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Yangtze River
China is the third largest country in the world, after Russia and Canada. Slightly larger than the United States including Alaska, it covers nearly 9,596,960 square kilometers (3,690,100 square miles). Included in this total are 9,326,410 square kilometers of land and 270,550 square kilometers of inland lakes and rivers. described as part of East Asia, China is south of Mongolia and the Siberian land mass, west of the Korean Peninsula and insular Japan, north of Southeast Asia, and east of Central and South Asia. China's contour is reasonably comparable to that of the United States and lies largely at the same latitudes.

In some cases China is listed as the world’s third largest country; in other cases it is ranked fourth. Some sources have gone as far as to say that China, including Taiwan is the third largest country while the mainland with Taiwan is the fourth largest According to the World Population Review: The country ranked third changes depending upon the source of the comparison. Encyclopedia Britannica gives the third slot to China (9,600,013 km²) and places the United States in fourth. However, other sources, such as the United Nations and the CIA World Factbook, display a larger area for the U.S. and rank it above China. The difference between the high and low estimates for the U.S. appears to be because one includes coastal and territorial waters, but the other does not. However, considering China's area does not seem to include coastal and territorial waters, and the U.S. is smaller than China until those waters are added to the mix, we'd give the nod to China.” [Source: World Population Review, 2022]

The Chinese mainland extends 4,845 kilometers (3,011 miles) from east-northeast to west-southwest and 3,350 kilometers (2,082 miles) south-east to north-northwest across the East Asian landmass in an erratically changing configuration of broad plains, expansive deserts, and lofty mountain ranges, including vast areas of inhospitable terrain. The eastern half of the country, its seacoast fringed with offshore islands, is a region of fertile lowlands, foothills and mountains, desert, steppes, and subtropical areas. The western half of China is a region of sunken basins, rolling plateaus, and towering massifs, including a portion of the highest tableland on earth. The vastness of the country and the barrenness of the western hinterland have important implications for defense strategy In spite of many good harbors along the approximately 18,000- kilometer coastline, the nation has traditionally oriented itself not toward the sea but inland, developing as an imperial power whose center lay in the middle and lower reaches of the Huang He (Yellow River) on the northern plains. [Source: Library of Congress]

From east to west China stretches about 5,000 kilometers from the Heilong Jiang (Amur River) to the Pamir Mountains in Central Asia. From north to south, the distance is approximately 4,050 kilometers from Heilongjiang Province to Hainan Province in the south and another 1,450 kilometers farther south to Zengmu Shoal, a territorial claim off the north coast of Malaysia. China's climate ranges from subarctic to tropical. Its topography includes the world's highest peaks, tortuous but picturesque river valleys, and vast plains subject to life- threatening but soil-enriching flooding. These characteristics have dictated where the Chinese people live and how they make their livelihood.

Even though China is the world's most populous country, much of its land is uninhabitable or near uninhabitable. The western half of the country is mostly desert. The central and southern portions of the country is covered with rugged mountains and the northeast is heavily forested and bitterly cold in the winter. China also embraces rain forests, fog-shrouded coasts, evergreen forests, misty green mountains, vulnerable flood plains and vast steppes.

The lowest inland point in China — the second lowest place in the world after the Dead Sea — is at Turpan Pendi, 140 kilometers southeast of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, at 154 meters below 8 sea level. With temperatures that have reached 49.6 C, it also ranks as one the hottest places in China. The highest point in China is Mount Everest at 8,849 meters (29,031 feet).

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article on Geography of China Wikipedia ; University of Washington Site Geography Section ; Rivers and Lakes in China ; Maps of China Maps of China ; Library of Congress Map Collection (do a Search for China ) ;

China's Provinces and Borders

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Guilin area of southern China
China comprises 22 provinces (Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Guizhou, Hainan, Hebei, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Gansu, Jiangxi, Jiangsu, Qinghai, Shaanxi, Shandong, Shanxi, Sichuan, Yunnan, Zhejiang, and, in the northeast (Manchuria), Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning), five autonomous regions (Tibet, the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region), and four government-controlled municipalities (Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai, and Tianjin). The five autonomous regions are populated by large numbers of ethnic minorities. China's three largest cities — Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin — and Chongqing are governed directly by the Chinese government as municipalities. China officially divides itself into 23 provinces, numbering Taiwan as its 23d. Hong Kong became a special administrative region of China in 1997, and Macao achieved this status in 1999. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

China has a total of 22,117 kilometers (14,900 miles) of land boundaries with 14 other nations — more countries than any other country. China's total boundary length, including the coastline (14,500 kilometers-9,010 miles) is 36,647 kilometers (22,771 miles). These borders include: Afghanistan, 76 kilometers (47 miles); Pakistan, 523 kilometers (325 miles); Tajikistan, 414 kilometers (257 miles); Kyrgyzstan, 858 kilometers (533 miles); Kazakhstan, 1,533 kilometers (953 miles); Mongolia, 4,677 kilometers (2,906 miles); Russia, 3,645 kilometers (2,265 miles); North Korea, 1,416 kilometers (880 miles); India, 3,380 kilometers (2,100 miles); Bhutan, 470 kilometers (292 miles); Nepal, 1,236 kilometers (768 miles); Hong Kong, 30 kilometers (19 miles); Laos, 423 kilometers (263 miles); Myanmar, 2,185 kilometers (1,358 miles); and Vietnam, 1,281 kilometers (796 miles). [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography, Gale Group, Inc., 2003]

The Yellow Sea lies between the east coast of China and the Korean peninsula. Further south is the East China Sea. Off the southern coast of China is the South China Sea. There is about 4,300 miles of coastline. China’s coastline extends 14,500 kilometers from the border with North Korea in the north to Vietnam in the south. China’s coasts are on the East China Sea, Korea Bay, Yellow Sea, and South China Sea. China claims a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea, a 24-nautical-mile contiguous zone, a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, and a 200-nautical-mile continental shelf or the distance to the edge of the continental shelf.

