China country profilesOURCE : BBC
China is the world's most populous country, with a continuous culture stretching back nearly 4,000 years.
Many of the elements that make up the foundation of the modern world originated in China, including paper, gunpowder, credit banking, the compass and paper money.
After stagnating for more than two decades under the rigid authoritarianism of early communist rule under its late leader, Chairman Mao, China now has the world's fastest-growing economy and is undergoing what has been described as a second industrial revolution.
The People's Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949 after the Communist Party defeated the previously dominant nationalist Kuomintang in a civil war. The Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan, creating two rival Chinese states - the PRC on the mainland and the Republic of China based on Taiwan.
Beijing says the island of Taiwan is a part of Chinese territory that must be reunited with the mainland. The claim has in the past led to tension and threats of invasion, but since 2008 the two governments have moved towards a more cooperative atmosphere.
The leadership of Mao Tse-Tung oversaw the often brutal implementation of a Communist vision of society. Millions died in the Great Leap Forward - a programme of state control over agriculture and rapid industrialisation - and the Cultural Revolution, a chaotic attempt to root out elements seen as hostile to Communist rule.
However, Mao's death in 1976 ushered in a new leadership and economic reform. In the early 1980s the government dismantled collective farming and again allowed private enterprise.
The rate of economic change hasn't been matched by political reform, with the Communist Party - the world's biggest political party - retaining its monopoly on power and maintaining strict control over the people. The authorities still crack down on any signs of opposition and send outspoken dissidents to labour camps.
China's economic transformation has not been joined by political change
Nowadays China is one of the world's top exporters and is attracting record amounts of foreign investment. In turn, it is investing billions of dollars abroad.
The collapse in international export markets that accompanied the global financial crisis of 2009 initially hit China hard, but its economy was among the first in the world to rebound, quickly returning to growth.
As a member of the World Trade Organization, China benefits from access to foreign markets. But relations with trading partners have been strained over China's huge trade surplus and the piracy of goods. The former has led to demands for Beijing to raise the value of its currency, which would make Chinese goods more expensive for foreign buyers and possibly hold back exports.
Some Chinese fear that the rise of private enterprise and the demise of state-run industries carries heavy social costs such as unemployment and instability.
Moreover, the fast-growing economy has fuelled the demand for energy. China is the largest oil consumer after the US, and the world's biggest producer and consumer of coal. It spends billions of dollars in pursuit of foreign energy supplies. There has been a massive investment in hydro-power, including the $25bn Three Gorges Dam project.
The economic disparity between urban China and the rural hinterlands is among the largest in the world. In recent decades many impoverished rural dwellers have flocked to the country's eastern cities, which have enjoyed a construction boom.
Potent symbol: Mao's portrait surveys Beijing's Tiananmen Square
Social discontent manifests itself in protests by farmers and workers. Tens of thousands of people travel to Beijing each year to lodge petitions with the authorities in the hope of finding redress for alleged corruption, land seizures and evictions.
Other pressing problems include corruption, which affects every level of society, and the growing rate of HIV infection. A downside of the economic boom has been environmental degradation; China is home to many of the world's most-polluted cities.
Human rights campaigners continue to criticise China for executing hundreds of people every year and for failing to stop torture. The country is keen to stamp down on what it sees as dissent among its ethnic minorities, including Muslim Uighurs in the north-west. The authorities have targeted the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which they designate an "evil cult".
Chinese rule over Tibet is controversial. Human rights groups accuse the authorities of the systematic destruction of Tibetan Buddhist culture and the persecution of monks loyal to the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader who is campaigning for autonomy within China.
- Full name: People's Republic of China
- Population: 1.34 billion (UN, 2009)
- Capital: Beijing
- Largest city: Shanghai
- Area: 9.6 million sq km (3.7 million sq miles)
- Major language: Mandarin Chinese
- Major religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism
- Life expectancy: 71 years (men), 75 years (women) (UN)
- Monetary unit: 1 Renminbi (yuan) (Y) = 10 jiao = 100 fen;
- Main exports: Manufactured goods, including textiles, garments, electronics, arms
- GNI per capita: US $2,940 (World Bank, 2008)
- Internet domain: .cn
- International dialling code: +86
Head of state: President Hu Jintao
Little was known about the low-profile Mr Hu when he was elected by the National People's Congress in March 2003.
