The giant of the East
China is one of the world’s giants: it is the most populous country and the third by extension; in recent years its economic and political weight has also been increasing, and the decisions taken in China are beginning to affect the world balance. Protagonist of an impetuous economic development, however, it suffers from a worrying political immobility and a series of social and environmental problems. The country is going through a phase of complex changes, which year after year bring it back to the center of the world scene: that is, precisely to the place that, according to the millenary Chinese culture, belongs to China: the “middle country”, the “center of the world. “(this is how the Chinese defined their country during the empire)
A territory as varied as a continent
The huge Chinese territory is made up of mainly mountainous areas that degrade, towards the east, into wide plains that reach the Pacific coast. The western and central part of the country is made up of vast plateaus – the largest is Tibet, with an average altitude of over four thousand meters – interrupted by imposing mountain ranges arranged in the direction of parallels. To the east the plains extend, in the southern part mixed with vast hilly systems. The largest of these plains, the central one, densely populated and cultivated, is the heart of Chinese civilization. Here the two largest river systems in the country converge – Huang He (Yellow River, 4,845 km) and Chang Jiang (Blue River, 5,800 km) – which constitute important communication routes and allow the irrigation of vast areas, but have also been responsible, with their periodic floods, for enormous disasters.
According to HOMEAGERLY.COM, the country’s climate is continental in inland and northern regions, where there are large desert and semi-desert areas (Zungaria, Gobi, Taklimakan, Tibet); in the south-eastern ones the monsoon climate prevails, hot and with abundant summer precipitations that allow the growth of tropical forests.
The population is concentrated above all in eastern China, where the average density is over 300 residents / km 2, with peaks above 700 residents / km 2. It is to these values, and not to the average of the country, that one must think in order to understand the problem of China’s overpopulation. The eastern regions were the cradle of Chinese civilization; to this are added favorable natural conditions – wide plains and vast hill systems, fertile soils, constant summer monsoon rains, abundance of water – and ease of communication thanks to the often navigable rivers and the complex system of artificial canals; here it is possible to produce every year, thanks to the tireless work of Chinese farmers, up to three crops of rice in the South and one of rice and one of wheat in the central areas.
In the interior, however, where natural conditions are less suitable for settlement, huge spaces are almost uninhabited – Tibet (2 residents / km 2), Qinghai (7 residents / km 2) – or populated by the main ethnic minorities. These are all few in number compared to the Han Chinese (who are 92% of the total), but some of them still total ten million people.
The birth rate, which was the main reason for both population growth and poverty in the Chinese countryside, has halved in recent decades as a result of the ‘one child’ policy, pursued by the state in some periods with extreme harshness, causing very serious suffering to the population., with an indiscriminate use of abortion and forced sterilization campaigns.
Campaigns and cities
China remains a large rural country, and the majority of the population lives in small villages; only a third of the Chinese live in the city. However, the recent growth of urban agglomerations is tumultuous: in the surroundings of Chongqing – a city of over two million residents, located on the middle course of the Chang Jiang – an urbanized area has formed with more than thirty million people. Also around Shanghai (almost seventeen million), in the capital Beijing (nearly fourteen million), Tianjin (ten million) and other cities – some forty have at least one million residents – growing multitudes are massing. Beijing, despite its many ancient monuments, is transforming itself into a very modern city; Shanghai, with its countless skyscrapers, can be considered the symbol of a rapidly changing country.
First: defeat hunger
The cultivated area in China is only 15% of the available land and is concentrated in the eastern part of the country; but in half of this area two or three harvests are made every year. Food production had already increased significantly since 1960, when economic planning had made it possible to prevent the terrible famines that had previously affected China; production then increased enormously when the collectivization of the countryside, based on ‘popular communes’, was replaced by a system that grants more space to individual initiative, creating a kind of de facto privatization, even if land ownership remains state.
Chinese agriculture has a series of world records: first of all for rice, a staple food, but also for wheat, potatoes, tobacco, cotton, linen. Widely cultivated are also corn, soy, millet, sorghum, rye, tea, beet and sugar cane, citrus fruits, bananas, vegetables, fruit. Breeding, in the central and western areas of the country, also counts a series of world records – pigs, goats, sheep, horses, birds – and so does fishing.
Second: to produce wealth
Since 1980, China has begun an enormous process of transformation: it remains a large agricultural country – 50% of the population works in agriculture and produces 15% of the country’s wealth – but it is also becoming a major industrial power.
The industrialization of China dates back to the mid-twentieth century, and was favored by huge mineral resources: first of all coal and iron, but also tin, tungsten, zinc, lead, just to name the most consistent. The country is also the fifth largest oil producer in the world, but production is no longer enough for a rapidly developing economy and, therefore, grandiose projects are being carried out for the hydroelectric exploitation of the two major rivers, even at the cost of a strong environmental impact. The industrial apparatus is impressive and covers all sectors. The old heavy industries (iron and steel, metallurgy, chemicals) arise in the Northeast, while in the southern coastal areas the light industry prevails: recently formed, mainly aimed at exports, dynamic and extremely competitive in the international field.
Third: return to the center of the world
The most recent and uninterrupted phase of economic growth began with the establishment of ‘free zones’ and ‘special economic zones’ to attract foreign investments and encourage rapid industrialization, especially in the most innovative sectors; continued thanks to a set of other factors: a shrewd privatization policy, the very low cost of a sufficiently literate labor force, the increase in trade with foreign countries, the propensity of households to save, the economic contribution of the Chinese emigrants, the growing flow of foreign tourists (almost 40 million visitors a year).
All this contributes to implementing an extremely flexible system, capable of adapting to the needs of the market and to recurring international crises. The main factors of weakness, on the other hand, seem to be the lack of democratization of the regime and the contradictory economic policy of the government, still hovering between socialist planning and the free international market.