James A. Millward wrote in the New York Times: “Although P.R.C. propaganda obsessively asserts that all places and peoples under the C.C.P.’s control today have been Chinese since ancient times, it is the Qing empire (1636–1912) that is responsible for the rooster-shape territory we now associate with China. Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet were all Qing acquisitions, as was Mongolia. Hong Kong’s peculiar status today is also a legacy of Qing policy. The special economic zones that Deng Xiaoping established in the late 1970s in Shenzhen and other Chinese cities revived a Qing precedent. Those zones look a lot like the traditional trade enclaves in Kiakhta, Kashgar, Hong Kong and the treaty ports. And like the Qing trade enclaves, they facilitate commerce by granting legal and tax privileges to foreign businesses. Similarly, the promise of “One Country, Two Systems” — the principle that is supposed to guarantee Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and serve, Beijing hopes, as a model for the future reunification of Taiwan with the mainland — is another echo of Qing policy." [Source:James A. Millward, New York Times, Mr. Millward is a China scholar and historian., October 1, 2019. Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University, is the author of “Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang” and “The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction”]

Main Regions of China

China may be divided into the following geographic regions: 1) the 12,000-ft-high (3,660-m) Tibetan plateau, bounded in the north by the Kunlun mountain system; 2) the Tarim and Dzungarian basins of Xinjiang, separated by the Tian Shan; 3) the vast Inner Mongolian tableland; 4) the eastern highlands and central plain of Manchuria; and 5) what has been traditionally called China proper. This last region, which contains some four fifths of the country's population, falls into three divisions. A) North China, which coincides with the Huang He (Yellow River) basin and is bounded in the south by the Qingling Mts., includes the loess plateau of the northwest, the North China Plain, and the mountains of the Shandong peninsula. B) Central China, watered by the Chang (Yangtze) River, includes the basin of Sichuan, the central Chang lowlands, and the Chang delta. C) South China includes the plateau of Yunnan and Guizhou and the valleys of the Xi and Pearl rivers. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press]

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Sand dunes in Xinjiang
Northern China: The northern part of China proper is relatively flat and embraces the the Yellow River, the Qinling range, the Shanxi loess region, North Central Plain, Mongolian plateau, eastern highlands and central plain of Manchuria. Much of China's northern border is shared with Russia. Between Russia and China is Mongolia, a former puppet state of the Soviet Union that acted like a buffer between the two rival Communist nations. Mongolia is now free of Russian domination. China and Mongolia are both home to millions of ethnic Mongolians and they share the Gobi desert, a vast area of windy, grassy plains.

Central China embraces the Yangtze Basin, Sichuan Basin and the Yangtze plains and delta. Between Tibet and the plains of eastern China are rugged, difficult-to- traverse ridges of mountains, many of them in western Sichuan and Yunnan. Getting across these mountains can take weeks. East of these mountain is the Yangtze River valley and the plains of northern and eastern China. This area is the heavily- populated home of the Han Chinese. It is also largely agricultural and has four seasons.

Southeast China is a green, semitropical region inhabited by large numbers of ethnic minorities similar to the hill tribes found in neighboring Burma, Laos and Vietnam. There are numerous mountains and mountain ranges of various sizes. Large tracts of forest have been cleared here and deforestation-induced erosion is very noticeable. The southern part of China proper embraces the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, the Tung, Pi and Si river valleys, the Southeast coastal uplands and Gungdong-Guangxi Hills.

Western China is the home of the Tarim Basin and Taklimakan Desert, two of the driest and most desolate regions in the world, and the Tian Shan mountains. The Muslim ethnic groups that live here are similar to those found in the former Soviet Republics of Kazahkstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikstan. Many of the ethnic groups in western China are not particularly fond of the Beijing government or Han Chinese.

Southwest China is mainly a mountainous or highland area borders the two rivalling countries of Pakistan and India. China has traditionally been more friendly with Pakistan (the two nations built the incredible Karakoram Highway together) than India. In the 1960s, China and India fought a war over a inhospitable part of the Himalayas and the border in the area is still disputed. It is not possible to enter China from India. The spine of the Himalayas, including Mount Everest runs along the border between Tibet (part of China) and Nepal. Most of Tibet is occupied by the Tibetan Plateau, a dry, desolate region, punctuated by mountains and isolated lakes. The average elevation in Tibet is 14,000 feet; roads routinely pass over 16,000- to 17,000-foot passes; and there are 40 peaks over 22,000 feet high. Very few people live in Tibet. The Tibetan plateau embraces the Himalayas, Kunlun Mountains and the Tahseh Shan.

Time Zone: Although China crosses all or part of five international time zones, it operates on a single uniform time, China Standard Time (CST; Greenwich Mean Time plus eight hours), using Beijing as the base. China does not employ a daylight savings time system.

Main Geographical Features of China

The territory occupied by modern China is characterized by dramatic geographical diversity. Topographically, it is low in the east and high in the west. The land surface ascends in roughly three steps. The plains and lowlands in the east and southeast constitute the first step, occupying about 12 percent of the land. Two-thirds of the country, the two higher steps, are mostly mountains and high plateaus. The principal lowlands are 1) the Manchurian (Dongbei) Plain, drained by the Songhua (Sungari) River, a tributary of the Amur (Heilongjiang), and by the Liao River, which flows to the Yellow Sea; 2) the North China Plain, traversed by the lower course of the Yellow (Huang He) River; 3) the valley and delta of the Yangtze (Chang Jiang) River; and 4) the delta of the Pearl (Zhu) River surrounding Guangzhou (Canton). [Source: Cities of the World, Gale Group Inc., 2002, adapted from a December 1996 U.S. State Department report; Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington]

Satellite image of China

West of these lowlands, the country's topography rises to plateaus of 1,200–1,500 meters (about 4,000–5,000 feet): the Shanxi and Shaanxi loess plateaus, in central China, and the Mongolian Plateau, in the north. Beyond lie the high plateaus of Tibet, with an average elevation of 4,600 meters (15,000 feet), and the great mountain ranges. The highest mountains are the Kunluns and the Himalayas. North of Tibet are two plateau basins of Central Asia, the Tarim and the Junggar, which are separated from each other by the Tian Mountains. The Chinese portion of the Tian range, which also extends into the former USSR, rises above 7,000 meters (23,000 feet).

The Qinling or Qin Mountains, formerly known as the Nanshan ("Southern Mountains"), are a major east–west mountain range in southern Shaanxi Province, China. The mountains mark the divide between the drainage basins of the Yangtze and Yellow River systems, providing a natural boundary between North and South China and support a huge variety of plant and wildlife, some of which is found nowhere else on earth. The Qinling divide the densely populated and highly developed areas of the lower and middle plains of the Chang Jiang and, on its upper reaches, the Sichuan Basin, an area encircled by a high barrier of mountain ranges. Second only to the Qinling as an internal boundary is the Nan Ling, the southernmost of the east-west mountain ranges. The Nan Ling overlooks the part of China where a tropical climate permits two crops of rice to be grown each year. Southeast of the mountains lies a coastal, hilly region of small deltas and narrow valley plains; the drainage area of the Zhu Jiang (Pearl River) and its associated network of rivers occupies much of the region to the south. West of the Nan Ling, the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau rises in two steps, averaging 1,200 and 1,800 meters in elevation, respectively, toward the precipitous mountain regions of the eastern Tibetan Plateau.*

Populated Areas of China

Ninety percent of China's people live on one-sixth of the land. Most of China's population lives in the relatively flat and fertile eastern and southeastern third of the country, the traditional China Proper. This region includes the coastal plains, deltas and the fertile valleys of the Yellow (Huang He) River and Yangtze River, Asia's longest river, at 6380 kilometers (3960 miles). Many are peasants living, as did their forebears, in the low-lying hills and central plains that stretch from the highlands eastward and southward to the sea. Agriculture predominates in this vast area, generally favored by a temperate or subtropical climate. The meticulously tilled fields are evidence in part of the government's continuing concern over farm output and the food supply.