President Hu Jintao, said to be cautious and loyal to the party
His position as the presidential heir-apparent had been cemented at the 16th Communist Party Congress in 2002, when he succeeded Jiang Zemin as head of the party. He was re-elected as president in March 2008.
Mr Jiang's decision to stand down as head of the powerful Central Military Commission in 2004, three years earlier than planned, was said to have completed the first orderly transition of power since the communist revolution in 1949.
Mr Hu has made the fight against corruption a priority; he has promised to promote good governance, saying the fate of socialism is at stake. But he has rejected Western-style political reforms, warning that they would lead China down a "blind alley".
Responding to rising social tensions and China's wealth gap, he advocates a drive to build a "harmonious society" and has promised greater spending on health and education in rural areas.
Mr Hu is scheduled to retire as head of the Communist Party in 2012 and as president in 2013. Vice-President Xi Jinping is seen as a likely candidate for the succession, especially after being appointed vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, which is regarded as a key stepping stone to the top job.
Hu Jintao was born in Anhui province in 1942, according to his official biography.
A committed Communist Party member since 1964, his party career took off in the late 1970s. In the 1980s he served as party chief in Guizhou and Tibet, where he oversaw crackdowns on pro-independence protests. In 1992 Mr Hu became the youngest member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the party's main decision-making body.
He is said to enjoy dancing and table tennis and has been described as a cautious, intelligent man. Party loyalty and obedience are believed to have contributed to his political rise.
- Vice-president: Xi Jinping
- Prime minister: Wen Jiabao
- Foreign minister: Yang Jiechi
- National People's Congress chairman: Wu Bangguo
China is the largest media market in the world, and has the world's largest online population. Its TV and radio industry generated 24.4 billion dollars in 2009.
Outlets operate under tight Communist Party control. The opening-up of the industry has extended to distribution and advertising, not to editorial content. However, there is leeway for independent coverage that is not perceived as a threat to social stability or the Party.
At least 24 journalists across China were in prison in December 2009, according to information collated by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). More than half had been detained for writing online articles critical of the government.
Beijing tries to limit access to foreign news by restricting rebroadcasting and the use of satellite receivers, by jamming shortwave broadcasts, including those of the BBC, and by blocking websites. Ordinary readers have no access to foreign newspapers.
China online: Surveillance, censorship are extensive
420m internet users by mid-2010 (official figure)
Reporters Without Borders lists China as an "enemy of the internet"
Fears that the media in Hong Kong would lose their independence when the territory reverted to Chinese control in 1997 have generally not been borne out. Hong Kong still has editorially-dynamic media, but worries about interference remain.
There are more than 2,000 newspapers. Each city has its own title, usually published by the local government, as well as a local Communist Party daily. There are an estimated 1,000 state-owned radio stations.
With nearly 1.2 billion viewers, TV is a popular news source and the sector is competitive, especially in cities. State-run Chinese Central TV (CCTV) is China's largest media company. Its provincial and municipal stations offer a total of around 2,100 channels. China is a major market for pay-TV, which is almost entirely delivered by cable.
In 2009, China launched new international TV channels and publications, spending billions of dollars to extend its political influence and boost its image abroad. It has been less keen to allow foreign players into the domestic market.
With 420 million surfers (China Internet Network Information Centre, June 2010) China has the world's largest net-using population. More than 98% of wired internet users opt for broadband. Mobile internet users numbered around 277 million by mid-2010.
An extensive web filtering system, dubbed the "Great Firewall of China", is one of the "most technologically-advanced in existence", according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF). It blocks tens of thousands of sites using URL filtering and keyword censoring.
Thousands of cyber-police watch the web. Internet cafes are closely monitored. Filtering targets material deemed politically and socially sensitive. Blocked resources include Facebook, Twitter, and human rights sites.
RSF lists China as an "enemy of the internet" (2010). The CPJ ranks it as one of the "10 worst countries to be a blogger" (2009).
