With a population of 1.3 billion, China is the most populous country in the world. A communist state, it’s economy and military power is growing rapidly.

On the world stage, China is seen by many as the main competitor to the United States. China is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and one of nine countries known to have nuclear weapons.

Note: This article is about the People’s Republic of China, including Hong Kong and Macau. It does not cover Taiwan (also known as the Republic of China) which China claims sovereignty over.

Population and Demographics

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China is home to 1,376,049,00 people in 2016. This makes it, by some distance, the largest country in the world today by population.

Population of China

Rapid growth in China’s population through the second half of the 20th century led to population controls (notably the infamous ‘one child policy’). The policy, and its impact, is controversial, but it is clear that population growth in China has slowed considerably in recent years. Based on current trends China’s population is likely stabilize mid-way through 21st century and may then begin to fall.

Recent economic development and changes have led to a dramatic increase in China’s urban population and, in 2011, the number of Chinese citizens living in urban areas passed 50% for the first time. Average age and life expectancy is also increasing, leading to concerns about the rising cost of supporting the elderly (for example, through pensions and healthcare).

The largest cities in China are Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. Shanghai is the largest city in the world, and Beijing is the third largest city in the world.

Ethnicity

Han Chinese are the largest ethnic group in China, accounting for over 91% of the total population.

Language

Hanyu (also known as Han Chinese) is the most commonly language used in China, and is spoken by more than 99% of Chinese. There are several different dialects of Hanyu; Mandarin is the most common.

Religion

Religious belief is not encouraged in China. As a result, more than 50% of Chinese report that they have no religion. Only 5% of Chinese report that they are Buddhists, although 22% report that they believe in a Chinese folk religion (which often share principles with Buddhism). 2% of the population is Christian, and 2% is Muslim.

Economy and GDP

Dramatic growth in the Chinese economy has seen the country power its way to becoming the second largest economy in the world. With a nominal (total) GDP of $10.8 trillion, China’s economy is now second only to the United States.

China Nominal GDP Chart

Bear in mind though that China is also the world’s most populous country. When spread out across 1.3 billion people, China’s nominal GDP translates into a more modest (but still rapidly growing) per capita GDP of $9,151. That’s around a fifth of the US GDP per capita, which hovers at around $50,000.

China’s economy has been transformed over the past few decades, as it has moved away from the centrally planned communist economy advocated by Mao Zedong towards a model of state capitalism that is based on private ownership of property. As a result, the country has rapidly industrialised and become a competitive member of the global economy. It is currently the world’s largest exporter of goods, and the world’s second largest importer of goods.

Growth over the past thirty years has averaged at 9%, although there are fears that it will now begin to slow.

Currency in China

China’s currency is known as the Renminbi. One unit of the Renminbi is known as the Yuan; one Jiao is one tenth of a Yuan, and one Fen is one tenth of a Jiao.

On 1 January 2016, one Yuan was worth $0.154. One US dollar was worth 6.4935 Yuan. The ISO code for the Yuan is CNY.

The Renminbi used to be pegged to the US dollar – this meant that it could always be exchanged for dollars at a set rate. But since 2005 the Renminbi has floated in what is called a ‘managed float’ – this means it’s value is allowed to fluctuate within a range set by the Chinese central bank. It is thought likely that the Renminbi will be allowed to float freely at some point in the next few years.

Chinese Government

The People’s Republic of China is a single party state, governed by the Chinese Communist Party.  Hong Kong and Macau have the status of special administrative region and, although they are ultimately accountable to the central Chinese Government they are, in practice, largely autonomous.

The territory of Taiwan (formally known as the Republic of China) is claimed by the People’s Republic of China, but is politically an entirely independent state. Taiwan itself technically still claims sovereignty over mainland China.

The current leader of China is Xi Jinping. Known as the Paramount Leader, he holds three formal roles – President of the People’s Republic of China, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

The Communist Party (and therefore China itself) is controlled by its Politburo Standing Committee, a small group of senior (and often elderly) party members who meet weekly and take all high level and strategic decisions.

The Chinese Government is not democratically accountable in the Western sense and elections are not held.

China: Cities and states (provinces)

There are 662 cities in China and 34 regions.

Capital city of China

Beijing, the capital city of China, is home to an estimated 21.7 million people today. Despite being the third most populous city in the world, it is still not the most populous city in China – as we shall see below, that honour goes to Shanghai.

The area around Beijing has ben inhabited for more than 230,000 years, but the first walled city that we are aware of was Ji, founded in the 11th century BC.