The high elevations, cold temperatures and generally arid conditions of the western portions of China, which make up more than half of the overall territory, have prevented the development of agriculture. Thus, the western region is more isolated and much more sparsely populated than the east. The coastal areas of China are the most densely populated regions, with a density of more than 400 people per square kilometer (1,036 people per square mile). Among the bustling port cities in this area are Shanghai near the Yangtze delta and Guangzhou in the Pearl River delta). Commercial development and high population density are also features of regions around the mouths of the major rivers, including the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers). The central regions have an average population density of 200 people per square kilometer (518 people per square mile). The western plateaus are sparsely populated, with densities averaging less than 10 people per square kilometer (26 people per square mile). [Source: Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia, Gale Group Inc., 2003]

Only 15 percent of the country is good for agriculture (compared to 21 percent in the U.S.) and most of this land is on the central eastern coast and along around the Yangtze and Yellow river valleys. About 34 percent of China is covered by pastures, and 14 percent by forests. Mountains cover 58 percent of China. Deserts cover 28 percent. Plains and basins cover around 35 percent. Based on 2005 estimates, 14.86 percent (about 1.4 million square kilometers) of China’s land is arable. About 1.3 percent (some 116,580 square kilometers) is planted to permanent crops. With comparatively little land planted to permanent crops, intensive agricultural techniques are used to reap harvests that are sufficient to feed the world’s largest population and still have surplus for export. An estimated 544,784 square kilometers of land were irrigated in 2004.

Lower Yangtze and Maritime South

The Lower Yangtze and South Central China is dominated by Wuhan and Shanghai, major industrial and commercial cities. Norma Diamond wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “This area had important urban centers as well as an affluent and productive agricultural sector even before the nineteenth-century rise of the treaty ports. It includes suburban Shanghai Municipality, the provinces ofJiangsu, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, and parts of Anhui and Zhejiang provinces. With its lakes and numerous navigable waterways, it is one of the richest and most densely populated areas of inner China. The climate is mild, with 240 frost-free days, and rainfall is ample. Double cropping is common, with alternation of winter wheat and summer rice. Cotton, silk, pigs and poultry, vegetable farming, ocean and freshwater fisheries, and rural industries have for generations supplemented peasant income. In recent years the expansion of towns and cities, exploitation of rich natural resources, and a thriving free market system have made this the leading area in industrial and agricultural output. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]

The Maritime South is a large region that includes southern Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangdong, Hainan, and Guangxi provinces, and it probably should be extended to cover Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan. It is linguistically very diverse, and in some sections there are large minority populations particularly in Guangxi, where minority peoples account for almost 40 percent of the total. Some scholars would divide the region into a northern tea-and-rice area and a southern double-cropping rice area. However, cropping, population density, urbanization, and communications depend on altitude: much of the region is mountainous, and temperatures and soil quality vary. Around the Pearl River Delta, near Guangzhou, which enjoys one of the highest living standards in China, population density reaches 2,000 persons per square kilometer, whereas in the uplands it is closer to 200 persons per square kilometer. Yao, She, Li, and Zhuang generally live in uplands areas unsuitable for Han methods of farming. It is regarded as one of China's richest regions today: along the coast Special Economic Zones and overseas investments have revitalized the modern sector of the economy and led to dramatic changes in living standards and life-styles.

North China Plain

The North China Plain of inner China includes the provinces of Henan, Hebei, Shandong, and the northern parts Jiangsu and Anhui. The historic center of Chinese expansion and influence, the region is nourished by the Huang He (Yellow River) and its tributaries. Flowing from its source in the Tibetan highlands, the Huang He courses toward the sea. The Han people have farmed the rich alluvial soils of the plain since ancient times, constructing the Grand Canal for north-south transport. The plain itself is actually a continuation of the Dongbei (Manchurian) Plain to the northeast but is separated from it by the Bo Hai Gulf, an extension of the Huang Hai (Yellow Sea). [Source: Library of Congress, 1987]

The Qinling mountain range, a continuation of the Kunlun Mountains, divides the North China Plain from the Chang Jiang Delta and is the major physiographic boundary between the two great parts of China Proper . It is in a sense a cultural boundary as well, influencing the distribution of custom and language. South of the Qinling divide are the densely populated and highly developed areas of the lower and middle plains of the Chang Jiang and, on its upper reaches, the Sichuan Basin, an area encircled by a high barrier of mountain ranges.*

The Loess Plateau, the North China Plain and central Manchurian Plain overlap and can be considered one entity. The Han people, China's largest ethnic group, have farmed the rich alluvial soils of the plain since ancient times, constructing the Grand Canal (Dayun He) for north-south transport. Like other densely populated areas of China, the plain is subject not only to floods but to earthquakes. For example, the mining and industrial center of Tangshan, about 165 kilometers east of Beijing, was leveled by an earthquake in July 1976 that reportedly also killed 242,000 people and injured 164,000.

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ Moving north to south, the area has from 190 to 250 frost-free days, light snowfall, and hot (30° C), rainy summers. Rich deposits from the Huang He (Yellow River) and its tributaries have enriched and built up the soils in many areas. Flooding and drought continue to be problems because of erratic rainfall. Agriculture is intensive: forests and grasslands have long since given way to the plow and some 40 percent of the total area is under cultivation. About 30 percent of the Chinese population live here, most engaged in agriculture. Average population density is 400 persons per square kilometer (in the 1990s), mainly concentrated in nucleated villages of fifty to several hundred households, surrounded by the fields. The main staple crops are spring wheat, corn, millet, and sweet potatoes harvested in the late summer and autumn. Tobacco and cotton are important cash crops. Some of the surplus rural labor has been absorbed into the industrial and commercial growth of major cities-such as Beijing, Jinan, Loyang, Shijiazhuang, and Tianjin-or industrial centers such as Shandong's Shengli oil fields and the coastal development zones. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia-Eurasia/China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994]

Deserts and Plateaus in China

The Gobi Desert is separated from the Manchurian Plain by the Great Khingan Mountains, which occupy a northeastern region of China straddling the China-Mongolia border. The Badanjilin Shamo forms the southern limit of the Gobi. Much of the Gobi is mountainous, stark terrain. The Ordos (or Mu Us) Desert is the extension of the Gobi that lies along the southern edge of Inner Mongolia (Nei Mongol). To the southeast, is the Loess Plateau. The Taklamakan Desert, also spelled Taklimakan and Teklimakan, is a desert in southwestern Xinjiang in Northwest China. It is bounded by the Kunlun Mountains to the south, the Pamir Mountains to the west, the Tian Shan range to the north, and the Gobi Desert to the east. Desertification is a problem in China. Currently, desert covers more than 2.6 million square kilometers (1 million square miles), or about 30 percent of the country's total land area. The Tarim Basin is located between two east-west mountain ranges in the Taklimakan Desert. This area is known for its sandstorms, arid conditions, extreme temperatures. The largest inland basin in China, the Tarim Basin measures 1,500 kilometers from east to west and 600 kilometers from north to south at its widest parts. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography, Gale Group, Inc., 2003]

About 25 percent of China's total area is classified as plateau. The Tibetan Plateau, enclosed by the Himalayas and the Kunlun Shan, is the highest and largest plateau in the world, covering some 2.3 million square kilometers (888,000 square miles) with elevations that average more than 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) above sea level. The land here continues to rise, gaining an average of 10 millimeters (0.04 inches) per year. North of Tibet rise two more plateaus: the Tarim Basin and the Junggar Basin. In these regions, the elevation averages 4,600 meters (15,000 feet). The Tian Shan range separates the two plateaus.

The Inner Mongolia (Nei Mongol) Plateau, China's second-largest plateau, lies in the northeast near the border with Mongolia. It covers an area of about 1,000,000 square kilometers (386,100 square miles), with 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) stretching from east to west and 500 kilometers (300 miles) from north to south. The elevation averages between 1,000 and 2,000 meters (3,300 to 6,600 feet). To the south is Loess Plateau, the third largest plateau in China, covering 600,000 square kilometers (308,881 square miles).“The last notable plateau in China is the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau in the southwest. The smallest plateau in China, it features unusual geology with dramatic stone outcroppings and overhangs.

Loess Plateau

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Loess Plateau
The Loess Plateau, also known as the Chinese Loess Plateau or Shaanxi Loess Region, is the largest loess plateau in the world, covering Shaanxi Province, parts of eastern Gansu and Shanxi provinces, and some of Ningxia-Hui Autonomous Region. Loess is a yellowish soil blown in from the Nei Monggol deserts. The loose, loamy material travels easily in the wind, and through the centuries it has veneered the plateau and choked the Yellow River (Huang He) with silt. Loess soil is very fertile. The Loess Plateau produces a lot of crops and would be one of the breadbaskets of China of it weren’t for the fact that the region is so dry. Much of it only receives 25 centimeters (10 inches of rain a year). Web Site: Wikipedia Wikipedia

Located northwest of the North Central Plain, The Loess Plateau is a 600,000-square-kilometer (230,000-square-mile) region, south of the Nei Monggol Plateau,where everything is gritty yellow: the mountains, the cliffs and the houses where many people live. Even the air is yellow. Covering an about the size of France, Belgium, and the Netherlands combined, it gets its color from the yellow dust that gets kicked up by the strong winds that blow through from time to time. The dust in turn comes from a fine loosely packed soil called loess, which is found in other parts of the world but not in the concentrations that are found here.

The Loess Plateau is one of least inviting landscapes in China. It was once covered by forest but is now largely bare except in areas of agriculture. On some barren slopes, without a tree or bush in sight, are the slogans “Make the Green Mountain Even Greener” written in large characters. Occasionally there are serious problems In May 2005, a huge sink hole swallowed 11 houses in Jixian County in Shanxi Province. Sixteen people escaped the 80-meter-wide, 1250-meter-long hole created in loess soil.

Loess in the Loess Plateau

The loess layer ranges from 100 to 200 meters (330 to 660 feet) in depth and rises to elevations that range from 800 to 2,000 meters (2,640 to 6,600 feet). Charles C. Mann wrote in National Geographic, “For eon upon eon winds have swept across the deserts to the west, blowing grit and sand into central China. The millennia of dust fall have covered the region with vast heaps of packed silt. For centuries the silt piles have been washing away into the Yellow River — a natural process that has exacerbated", thanks to poor agricultural practices called the the Dazhai Way, "into arguably the worst soil erosion problem in the world. [Source: Charles C. Mann, National Geographic, September 2008]

Compacted loess can be easily carved, and many farmers in Loess Plateau live in caves carved out of the loess cliff sides. Some farmers even dig down in their fields and make their homes underground. It is not usual in some places to see fields with smoking chimneys rising out of them from houses set in the middle of them.

Loess is hard when dry but dissolves when wet. Rains wash away huge amounts of soil and leave behind gullies that can become canyons and may travel across the region difficult. Loess is also light and blows away very easily. In the spring, when the winds are strongest, yellow dust from the Loess Plateau is carried westward into Korea and Japan, where it forms a pollen-like film. Some even makes it way to North America. The soils that blew away in dust bowl region of Oklahoma were primarily loess.

People, Development and Environmental Issues of the Loess Plateau

The Loess Plateau is one of the places Chinese where civilization began andwas formerly a part of the Silk Road leading to Central Asia. Since 1949 mining and industry have become important. "A visitor to China’s Loess Plateau would rightly be puzzled that the region was once the cradle of Chinese civilization,”Paul Mozur wrote in the New York Times. “Through thousands of years of farming, much of the once fertile soil has been leached to the point of infertility. Massive dust storms pick up the loose soil and carry it as far as Tokyo and Taipei. During sunset, fumes from factories block out the sun well before it can be observed sinking below the horizon.

Norma Diamond wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Loess Plateau remains overwhelmingly Han in ethnic composition. The heavy deposits of windblown less soils are fertile but fragile, prone to erosion, gullying, and landslides. Much of the land is not arable. Rainfall is unpredictable. Winter temperatures fall below freezing and the summers are hot. Agriculture is most successful along the Huang He (Yellow) and the Wei and Fen rivers. Wheat, millet, and maize are the main crops and some double cropping is possible. The rural areas support a lighter population density than the North China Plain, and the general standard of living is markedly lower except in the southeast sector. In the northwest and beyond the Great Wall, the desert begins."

The Loess Plateau has some of the world's highest erosion rates and embraces heavily industrialized eastern Gansu., Farming is difficult. Rain and irrigation water are in short supply. The edges of terraced fields routinely collapse down steep gullies. Many crops are coaxed from terraces or raised with irrigation water from the Yellow River and its tributaries. It is the last major area of arable land as one heads north. Many tree planting efforts in the Loess Plateau region have failed. In recent years entire hillsides have been covered with sink-wide, hand-formed basins made to held a single sapling and water so its survive and create a platform to prevent it from eroding away.

