The size and complexity of China

Often in the West, when China is a topic of discussion, often individuals do not realize its size and complexity. People generally know that China is the most populous country in the world (1.37 billion). They know that the economy is large and growing. But few know the extent of the challenges that the political leadership is forced to deal with.

China is divided in 34 political entities: provinces (23), autonomous regions (5), autonomous cities (4) and special administrative regions (2).


Of these 34 entities, a total of 18 provinces have a population greater than Canada (35.4 million). If the Guangdong province with a population of 107 million were an independent country, it would be the 13th largest nation in the world!

One might say that ethnically, China has a relatively uniform ethnic structure with 92% of the population being of Han origin. But one must consider that 55 ethnic minorities are recognized by the government, with their own rights (e.g. not subjected to the previous one-child family limit, combined with additional advantages).

Linguistically, the situation is even more challenging. One might state that Mandarin is the official language of the country and that the written language is the same across China. But the challenges come from the fact that the verbal language can vary substantially from region to region where people are totally unable to understand each other. If we go back to the Guangdong province, the common language is Cantonese spoken by 70 million people. These people would not understand much from a Mandarin speaker. China has 270 living languages (i.e. with a sufficient number of people to carry on being spoken). This challenge is illustrated by the subtitles shown in all Chinese movies so that people of other languages spoken in China can follow the story.

When it comes to religion, the situation is also diverse. Officially, China is a non-religious state, as advocated by communist precepts. In spite of this approach, religions have always and continue to play an important role in China. The main religions are Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism (6%), Islam (2%) and various Christian denominations (2%). Approximately, 40% of the population practices a religion.


Buddhist ceremony. Source: Unknown

Cultural differences are also felt across the country. One can easily hear comments from a Shanghainese about the “laissez-faire” attitude of the southerners in Hainan. In the north or the west, they will criticize Shanghainese for their aggressiveness. People from Beijing will be perceived as snobbish since they live in the nation’s capital. People in parts of the country will prefer to work for State Owned Enterprises that are much more predictable, while in other parts of the country, their entrepreneurial spirit will lead them to start their own business.

Finally, the economic disparities compound the above diversities. The first level of differences is between the rural areas and cities, where the cities are much richer than rural areas. This results in service (education, health, etc.) in rural areas being at a lower level than in cities. Secondly, between provinces, where the spread between the lowest and the highest is in a ratio of 4 times (GDP of $30,000 per person compared to $7,500). This will draw residents in poor provinces and rural areas into richer provinces or cities, in spite of the strong effort of the government to curtail this movement.

All these represent potential centrifugal forces that the central government needs to address on a continuous basis. How can it succeed, is an important question for the economic stability of the rest of the world.


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