Physical Environment and Population

China Table of Contents

REMARKABLY VARIED LANDSCAPES suggest the disparate climate and broad reach of China, the third largest country in the world in terms of area. China's climate ranges from subarctic to tropical. Its topography includes the world's highest peaks, tortuous but picturesque river valleys, and vast plains subject to lifethreatening but soil-enriching flooding. These characteristics have dictated where the Chinese people live and how they make their livelihood.

The majority of China's people live in the eastern segment of the country, the traditional China Proper. Most are peasants living, as did their forebears, in the low-lying hills and central plains that stretch from the highlands eastward and southward to the sea. Agriculture predominates in this vast area, generally favored by a temperate or subtropical climate. The meticulously tilled fields are evidence in part of the government's continuing concern over farm output and the food supply.

Although migration to urban areas has been restricted since the late 1950s, as of the end of 1985 about 37 percent of the population was urban. An urban and industrial corridor formed a broad arc stretching from Harbin in the northeast through the Beijing area and south to China's largest city, the huge industrial metropolitan complex of Shanghai.

The uneven pattern of internal development, so strongly weighted toward the eastern part of the country, doubtless will change little even with developing interest in exploiting the mineral-rich and agriculturally productive portions of the vast northwest and southwest regions. The adverse terrain and climate of most of those regions have discouraged dense population. For the most part, only ethnic minority groups have settled there.

The "minority nationalities" are an important element of Chinese society. In 1987 there were 55 recognized minority groups, comprising nearly 7 percent of the total population. Because some of the groups were located in militarily sensitive border areas and in regions with strategic minerals, the government tried to maintain benevolent relations with the minorities. But the minorities played only a superficial role in the major affairs of the nation.

China's ethnically diverse population is the largest in the world, and the Chinese Communist Party and the government work strenuously to count, control, and care for their people. In 1982 China conducted its first population census since 1964. It was by far the most thorough and accurate census taken under Communist rule and confirmed that China was a nation of more than 1 billion people, or about one-fifth of the world's population. The census provided demographers with a wealth of accurate data on China's age-sex structure, fertility and mortality rates, and population density and distribution. Useful information also was gathered on minority ethnic groups, urban population, and marital status. For the first time since the People's Republic of China was founded, demographers had reliable information on the size and composition of the Chinese work force.

Beginning in the mid-1950s, the Chinese government introduced, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success, a number of family planning, or population control, campaigns and programs. The most radical and controversial was the one-child policy publicly announced in 1979. Under this policy, which had different guidelines for national minorities, married couples were officially permitted only one child. Enforcement of the program, however, varied considerably from place to place, depending on the vigilance of local population control workers.

Health care has improved dramatically in China since 1949. Major diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and scarlet fever have been brought under control. Life expectancy has more than doubled, and infant mortality has dropped significantly. On the negative side, the incidence of cancer, cerebrovascular disease, and heart disease has increased to the extent that these have become the leading causes of death. Economic reforms initiated in the late 1970s fundamentally altered methods of providing health care; the collective medical care system was gradually replaced by a more individual-oriented approach.

More liberalized emigration policies enacted in the 1980s facilitated the legal departure of increasing numbers of Chinese who joined their overseas Chinese relatives and friends. The Four Modernizations program, which required access of Chinese students and scholars, particularly scientists, to foreign education and research institutions, brought about increased contact with the outside world, particularly the industrialized nations. Thus, as China moved toward the twenty-first century, the diverse resources and immense population that it had committed to a comprehensive process of modernization became ever more important in the interdependent world.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress