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The People’ s Republic of China has the highest population of any country in the world, with an estimated 1.311 billion people in 2006. The population of India, the second country in the world to exceed a billion people, is not far behind at 1.122 billion. The rates of natural increase for each of these Asian giants, 0.6 percent for China and 1.7 percent for India, indicates that India will surpass China in total population some time around 2040, when both countries will have over 1.45 billion inhabitants. As India continues to gain significantly in population through mid-century, China is predicted to actually decline in population between 2025 and 2050 for several reasons: 1. the continuance of its low rate of natural increase (RNI), 2. the the government’s view that the birthrate is satisfactory (12 births per 1,000 people as opposed to India’s 24 births per 1,000) by married women in their childbearing years (15-49), and 3. China’s continuance of its one-child-per-family policy through the next five-year plan, 2006-10.
China’s experience with its one-child policy has led to some serious problems. Cultural preference is for a male child. In many instances, first-born girls have become victims of female infanticide. Despite this severe outcome, China intends to limit its population to 1.37 billion by 2010 in large part through the continuance of the one-child policy. The one-child policy has produced another inequity within China’s population: By 2020 there will be approximately 40 million more men than women in the population. This imbalance has already caused many men to question whether they will have the opportunity to marry and have a family of their own.
China is the fourth-largest country, with a total area of 9.6 million square kilometers, which is slightly smaller than the United States. The country has a mid-latitude location in eastern Eurasia and an extremely diverse climatic system. The land surface is varied, with extensive mountain regimes and desert areas in the west, loess plateaus in the north, and alluvial plains in the east. Despite the size of the country, only 15 percent of the land area is suitable for agriculture. Within this sector a great variety of agricultural products are produced. Double-cropping of rice is practiced extensively in the warm and humid southeastern China. Rice gives way to wheat and other more drought-tolerant crops in the north. The arid west is dotted with oasis-type agricultural systems.
Industrial growth in China has been very rapid in the past two decades. Spectacular strides have been made in metal production, machine manufacture, energy production and use, transportation equipment, telecommunication systems, and a wide variety of consumer goods. In addition, the service sector of the Chinese economy continues to expand with employment in the industrial sector. With a total labor force nearing 800 million, China is an economic force to consider in the global arena. The agricultural sector comprises half the labor force and contributes only 13 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The combined industry and service sectors comprise the other half of the labor force, with a collective contribution to GDP at 87 percent. The labor force in agriculture has dropped from over 70 percent in the late 1970s to its present level, and is predicted to continue this decline as more farm workers exit the rural areas and move to industrial and service sector jobs in the cities. By the year 2015, it is estimated that the percentage of the Chinese population will be evenly divided between urban and rural habitats. The significance of this shift is striking: As recently as 1975, rural residents represented approximately 84 percent of the population, while urban residents represented a mere 16 percent.
The rural areas of the country are suffering from rapid depopulation, the abandonment or downgrading of small farms to part-time activities, and low productivity. Nonetheless, the Chinese government has provided significant financial support to the enhancement of rural education. China’s nine-year compulsory education system is well established within the rural areas and literacy rates among young students have greatly improved. In addition, programs to modernize agricultural activities in rural China are expanding and thrusts are being made to improve adult education as well. The Chinese government spent nearly $12 billion on rural education in 2002, up from $5 billion in 1997. Despite these dramatic changes, the rural areas are far behind urban places in terms of economic development and social equity. The rural shortfall is related to the broader set of inconsistencies between China’s phenomenal economic growth and the less than desirable increases of inequality in the social sector. The next five-year plan is taking this inequity into account. Education differences between the urban and rural areas are one of the major targets for change. China’s 2000 national census showed that the countrywide illiteracy rate for those aged 15 and above was slightly over five percent. The rural areas, by contrast, registered nearly 12 percent in this category.
Imbalances between urban and rural areas exist, as well in the availability of medical and hygiene facilities. Urban places have 80 percent of these facilities available to them, while the rural areas, representing 70 percent of the population, have only 20 percent. Another area of concern to planners is China’s surprisingly low per-capita income, which was reported to be $6,600 in 2005, compared to the world average of $9,190. These figures represent gross national income in purchasing price parity (GNI PPP), which refers to gross national income converted to international dollars using a purchasing price parity conversion factor. The resulting dollars indicate the amount of goods and services that cold be purchased in the U.S. market. Not only is China well below the world average in this category, it is far below Hong Kong ($34,670), Japan ($31,410), and the United States ($41,950).
China’s rapidly expanding economic sector changed from a centrally planned system to one that is more market oriented. In the late 1970s, the country abandoned collectivized agriculture, a practice introduced early in the Maoist era and a copy of the system pioneered under the now defunct Soviet Union. In 2005, China achieved the enviable status as the second-largest economy in the world behind the United States. However, the impact of its large population growth resulted in very low per capita income. In 2005, over 150 million Chinese were subsisting below the international poverty line, which is two dollars per day. China is one of the world’s leaders in energy consumption as its economy rapidly expands. Its impact on the global trade in oil is considerable. China produces over three million barrels of oil per day, but its consumption is twice that amount. The deficit is made up with imports from a variety of oil-producing regions worldwide. Natural gas and coal are extensively used in China, and the country has extensive reserves of both of these energy sources.
The completion of the Three Gorges Project along the Yangtze River stands as a symbol of the scale of Chinese development efforts. The idea of damming the Yangtze to produce hydroelectric power was first proposed during the time of Sun Yat-sen early in the 20th century. In the 1950s, following a series of floods, Mao Tse-tung ordered the country’s engineers to produce feasibility studies on damming the river. The project was officially started in 1993 and is expected to be fully completed and to include a ship elevator system by 2009. The dam, which is 1.5 miles wide and 600 feet high, is by far the largest in the world and is heralded as the most gigantic engineering effort in China since the building of the Great Wall. The reservoir behind this massive structure stretches for 400 miles into the interior of China. This river system will allow oceangoing vessels access to regions rich in manufacturing activities and agriculture, and will reach the major city of Chongqing with its more than 30 million people. Hydroelectric power generation at the dam will produce over 18,000 megawatts of power, an amount sufficient to satisfy 10 percent of China’s energy needs.
The dam will also be beneficial in its containment of flooding on the unpredictable and sometimes violent Yangtze River. Devastating floods along the river have claimed over one million lives in the last 100 years, and caused untold damage to communities in its path. The Three Gorges Project is economically important; however, construction of the dam was severely criticized from the beginning. Construction and the subsequent filling of the vast reservoir displaced over 700,000 people from their homes in the river valley. In addition, hundreds of small villages and towns ended up at the bottom of the reservoir, along with countless archaeological items and thousands of acres of farmland. The agricultural land lost to the project is some of the most fertile in all of China.
China’s growth in energy production has led to another serious environmental issue: coal-fired plants providing desperately needed energy for urban areas and industry are spewing tons of carbon matter into the atmosphere on a daily basis. Two-thirds of the energy produced in China comes from the estimated 800 million tons of coal consumed annually. Add to this the fast-growing consumption of oil and natural gas, and it is clear that China will soon become the leading emitter of carbon into the atmosphere. Ironically, China is a member of the community of countries signing and ratifying the Kyoto Protocol aimed at limiting the global production of greenhouse gasses. China signed on even though there are no limits on the amount of pollutants it produces, because it was classified as a developing country in 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol was presented. Estimates now have China becoming the leading emitter of greenhouse gasses and surpassing the United States in that category sometime in the 21st century.
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