Mountains of China

Tibetan side of Mt. Everest
Mountains cover 33 percent of China’s landmass, plateaus 26 percent, basins 19 percent, plains 12 percent, and hills 10 percent. Thus, 69 percent of China’s land is mountains, hills, and highlands. China has five main mountain ranges, and seven of its mountain peaks are higher than 8,000 meters above sea level. The main topographic features include the Qingzang (Qinghai-Tibet) Plateau at 4,000 meters above sea level and the Kunlun, Qinling, and Greater Hinggan ranges. In the Himalaya Mountains, the world’s highest, are Mount Everest (known in China as Qomolangma) at 8,844.4 meters (based on new official measurements) and K2 at 8,611 meters, shared with Nepal and Pakistan, respectively.

Mountains, hills, and highlands impede communication and travel and leave limited level land for agriculture. Most ranges, including all the major ones, trend eastwest . In the southwest, the Himalayas and the Kunlun Mountains enclose the Tibetan Plateau, which encompasses most of Tibet Autonomous Region and part of Qinghai Province. It is the most extensive plateau in the world, where elevations average more than 4,000 meters above sea level and the loftiest summits rise to more than 7,200 meters. [Source: Library of Congress, 1987]

From the Tibetan Plateau, other less-elevated highlands, rugged east-west trending mountains, and plateaus interrupted by deep depressions fan out to the north and east. A continental scarp marks the eastern margin of this territory extending from the Greater Hinggan Range in northeastern China, through the Taihang Shan (a range of mountains overlooking the North China Plain) to the eastern edge of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau in the south. Virtually all of the low-lying areas of China — the regions of dense population and intensive cultivation — are found east of this scarp line.*

East-west ranges include some of Asia's greatest mountains. In addition to the Himalayas and the Kunlun Mountains, there are the Gangdise Shan (Kailas), Tanggula Mountains, the Kuruktag Shan,and the Tian Shan ranges. The latter stands between two great basins, the massive Tarim Basin to the south and the Junggar Basin to the north. The Himalayas form a natural boundary on the southwest as the Altai Mountains do on the northwest. Lesser ranges branch out, some at sharp angles from the major ranges.The mountains give rise to all the principal rivers. The spine of the Kunlun Mountains separates into several branches as it runs eastward from the Pamir Mountains. The northernmost branches, the Altun Shan and the Qilian Shan, rim the Tibetan Plateau in west-central China and overlook the Qaidam Basin, a sandy and swampy region containing many salt lakes. A southern branch of the Kunlun Mountains divides the watersheds of the Huang He and the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River).

The Tian Shan stretch across China between Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. Rich deposits of coal, oil, and metallic ores lie in the Tian Shan area. The Qinling Shandi (Ch'in Ling Shan), a continuation of the Kunlun Shan, divides the Loess Plateau from the Yangtze River Delta. In the far northeast, the Great Khingan Mountains (Da Hinggan Ling) form a barrier along the border with Mongolia, extending from the Amur to the Liao River in a north-south orientation. The elevation of these mountains only reaches 1,715 meters (5,660 feet). The Lesser Khingan Mountains (Xiao Hinggan Ling) line the northeastern border with Russia. To the east, along the border with Korea, lie the Changbai Shan (Forever White Mountains), where snow covers the peaks year-round. The Yellow Mountains (Huang Shan), southwest of Shanghai, contain seventy-two peaks, the tallest of which is Lianhua Feng (Lotus Flower Peak) at 1,864 meters (6,151 feet). This area is known for its spectacular, craggy sacred peaks and hot mineral springs with water temperature consistently at 42°C (108°F). [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography, Gale Group, Inc., 2003

Rivers in China

China has 50,000 rivers totaling some 420,000 kilometers in length and each having a catchment area of more than 100 square kilometers. Some 1,500 of these rivers each have catchment areas exceeding 1,000 square kilometers. Most rivers flow from west to east and empty into the Pacific Ocean. The Yangtze (Chang Jiang, Changjiang or Yangzi River), which rises in Tibet, flows through Central China, and, having traveled 6,300 kilometers, enters the Yellow Sea and East China Sea near Shanghai. The Yangtze has a catchment area of 1.8 million square kilometers and is the third longest river in the world after the Amazon and the Nile. The second longest river in China is the Yellow River (Huang He or Huanghe), which also rises in Tibet and travels circuitously for 5,464 kilometers through North China before reaching the Bo Hai Gulf on the north coast of Shangdong Province. It has a catchment area of 752,000 square kilometers.

Rivers have traditionally been important transportation routes in Chinese. The Yangtze River (the third longest river in the world after the Nile and the Amazon), the Yellow River (the second largest river in China) and the Mekong River all begin in eastern Tibet and twist and turn through rugged mountains before reaching elevations low enough for of them to become navigable. Inland drainage involving a number of upland basins in the north and northeast accounts for about 40 percent of the country's total drainage area. Many rivers and streams flow into lakes or diminish in the desert. Some are useful for irrigation. The largest of these rivers are the Konqi, the Kaidu, the Ulungur, and the Tarim. The latter is 2,179 kilometers (1,354 miles) long, making it China's longest river without an outlet to the sea.

Major watersheds (area square kilometers): A) Pacific Ocean drainage: 1) Amur (1,929,955 square kilometers); 2) Yangtze (1,722,193 square kilometers); 3) Huang He (944,970 square kilometers);4) Mekong (805,604 square kilometers).
Indian Ocean drainage: 1) Brahmaputra (651,335 square kilometers); 2) Ganges (1,016,124 square kilometers); 3) Indus (1,081,718 square kilometers); 4) Irrawaddy (413,710 square kilometers); 5) Salween (271,914 square kilometers)
Arctic Ocean drainage: 1) Ob (2,972,493 square kilometers);
Internal (endorheic basin) drainage: 1) Tarim Basin (1,152,448 square kilometers); 2) Amu Darya (534,739 square kilometers); 3) Syr Darya (782,617 square kilometers); 5) Lake Balkash (510,015 square kilometers).[Source: CIA World Factbook, 2022]

The Grand Yarlung Zangbo Canyon in the Tibet is the largest canyon in the world at 505 kilometers (316 miles) long and 6,009 meters (10,830 feet) deep. The Yar-lung Zangbo (the Brahmaputra) carved this canyon. The Three Gorges, a famous 322-kilometer-deep (200-mile-deep) canyon on the Yangtze that has been partly submerged by the Three Gorges Dam. Hutiaojian ("Tiger Leaping") Gorge, on the Jinsha River, an upper tributary of the Yangtze, is one of the world's deepest canyons at 3,000 meters (9,900 feet) deep. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography, Gale Group, Inc., 2003]

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Satellite image of the crop plain of northeast China