- Renmin Ribao (People's Daily) - Communist Party daily, web pages in English
- Zhongguo Qingnian Bao (China Youth Daily) - state-run, linked to Communist Youth League
- China Daily - state-run, English-language
- Jiefangjun Bao - People's Liberation Army daily, web pages in English
- Zhongguo Jingji Shibao (China Economic Times) - state-run, daily
- Fazhi Ribao (Legal Daily) - state-run
- Gongren Ribao (Workers' Daily) - state-run
- Nongmin Ribao (Farmers' Daily) - state-run, agricultural and rural issues
- Nanfang Ribao (Southern Daily) - Communist Party daily, Guangdong province
- Chinese Central TV (CCTV) - state-run national broadcaster, networks include English-language CCTV News
- China National Radio - state-run
- China Radio International - state-run external broadcaster, programmes in more than 40 languages, notably to Taiwan and Korea
- Xinhua (New China News Agency) - state-run, web pages in English
How China is ruled
The Chinese Communist Party has ruled the country since 1949, tolerating no opposition and often dealing brutally with dissent.
The country's most senior decision-making body is the standing committee of the politburo, heading a pyramid of power which tops every village and workplace.
Politburo members have never faced competitive election, making it to the top thanks to their patrons, abilities and survival instincts in a political culture where saying the wrong thing can lead to a life under house-arrest, or worse.
Formally, their power stems from their positions in the politburo. But in China, personal relations count much more than job titles. A leader's influence rests on the loyalties he or she builds with superiors and proteges, often over decades.
That was how Deng Xiaoping remained paramount leader long after resigning all official posts, and it explains why party elders sometimes play a key role in big decisions.
The politburo controls three other important bodies and ensures the party line is upheld.
These are the Military Affairs Commission, which controls the armed forces; the National People's Congress, or parliament; and the State Council, the government's administrative arm.
Every significant decision affecting China's 1.3bn people is first discussed and approved by a handful of men who sit on the party's political bureau (politburo), the nexus of all power in China.
The 24-member Politburo is elected by the party's central committee. But real power lies with its nine-member standing committee, which works as a kind of inner cabinet and groups together the country's most influential leaders.
How the standing committee operates is secret and unclear. But its meetings are thought to be regular and frequent, often characterised by blunt speaking and disagreement.
Senior leaders speak first and then sum up, giving their views extra weight. The emphasis is always on reaching a consensus, but if no consensus is reached, the majority holds sway.
Once a decision has been made, all members are bound by it. Although policy disagreements and factional fighting are widely believed to take place in private, it is extremely rare for these to break into the public domain.
When they do – as happened in 1989 when the leadership battled over how to deal with the Tiananmen protests – it is a sign of all-out power struggle. New politburo members are chosen only after rigorous discussion and investigation of their backgrounds, experience and views.
To reach the top, people need a strong record of achievement working for the party, to have the right patrons, to have dodged controversy, and to have avoided making powerful enemies.
Members of the standing committee also share out the posts of party general secretary, premier, chairman of the National People's Congress, and head of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission.
The full politburo tends to include party secretaries from big municipalities like Beijing and Shanghai, and from important provinces like Guangdong.
Recently, the wealth generated by China's economic reforms has led some analysts to suggest the power of the centre is waning.
It is pointed out that party secretaries of large provinces like Sichuan and Guangdong are in charge of populations bigger than most European countries, and that their tax revenues are vital to Beijing.
But it is difficult to see them getting free from Beijing's political grip so long as the country's political system remains so closed.
Party members suspected of corruption, bad management or breaking with the party line are liable to be hauled before discipline inspection commissions, set up to deal with internal party discipline and to monitor abuses.
As economic reforms have gathered pace, corruption has become probably the single most damaging issue for the party's standing.
As a result, there have been consistent campaigns to root out corrupt officials and give maximum media coverage to a few, high-profile punishments.
For example, Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu, who was also a member of the Politburo, was arrested in 2006 accused of mis-using the city's pension fund.
More often, powerful party members are usually able to protect themselves, their families and proteges from any enquiries or public criticism. And because it is the party which investigates the party - it is not prepared to tolerate outsiders monitoring its members' behaviour - the commissions are always prone to interference from higher up.