Largest cities in China

Shanghai is the largest city in China. Its population in 2010 (the date of the last census) was recorded at 22,265,426. Since then, its population is estimated to have increased to 24,152,700 (2015 estimate).

Beijing is China’s second largest city, home to 19,295,000 people in 2010, and an estimated 21.7 million people today. Tianjin is China’s third largest city, home to 11,090,314 people in 2010 and an estimated 12,784,000 today.

Here is a table of the ten largest cities in China, based on population recorded during the 2010 census. For more detail, visit our list of the largest cities in China.

City NamePopulation
Shanghai22,265,426
Beijing19,295,000
Tianjin11,090,314
Guangzhou11,070,654n
Shenzen10,357,938n
Wuhan9,780,644
Dongguan8,220,937n
Chengdu7,677,122n
Chongqing7,457,589n
Nanjing7,165,828n

Largest states in China

China is divided into 34 regional areas. This includes 23 provinces, four municipalities, five autonomous regions and two Special Administrative Regions.

You can see a list of the largest provinces by population below:

NameCapital CityPopulation
GuangdongGuangzhou104,303,132
ShandongJinan95,793,065
HenanZhengzhou94,023,567
SichuanChengdu80,418,200
JiangsuNanjing78,659,903

If China’s provinces were countries, the five largest would all be among the 20 largest countries in the world. Guangdong, with a population of 104 million, would be the 12th largest country in the world, roughly the size of the Philippines.

Flag of China

The flag of the People’s Republic of China is made up of five yellow stars on a red background. The stars represent the people of China and their unity; the red background represents the Communist revolution.

China flag

Click here to read more about the flag of China.

Chinese national anthem

The national anthem of the People’s Republic of China is called ‘The March of the Volunteers’. You can listen to the anthem by clicking play in the box above.

It was written in 1935 by Tian Han and Nie Er, originally for a propaganda play. It was adopted as the national anthem on 27 September 1949.

Performances of the March of the Volunteers were banned during China’s Cultural Revolution and it was replaced as the de facto national anthem by East is Red. However, The March of the Volunteers was never formally dropped as China’s national anthem, and it was re-introduced in 1978 with some slightly amended lyrics.

Chinese military – the People’s Liberation Army

The Chinese military is called the People’s Liberation Army. It is the world’s largest military, with over 2.3 million active personnel in 2016. These are supplemented by reserve forces of another 2.3 million.

People's Liberation Army flag

Flag of the People’s Liberation Army

China’s military budget in 2016 has increased to $146.67 billion, placing China second only to the United States ($580 billion) in terms of military spending.

The PLA was formed on 1 August 1927. As the Chinese Communist Party’s military wing, it was more commonly known as the Red Army.

Today, the PLA has five main branches of service – the PLA Ground Force (army), the PLA Navy, the PLA Air Force, the PLA Rocket Force, and the PLA Strategic Support Force.

History

With a history of continuous civilization that stretches back more than four thousand years, China can comfortably lay claim to being the world’s oldest country.

The Shang Dynasty (circa 1700 – 1046 BC) is the earliest dynasty that we can be sure existed, but it is thought that earlier dynasties probably existed.

A number of dynasties, often interspersed with periods of warlordism, followed over the next few thousand years as ‘Chinese’ rule waxed and waned across large swathes of modern-day China.

This relative stability meant that China was consistently one of the largest, most prosperous and technologically advanced societies across the globe.  At the height of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912 AD), China’s empire ruled a third of the world’s population.

However, the Chinese Empire could not compete with the more dynamic and aggressively expansionist European empires. Although the Qing Dynasty nominally retained its sovereignty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chinese territory was effectively divided up into European and American spheres of influence. It’s economy did not grow at the same rate as Europe’s, and its relative influence waned.

A revolution in 1911 led to the introduction of the Republic of China in 1912, after which the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) took more than a decade to establish its rule over the whole country. It’s rule was nominally democratic but was, in reality, dictatorial and the Kuomintang was unable to establish itself strongly enough to survive both a Japanese invasion and civil war with the increasingly powerful Communists.

When the remains of the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan in 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. The Communist Party’s rule is now firmly established although, in recent years, it’s ideology has moved a long way from its socialist roots. Stability in China, combined with a recent loosening of economic and some political restrictions, has led to a rapid increase in China’s economic wealth and military strength. As a result, China is once again regarded a major power on the world stage.