Major Rivers in China

Major Rivers (by length in kilometers): 1) Yangtze (6,300 kilometers); 2) Yellow River (Huang He) (5,464 kilometers); 3) Amur River source (shared with Mongolia and Russia) (4,444 kilometers); 4) Mekong River source (shared with Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam) (4,350 kilometers); 5) Brahmaputra River source (shared with India and Bangladesh) (3,969 kilometers); 6) Indus River source (shared with India and Pakistan) (3,610 kilometers); 7) Salween River source (shared with Thailand and Myanmar) (3,060 kilometers); 8) Irrawaddy River source (shared with Myanmar) (2,809 kilometers); 9) Pearl (shared with Vietnam) (2,200 kilometers); 1) Red River source (shared with Vietnam) (1,149 kilometers).[Source: CIA World Factbook, 2022]

Mountains give rise to all the main rivers of China. A southern branch of the Kunlun Mountains divides the watersheds of the Yellow and the Yangtze River. The Yangtze has traditionally divided China into north and south. The Yellow river takes a more northern route and empties into the Yellow Sea southeast of Beijing. Other important Chinese rivers include the Pearl River (near Hong Kong), Amur River in the north, Haiho River, Huaiho River and Brahmaputra (know as the Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibetan) is an important river in Tibet. One of its tributaries flows through Lhasa. The Mekong River originates in China. The Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, embraces the Jinsha (Yangtze), Lancang (Mekong) and Nujiang (Salween) rivers in the Yunnan section of the Hengduan Mountains. The Salween is an important river in Myanmar

Most of the great rivers within China flow eastward toward the Pacific. In the northeast, the Amur (Heilongjiang, Heilong or Black Dragon River) drains a great part of the Manchurian Basin as it flows along its 4,350 kilometers (2,719 miles) course. The Amur flows for 3,101 kilometers in Northeast China and an additional 1,249 in Russia. Other north-eastern rivers include the Liao, the Tumen, and the Yalu. The latter two both rising in Mt. Paaktu, flowing northeast and southwest respectively, and forming the boundary between China and the DPRK.

The longest river in South China is the Pearl River (Zhu Jiang, Zhujiang), which is 2,214 kilometers long. Along with its three tributaries, the Xi, Dong, and Bei’West, East, and North rivers, it forms the rich Zhujiang Delta near Guangzhou, Zhuhai, Macau, and Hong Kong. The Pearl River flows to form the large Boca Tigris estuary between Hong Kong and Macau, linking Guangzhou to the South China Sea. The West River in southeastern China is an important commercial waterway. Other major rivers are the Liaohe in the northeast, Haihe in the north, Qiantang in the east, and Lancang in the southwest. The Hai River (Hai He, Haihe), like the Pearl River (Zhu Jiang) and other major waterways, flows from west to east. Its upper course consists of five rivers that converge near Tianjin, then flow 70 kilometers (43 miles) before emptying into the Bo Hai Gulf (Gulf of Chihli). Another major river, the Huai River (Huai He, Huaihe), rises in Henan Province and flows through several lakes before joining the Chang Jiang near Yangzhou.*

Lakes in China

A) Major fresh water lakes (area square kilometers): 1) Poyang Hu (3,350 square kilometers); 2) Dongting Hu (3,100 square kilometers); 3) Hongze Hu (2,700 square kilometers); 4) Tai Hu (2,210 square kilometers); 5) Hulun Nur (1,590). B) Major salt water lakes: 1) Quinghai Hu (4,460 square kilometers); 2) Nam Co (2,500 square kilometers); 3) Siling Co (1,860 square kilometers); 4) Tangra Yumco (1,400 square kilometers); 5) Bosten Hu 1,380 square kilometers). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2022]

Qinghai Lake is China's largest lake and the third-largest salt lake in the world, with an area of 4,209 square kilometers (1,625 square miles). The lake is slowly drying up. It is located on edge of the Tibetan plateau in the Qaidam Basin, a sandy and swampy area that contains many other salt lakes, including Lakes Ngoring and Gyaring. [Source:Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography, Gale Group, Inc., 2003]

According to the Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geograph: Poyang Hu is the largest freshwater lake in China with a surface area of 2,779 square kilometers (1,073 square miles). It is situated south Yangtze River in southeast China. Dongting Hu is a large, shallow lake also south of the Yangtze. About 40 percent of the Yangtze's water travels through several channels into the lake. Lake Tai is located at the base of Mount Yu Shan on the other side of the Great Canal, just inland from Shanghai. Baiyangdian Lake (360 square kilometers/140 square miles) is used as a water source for the region just to the southwest of Beijing, which is home to hundreds of thousands of people. The lake is drying up due to overuse for industrial and agricultural production and drinking water, as well as a result of recurring drought.

Among the other notable lakes in China, located in the various mountain ranges, are Erhai Lake, a freshwater lake on a plateau in Yunnan; Tianchi Lake (Heavenly Lake) in the Tian Shan Mountains in northwest China about 115 kilometers (70 miles) northeast of Ürümqi; and Lake Bosten, also in the northwest, between the Tian Shan and Kuruktag Shan Mountains.

20080317-b04-3-Bmud_pyramids2 bucklin reclaiming land.jpg
Land reclaimed from the sea

Coastal Areas of China

China's extensive territorial waters are principally marginal seas of the western Pacific Ocean; these waters wash the shores of a long and much-indented coastline and approximately 5,000 islands. The Yellow, East China, and South China seas, too, are marginal seas of the Pacific Ocean. More than half the coastline (predominantly in the south) is rocky; most of the remainder is sandy. The Bay of Hangzhou roughly divides the two kinds of shoreline. [Source: Library of Congress]

China has a total of 14,500 kilometers (9,010 miles) of coastline. The mainland's 5,774 kilometers (3,588 miles) coastline, extending from the mouth of the Yalu River in the northeast to the Gulf of Tonkin in the south, forms a great arc, with the Liaodong and Shandong peninsulas in the north protruding into the Yellow Sea and the Leizhou Peninsula in the south protruding into the South China Sea. China's territory includes several large islands, the most important of which is Hainan, off the south coast. Other islands include the reefs and islands of the South China Sea, extending as far as 4° n. These reefs and islands include Dongsha (Pratas), to which Taiwan has also laid claim. [Source: Cities of the World, Gale Group Inc., 2002, adapted from a December 1996 U.S. State Department report]

According to the Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography: The waters surrounding China are principally seas of the Pacific Ocean. From north to south along the western coast, they include the Yellow Sea (Huang Hai), East China Sea (Dong Hai), and the South China Sea (Nan Hai). The South China Sea features a deep ocean floor. Elsewhere, the continental shelf supports coastal fish farms and also contains substantial oil deposits. [Source: Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of Physical Geography, Gale Group, Inc., 2003]

Korea Bay and the Gulf of Chihli (Bo Hai), both inlets of the Yellow Sea, have substantial amounts of sea ice. Korea Bay separates the Liaodong Peninsula from North Korea. The turbulent waters of the Gulf of Chihli are relatively shallow, at 20 meters (70 feet). Also, the coastal area of the Gulf of Chihli has extensive wetlands, including riverine wetland, marshes, and salt marshes. The Taiwan Strait lies between the mainland and the island of Taiwan. The Gulf of Tonkin lies off the coast of Guangxi, the extreme southeastern province of China, located between Hainan Island and Vietnam.

