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Regions and Cities for Expats in China

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: August 2013

Physical Features

China is the world’s fourth largest country and contains an enormous diversity of terrain types. The whole western half of China is sparsely inhabited and largely wild: the north and north-west are dominated by the harsh, almost lifeless Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts, with semi-desert and scrubland in the surrounding areas. In the south-west, Tibet is situated on an enormous high plateau which contains the highest mountains in the world. There are the tropical rainforests in Yunnan and neighbouring southern regions (though they have been drastically depleted.) It is only the fertile eastern flatlands that are densely populated.

Political Divisions

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is politically divided into 22 provinces, five autonomous regions, four municipalities and two Special Administrative Regions. Additionally, the PRC claims Taiwan as its 23rd province and has put pressure on international organisations such as the United Nations to recognise this claim. However, Taiwan is clearly de facto independent and, since 1895, has been under Chinese rule for a total of four years.

The western autonomous regions of Xinjiang and Tibet are relics of the Chinese Empire. Although Western China only contains about 20% of the country’s  total population, it is more ethnically diverse than the east. The autonomous region of Xinjiang is mostly composed of Uyghurs (45%), Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, who are all Turkic peoples. The population is also 40% Han Chinese, many of them deliberately implanted by the government in an effort to destabilisae Uyghur control. Meanwhile, Tibetans live not only in Tibet but also in parts of Qinghai and western Sichuan. Tibet was illegally invaded by the PRC in 1959 and is still a disputed region.

The southern regions of Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi Zhuang also contain many different ethnic groups, including the Yi, Miao and Zhuang. Other ethnically diverse areas include Inner Mongolia (‘inner’ is from the Chinese viewpoint), home to many Mongols, and the Northeast (the historic region of Manchuria), which contains Manchus, Koreans and Russians among others.

The east of China is the heartland of the country. Han Chinese greatly dominate the population here, though there are also sprinklings of Hui (Chinese Muslims), She, and, in the south, Yao. This area is by far the most populous and contains almost all of China’s largest cities. Beijing, in the north is the capital of China (appropriately, ‘Beijing’ means ‘Northern Capital’) and therefore the bureaucratic and administrative centre of the country. It is also a major centre of culture and is becoming an increasingly important financial centre. Beijing, orignally a Mongol army camp, is unusual for a large city in that it is neither coastal nor does it stand on a major river.

Shanghai is mainland China’s financial capital, and the country’s the largest city with a population of 23 million. It is also the leading industrial centre, an important port and the most Westernised city in Mainland China. The third most important mainland city is Guangzhou, which is an important southern industrial and trading centre and port, and, like Shanghai, has been more receptive to foreign influences than other Chinese cities.

Tianjin, near Beijing, is an important northern port and has a rapidly-growing economy. It also has the highest GDP per capita for any Chinese city. Chonqqing (formerly the more pronounceable Chungking), south-west of the core of China, is a major industrial city and the top city for motor manufacturing. Harbin in the Northeast is distinctive due to the Russian influence on its architecture. It is a centre for agricultural processing and light industry.




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