous civilizations, China has throughout its history nurtured the cultures of the East in the same way that Greece and Rome spawned Western civilization. The arts, science, writing system, philosophy, religions, and social order that developed in China have had tremendous influence on the countries of East Asia as well as the Western world.
To many Western visitors, urban China does not reflect great beauty. The congested streets of its cities are full of pushing, noisy crowds, and traffic jams and overcrowded public transportation increase frustration and air pollution.
However, certain regions of the country are beautiful and serene, the inspiration for the timeless images of the great Chinese landscape paintings, or shanshui. The dramatic Himalayan Mountains on its western border with Nepal, the Yangtse River, and the historic Great Wall of China, built through several dynasties to keep out barbarian hordes, are among the attractions that bring tourists to the country in ever increasing numbers.
Shanghai is one of the largest cities in the world, and China's largest city, with about 14.6 million residents. It is China's most important port and industrial area. The site of more than half of all Chinese exports, Shanghai's harbor is a fascinating mix of junks, sampans, ferries, and ocean-going ships and freighters. Shanghai boasts some distinctive landmarks, such as the elegant 88-floor Jinmao Tower and the Oriental Pearl Tower that's a destination for sightseeing and dining.
Of all China's cities, Shanghai has the most Western appearance. The skyline of the former financial district on the riverfront, the Bund, features tall municipal offices, some art deco in design; hotels; and customs houses built by the British, French, Japanese, and other foreigners in the colonial era. These modern structures and wide boulevards offer a fascinating contrast to the more traditional Chinese architecture of the mazelike back streets and alleys of the Old City and of the outlying areas.
Pollution, congestion, construction and the frenetic pace of life can be issues in Shanghai. However, it is perhaps the most international of China's cities and its residents are known for their business talent, wit, elegance and sophistication.
The People's Republic of China is a one-party state, controlled by the CCP. Mainland China is ruled by a Communist Politburo of party elders, a State Council or Cabinet, and the National People's Congress, the NPC, which is a legislative body.
Communist politics have not been open to public discussion or criticism by the press. Dissent is not tolerated and dissidents can be deprived of all freedoms. The government attaches higher priority to maintaining public order and suppressing political opposition than to enforcing legal norms.
Since the Communists took control in 1949, China has gone through cycles of political openness followed by repression. This pattern has encouraged rapid industrialization and economic growth while maintaining centralized Communist political control.
China has been supportive of the post-September 11th war on terrorism, although some critics hint this is to justify its efforts to suppress the activities of Muslim separatists in the area of East Turkestan, and also to exert influence in Afghanistan.
Mainland China's relationship with Taiwan has been a source of continuing friction. China considers Taiwan as one of its provinces. Taiwan, while admitting that it is part of China, seeks recognition as one of two political entities in China with its own governmental structure. Tension between the two areas escalated somewhat following the election of the independence-oriented president of Taiwan in March 2000. Both sides are attempting to relax the tension without giving in on basic stands.
In recent years, China has boasted one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. The re-acquisition of Hong Kong from the British in 1997 is representative of the challenge China's leadership faces in modernizing its economy while maintaining a central authoritarian approach to government.
Shanghai is an industrial city that traditionally relied on steel, automotive, chemical and electrical appliance sectors. More recently, the service industry has been a growing part of Shanghai's economy.
High unemployment - especially as the government addresses the problem of streamlining and privatizing unprofitable government-owned enterprises - and high inflation have contributed to economic problems, although 2008 figures have unemployment dipping to 4%. Other impediments to rapid economic growth include air pollution, loss of arable land to soil erosion, and the steady drop in the water table.
To alleviate the water problem, the government has been building waterways from the Yangtze River to dry land in northern China. This Three Gorges Dam project - the primary phase of which was completed in October 2008 - has been controversial for a number of reasons, including the flooding historic and scenic areas and displacement of an estimated 1.2 million residents. Supporters of the project point to the much-needed hydroelectrical power output that will be generated from the dam system. Sixty million rural residents in China lack electricity. In terms of cost, the dam is expected to pay for itself within 10 years.
After twenty years of economic reform, China was admitted into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December of 2001. The country has made positive strides toward compliance with WTO policy, but sweeping changes will likely be slow in coming. For their part, the Chinese are looking forward to lower prices on goods where new foreign competition enters the market. Unfortunately, this new foreign competition comes at a price: unemployment at local manufacturers.