On the occasions that the party has acted against senior members, its motives have been questioned.
For example, experts say the fall of Mr Chen is as much about Chinese President Hu Jintao's attempts to consolidate his power as it is about corruption.
Nevertheless, the discipline inspection commissions do have privileged access to information about people. Their control over networks of informers and personal files makes them particularly feared.
National People's Congress
Under China's 1982 constitution, the most powerful organ of state is meant to be the National People's Congress (NPC), China's parliament. In truth, it is little more than a rubber stamp for party decisions.
The congress is made up of nearly 3,000 delegates elected by China's provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities and the armed forces. Delegates hold office for five years, and the full congress is convened for one session each year.
This sporadic and unwieldy nature means that real influence lies within a standing committee of about 150 members elected from congress delegates. It meets every couple of months.
In theory, the congress has the powers to change the constitution and make laws. But it is not, and is not meant to be, an independent body in the Western sense of a parliament.
For a start, about 70% of its delegates - and almost all its senior figures - are also party members. Their loyalty is to the party first, the NPC second.
What actually tends to happen, therefore, is that the party drafts most new legislation and passes it to the NPC for "consideration", better described as speedy approval.
The NPC has shown some signs of growing independence over the past decade. In a notable incident in 1999, it delayed passing a law bringing in an unpopular fuel tax. It has also been given greater leeway drafting laws in areas like human rights.
The congress also "elects" the country's highest leaders, including the state president and vice-president, the chairman of the government's own Military Affairs Commission and the president of the Supreme People's Court.
But again, these elections are very different from the Western ideal.
Senior leaders sometimes retain great influence over decisions and appointments long after they officially step down from power.
The most notorious example was Deng Xiaoping, who remained paramount leader even when his only remaining official post was chairman of the China Bridge Association.
More tellingly, it was Deng and other "retired" leaders – and not the Politburo standing committee – who are thought to have made the fateful decisions to declare martial law and then send in the army to clear Tiananmen Square during the 1989 protests.
The issue is still important today. Chinese President Hu Jintao is believed to be trying to reduce the influence of former President Jiang Zemin, even though he no longer has an official post. Part of the reason the elders wield such influence is because of the patron-protege nature of Chinese politics.
Mr Jiang and other members of his generation took care to manoeuvre their own supporters into the politburo and government bureaucracy.
This should ensure they at least retain some influence over the new generation, even if that influence wanes as the new leaders gain more experience.
It is not simply about power for power's sake. In China, retiring leaders know that the verdict on their achievements can easily be reversed. They also have to look out for their children, whose wealth and success becomes vulnerable to attack if their own influence fades.
As compensation, elders get a privileged and pampered retirement. They are guaranteed elite bodyguards, special housing, secretaries and drivers, as well as access to restricted documents and information.
Military Affairs Commission
China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) has always defended the party as much as national borders.
During the early years of communist rule, most of the country's leaders owed their positions to their military success during the civil war, and links between them and the PLA remained very close.
But as this generation has died off and reforms have been introduced to make the armed forces more professional, the relationship has shifted subtly.
Party leaders know they are lost without the army's support, as became clear during crises like the 1989 Tiananmen protests. At the same time, senior military leaders realise they need the leadership's backing if far-reaching plans to modernise the armed forces are to be paid for.
The party's control over the armed forces and their nuclear arsenal is institutionalised through the Central Military Affairs Commission. The 11-man commission has the final say on all decisions relating to the PLA, including senior appointments, troop deployments and arms spending. Almost all the members are senior generals, but the most important posts have always been held by the party's most senior leaders.
The commission also controls the paramilitary People's Armed Police, who have the politically sensitive role of guarding key government buildings, including the main leadership compound of Zhongnanhai in Beijing.
In theory, the commission's chairman is elected by the National People's Congress. But in practice, the job automatically goes to the party's most powerful figure, who effectively becomes commander-in-chief.
The chairmanship was held by Mao Zedong and then Deng Xiaoping, who stayed in the job after he had resigned from all other positions, suggesting to some analysts that this is the real source of power in China.
Jiang Zemin, who became Chairman in 1989, had none of the military background or cachet of his predecessors. But by careful promotions of supporters and budget increases, Jiang ensured strong support from the military and within the Commission.