There are more than five thousand islands lying off the eastern coast of China. Taiwan (with an area of 36,000 square kilometers/ 22,500 square miles) — if you consider it part of mainland China — is the largest. Hainan Island (about 34,000 square kilometers /21,250 square miles) is the second-largest island, but it is the largest which is fully under the jurisdiction of China. Other neighboring islands include the Spratly Islands, the Diaoyutai Islands, the Paracel Islands, and the Pescadores. The ownership of all of these islands groups is under dispute.

More than half the coastline (predominantly in the south) is rocky, while most of the remainder is sandy. The Hangzhou Bay (Hangzhou Wan), just south of Shanghai, roughly divides the two types of shoreline. The Shandong Peninsula juts out at the northernmost reach of the Yellow Sea. It features the dramatic and sacred peak, Tai Shan (1,530 meters/5,069 feet). North of the Shandong Peninsula, the coastline curves around another land mass: the Liaodong Peninsula. This peninsula separates Korea Bay from the Gulf of Chihli. In the south, separating the Gulf of Tonkin from the South China Sea, the narrow Qiongzhou Peninsula extends out from the mainland at China's southernmost point and almost touches Hainan Island.

“The coastal areas of China are the most densely populated regions, containing more than 400 people per square kilometer (1,036 people per square mile). Bustling port cities lie along the coast, from Shanghai near the Yangtze Delta to Guangzhou (Canton), where the West River and Bei River join to become the Pearl River. A lot of urbanization and development is taking place in coastal areas. A 2012 study by Texas A&M University and Yale University shows the amount of developed land in low-elevation coastal areas in China is soaring/ In 2000, 13,500 square kilometers (5,200 square miles) of low-elevation coastal land had been built up. By 2030, that is set to nearly quintuple to 63,600 square kilometers (24,500 square m), an area nearly as large as the Netherlands and Belgium combined. [Source: David Fogarty and Clare Baldwin, Reuters, July 22, 2012]

Wetlands in China

There are wetlands areas along most of China's major rivers The coastal area of Bo Hai (Gulf of Chihli) has extensive wetlands, including riverine wetland, marshes, and salt marshes. Some of this area has land reclaimed from the sea. There are plans to reclaim more. According to the Chinese government: China has more than 660,000 square kilometers of wetland, representing 10 percent of the world's total the largest wetland area in Asia and the fourth-biggest in the world. There are 31 kinds of natural wetland and nine man-made wetland, according to the International Convention on Wetlands. They include natural marsh wetland, river wetland, littoral wetland and reservoir wetland. These are scattered throughout China, from the cool temperature zone to tropical area, from coast to inland, from plains to plateau. Eastern China is rich with river wetland; the northeast has marsh wetland; lake wetlands are found in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River and the Tibetan Plateau; mangrove and man-made wetland in tropical areas are found in Hainan and Fujian provinces. [Source:]

China's wetlands support thousands of plant and animal species. There are around 5,000 species of plants and 3,200 species of animals in littoral wetlands, and around 1,560 species of advanced plants and 1,500 species of advanced animals in wetlands inland. China has about 770 species of freshwater fish, including many migratory fishes that only reproduce in wetlands. Thirty-one of the 57 endangered bird species in Asia are found in China's wetlands. China also has 50 of the 166 species of geese and ducks and nine of the 15 species of cranes. Some wetlands are mandatory stop-overs for some migratory birds, such as the Poyang Lake Wetland for white cranes in Jiangxi Province.

Management of water resources and flood control has posed a challenge to the government for decades, and mismanagement has exacerbated the water supply problems. Wetlands have shrunk dramatically in recent years due to human activities. About half of the littoral mudflats, 80 percent of the natural marsh wetlands at Sanjiang Plan in northeastern Heilongjiang Province and 1,000 natural lakes disappeared by the mid-1990s. China joined the International Convention on Wetlands in 1992 and started its work on wetland protection. In early 2002 the government announced plans to allocate the equivalent of one billion U.S. dollars for a ten-year program of wetlands conservation, and designated 200 new wetlands areas for protection. So far, 30 wetlands in China are on the authoritative Ramsar (after a small town in Iran where the convention was signed) List of Wetlands of International Importance. They include the Zhalong Nature Reserve in Heilongjiang Province, Poyang Lake Nature Reserve in Jiangxi Province, Dongting Lake Nature Reserve in Henan Province and Chongming Dongtan Natural Reserve on Chongming Island (County) in Shanghai.

Reclaimed Land in China

Since 1949, China has carried out extensive land reclamation projects. Between 1949 and the 1990s, it created more artificial land than any other country. A total area of about 13,000 square kilometers has been reclaimed from the sea. In Guangdong, a land reclamation project is in progress in Xiamen. About 150 square kilometers was planned to be reclaimed from the sea in 2009. From June 2004 to the present, land reclamation is on going in Shantou, where there are plans to reclaim 146 square kilometers.[Source: Wikipedia]

Between 2003 and 2006, the Shanghai government spent 40 billion yuan on the Nanhui New City, formerly called Lingang New City Project of Shanghai, to reclaim 133.3 square kilometers of artificial land from the sea. Between 2009 and 2020, Jiangsu planned reclaim 21 parcels of tidal areas along the southern Yellow Sea, yielding a total of 1,817 square kilometers of new land. The largest single land reclamation project in Zhejiang Province, the Xuanmen Land Reclamation Project in Yuhuan County, started in 1975. It comprised three phases, of which phase II covered 53.3 square kilometers (February 1999 - April 2001), and phase III 45.3 square kilometers (March 2006 - 2010). Total land reclamation in the area of Taizhou City between 2004 and 2010, including the project mentioned above, will be 266.7 square kilometers.

Starting in March 2005, the Caofeidian Land Reclamation Project reclaimed a total of 310 square kilometers in Liaoning next to the island of Tangshan. The first stage of 12 square kilometers was finished in March 2006. The plan is to create space for the new industrial base of Shougang.