He resigned in 2004, handing the chairmanship to a man with even weaker military links, Hu Jintao, who has since tried to build his own power base in the military.
The State Council is the cabinet which oversees China's vast government machine.
It sits at the top of a complex bureaucracy of commissions and ministries and is responsible for making sure party policy gets implemented from the national to the local level.
In theory it answers to the National People's Congress, but more often the State Council submits legislation and measures which the NPC then approves.
The State Council's most important roles are to draft and manage the national economic plan and the state budget, giving it decision-making powers over almost every aspect of people's lives. It is also responsible for law and order.
The full council meets once a month, but the more influential standing committee comes together more often, sometimes twice a week.
This committee is made up of the country's premier, four vice-premiers, state councillors and the secretary-general.
Courts and prosecutors
China's laws reflect a complicated mix of party priorities, a Soviet-inspired system set up after 1949, and a raft of new legislation passed since 1979 to haul the country's modernising economy into line with those of major foreign investors like the US and Europe.
But the party still comes first. Laws are seen as a way to manage the economy and people's lives, rarely to protect them from the state or enshrine individual rights.
Law-making is also complicated. The National People's Congress is responsible for drafting laws covering areas like human rights and taxation. But in other areas, the State Council and local governments can legislate too. Even once laws have been passed there is no guarantee they will always be respected.
Often provincial governments and state-owned enterprises view court decisions as something to be negotiated, not obeyed. And for the party and state, the ‘rule of law' is not allowed to undermine its own interests, as pro-Tibetan independence activists and followers of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement know to their cost.
Both main legal organs answer to the National People's Congress. The Supreme People's Procuratorate is the highest legal supervisory body, charged with safeguarding the constitution, laws and people's rights.
The Supreme People's Court sits at the top of a pyramid of people's courts going down to the local level. Public security organs are in charge of the investigation, detention and preparatory examination of criminal cases.
The people's procuratorates are responsible for approving arrests and initiating and providing assistance to public prosecutions. Cases are heard and judged in the people's courts.
Twenty years ago, soldiers in China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) spent as much time on "political work" and reading party speeches as military training.
Reforms introduced since the 1980s have made the armed forces much more professional. They have shed one million men in a bid to concentrate on quality not quantity. Emphasis is being put on better training, better weapons and better pay.
Nevertheless, the military's position as defender of the party means it will never be de-linked from politics. Officers and men still have to declare their loyalty to party principles, study its teachings and read leaders' important pronouncements.
PLA officers are also party members, and there is a separate party machine inside the military to make sure rank and file stay in line with party thinking.
In keeping with its more professional role, the PLA has lost influence over non-military affairs. It was forced by Jiang Zemin to give up a vast business empire. It also appears to be losing clout at the top of the party, where there is no PLA representative on the politburo's standing committee.
Some analysts think PLA generals are happy with this, so long as they retain influence over the areas which really matter to the military – specifically the Taiwan issue and relations with America.
There have been suggestions that on at least one of these – US relations – military thinking is different to the party leadership's. Senior military figures are thought to be far more wary of US intentions in the region, especially regarding Taiwan.
Provinces and townships
China is governed as 22 provinces, five "autonomous" regions, four municipalities - considered so important they are under central government control (Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing) - and two special administrative regions.
The people in charge of these bodies – a group of about 7,000 senior party and government leaders - are all appointed by the party's organisation department.
Although many are powerful individuals – the governor of Sichuan province rules over 85 million people – their ability to deviate from the party line is limited because they know their next career move would be at stake.
Nevertheless, most analysts agree the centre has lost some control to the regions in the past two decades, especially in the economic field.
There has even been speculation that some provinces want to break away from central control, though this is seen as highly unlikely to be allowed.
Power and decisions flow down from the top level to an intermediate level of counties and cities, and finally to the local-level townships. At each level the party and government structures sit side by side, with the party's representative always the more powerful. Thus a province's party general-secretary takes precedence over its governor.
Each level has its own local People's Congress which elects its own government for periods of three or five years.
These local governments have been given limited leeway to adopt local regulations in keeping with their situation.