China' Boundary Disputes

Figures for the size of China differ slightly depending on where one draws a number of ill-defined boundaries. In 1987 China's borders, more than 20,000 kilometers of land frontier shared with nearly all the nations of mainland East Asia, were disputed at a number of points. In the western sector, China claimed portions of the 41,000-square-kilometer Pamir Mountains area, a region of soaring mountain peaks and glacial valleys where the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Soviet Union, and China meet in Central Asia. North and east of this region, some sections of the border remained undemarcated in 1987. The China-Burma border issue was settled October 1, 1960, by the signing of the Sino-Burmese Boundary Treaty. While most international governments recognize Taiwan as an independent country, China, claims it is one of its provinces. [Source: Library of Congress, 1987, 2006]

In October 2004, China signed an agreement with Russia on the delimitation of their entire 4,300-kilometer-long border, which had long been in dispute. The 6,542-kilometer frontier with the Soviet Union was a source of continual friction. In 1954 China published maps showing substantial portions of Soviet Siberian territory as its own. In the northeast, border friction with the Soviet Union produced a tense situation in remote regions of Nei Monggol Autonomous Region (Inner Mongolia) and Heilongjiang Province along segments of the Ergun He (Argun River), Heilong Jiang (Amur River), and Wusuli Jiang (Ussuri River). Each side had massed troops and had exchanged charges of border provocation in this area. There were border skirmishes here in the 1960s and 1970s that lead to several hundred deaths. The tensions subsided after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the signing of a border agreement in 1997. In a September 1986 speech in Vladivostok, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev offered the Chinese a more conciliatory position on Sino-Soviet border rivers. In 1987 the two sides resumed border talks that had been broken off after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Most of the mountainous and militarized boundary between India and China is in dispute. China’s de facto administration of the Aksai Chin section of Kashmir (which is disputed by India and Pakistan) is the subject of a major point of contention between China and India. India does not recognize Pakistan’s ceding lands to China in a 1964 boundary agreement. Eastward from Bhutan and north of the Brahmaputra River (Yarlung Zangbo Jiang) lies a large area controlled and administered by India but claimed by the Chinese in the aftermath of the 1959 Tibetan revolt. The area was demarcated by the British McMahon Line, drawn along the Himalayas in 1914 as the Sino-Indian border; India accepts and China rejects this boundary. In June 1980 China made its first move in twenty years to settle the border disputes with India, proposing that India cede the Aksai Chin area in Jammu and Kashmir to China in return for China's recognition of the McMahon Line; India did not accept the offer, however, preferring a sector-by-sector approach to the problem. In July 1986 China and India held their seventh round of border talks, but they made little headway toward resolving the dispute. Each side, but primarily India, continued to make allegations of incursions into its territory by the other.*

China is involved in a complex dispute with Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam over the Spratly (Nansha) Islands in the South China Sea. The Philippines claims an area known as Kalayaan (Freedom Land), which excludes the Nansha in the west and some reefs in the south. Malaysia claims the islands and reefs in the southernmost area, and there also is a potential for dispute over the islands with Brunei.* China, Taiwan, and Vietnam all claim sovereignty over both the Xisha (Paracel) islands, but the major islands of the Xisha are occupied by China. The 2002 “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” eased tensions but fell short of a legally binding code of conduct desired by several of the disputants. China also asserts a claim to the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Tai) in the Pacific Ocean. See Japan and the South China Sea Under International

Macau and Hong Kong

China has two special administrative regions (SARs): Hong Kong (Xianggang in Chinese) and Macau (Aomen in Chinese). Both are located near the southeast edge of China. Both maintain have quasi-independent political and economic government structures. They are technically supposed to be governed by China mainly in matters of foreign affairs and defense but in recent Beijing has been exerting a stronger grip on political power. In 1986, the United Kingdom agreed to transfer Hong Kong to the PRC in 1997; in March 1987, the PRC and Portugal reached an agreement for the return of Macau to the PRC on 20 December 1999.

As a result of the First Anglo-Chinese War (1842), China ceded Hong Kong Island to the United Kingdom under the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. In 1860 the British acquired in perpetuity the Kowloon (Jiulong) Peninsula under the Convention of Beijing. The remaining area, the New Territories, was leased for 99 years in 1898. The Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong was signed between the Chinese and British Governments in 1984. The entire colony was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR). Although originally the 1,092-square-kilometer area was part of Guangdong Province, the Hong Kong SAR reports directly to the State Council in Beijing. The head of state of Hong Kong is the president of China. The head of government is a Beijing appointee, the Chief Executive. Hong Kong has a partly popularly elected legislature and operates under the Basic Law, which embodies the principle of “one country, two systems” and states that the socialist system and policies shall not be practiced in Hong Kong; Hong Kong’s previous capitalist system and lifestyle are to remain unchanged until 2047. The Basic Law of the Hong Kong SAR was adopted on April 4, 1990, by the National People’s Congress (NPC) and came into effect on July 1, 1997. Chinese and English are the official languages of Hong Kong.

The area that has come to be called Macau had been a maritime way station between China and India and regions farther west since the early sixteenth century. Portugal first obtained a leasehold on the area from the Qing court in 1557, although China retained sovereignty. In 1844, without Beijing’s concurrence, Lisbon made Macau an overseas province of Portugal. Although China recognized Macau as a Portuguese colony in an 1862 treaty signed with Portugal, the treaty was never ratified by China, and Macau was never officially ceded to Portugal. A protocol dealing with relations between China and Portugal was signed in Lisbon in 1887 confirming the “perpetual occupation and government” of Macau by Portugal (with Portugal’s promise “never to alienate Macau and dependencies without agreement with China”). The islands of Taipa and Coloane also were ceded to Portugal, but the border of the Macau Peninsula with the mainland was not delimited. The Treaty of Commerce and Friendship (1888) recognized Portuguese sovereignty over Macau but again was never actually ratified by China. In 1974 the new Portuguese government granted independence to all overseas colonies and recognized Macau as part of China's territory. In 1979 China and Portugal exchanged diplomatic recognition, and Beijing acknowledged Macau as “Chinese territory under Portuguese administration.” A joint communiqué signed in 1986 called for negotiations on the Macau question, and four rounds of talks followed between June 30, 1986, and March 26, 1987. The Joint Declaration on the Question of Macau was signed in Beijing on April 13, 1987, setting the stage for the return of Macau to full Chinese sovereignty as a special administrative region on December 20, 1999.

Although originally the now 28.2-square-kilometer area was part of Guangdong Province, the Macau SAR reports directly to the State Council in Beijing. Macau’s head of state is the president of China. The head of government is a Beijing appointee, Chief Executive Edmund H.W. Ho. Macau, numbering an estimated 453,125 people (in July 2006), also has a partly popularly elected legislature and operates under the Basic Law of the Macau SAR, adopted by the NPC in 1993 and taking effect on December 20, 1999. Like the Basic Law of the Hong Kong SAR, Macau’s basic law covers the relationship between the central government and Macau; the fundamental rights and duties of the residents; the political structure; the economy and cultural and social affairs; external affairs; and the amendment process. Chinese and Portuguese are the official languages of Macau.

Image Sources: 1, 2) NASA; 3, 5, 6) CNTO; 4) Nolls China website; ; 7) Bucklin archives

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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