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China's system of political geography differs somewhat from that in other countries. In some ways it is more complex and it has undergone considerable change over the last century or so.

There is some ambiguity when one uses place names in China. For example "Chengdu" can mean either the city itself or the entire prefecture which includes significant amounts of countryside, many villages and some "small" towns with population anywhere up to a few hundred thousand. Moreover, when a Chinese says their hometown is Chengdu, it might mean his family and his identity papers are from there even if he actually grew up elsewhere.

Province-level divisions

Province-level divisions

Most of the country is broken up into provinces (省), but there are several other geographic units of the same hierarchical rank as provinces:

  • Various ethnic groups have autonomous regions (自治区), although their autonomy is far from complete. For the traveler, these can generally be thought of as provinces, but in political discussions the distinction may be important.
  • Four of the larger municipalities (市) are not part of provinces, but independent entities whose leaders report directly to Beijing. The smallest of these, Tianjin, has a population well over 10 million. The largest, Chongqing, has over 30 million residents.
  • Hong Kong and Macau are special administrative regions (SARs,特别行政区). These are former colonies — Hong Kong British and Macau Portuguese — that rejoined China in the late 90s. Their economies and distinct political systems are allowed to flourish under separate regulatory regimes from the mainland under the slogan "One country, two systems". The SARs have their own currencies, issue their own visas, and elect their own representative assemblies through a combination of direct and indirect representation.

A full list of province-level divisions is:

Province — capital

Autonomous region — capital


Special Administrative Regions

  • In pairs Guangxi/Guangdong and Shanxi/Shandong, xi is West and dong is East. "Shan" means mountain, referring to Mount Tai.
  • In pairs Henan/Hebei and Hunan/Hubei, nan is South and bei is North. "He" means river, referring to the Yellow River. "Hu" is lake, referring to the big lake near Changde.

Taiwan is a special case. At the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, the Communists held most of China and the defeated Nationalists held only Taiwan and some other islands like the Pescadores and Kinmen. Both sides claimed to be the only legitimate government of China, and the official names reflect that, People's Republic of China (PRC) for the Communists and Republic of China (ROC) for the Nationalists; even today, both governments (at least in theory) support eventual reunification. The Chinese government is very insistent that Taiwan is a renegade province, not a country, and strongly opposes anything even resembling recognition, such as allowing Taiwan representation in the World Health Organisation. Meanwhile, there is extensive trade and heavy Taiwan investment in China.

From the practical traveler's point of view, however, Taiwan is a separate country and has been for decades, since it has its own visas, currency and so on. We therefore treat it in a separate article here.

Lower-level divisions

Some of this structure repeats at a lower level. Provinces and regions are generally broken up into prefectures and prefecture-level cities. Where a given minority or minorities predominate, the prefecture can be an Autonomous Prefecture (自治州) for the various ethnic groups. Within prefectures and cities, autonomous or otherwise, there are also Autonomous Counties (自治县) depending on their ethnic composition.

Within a province or autonomous region political geography can be broken down into:

  • Prefectures (州) and Prefecture-level Cities (市) - Although larger, these function similarly to counties in the American political geographic system. Prefectures are predominantly rural while prefecture-level cities are distinguished by a major anchoring urban area, which usually lends its name to the entire area.
  • Counties (县) and County-level Cities (市) - these are subdivisions within prefectures or prefecture-level cities. For major urban areas like Beijing, counties are rural and remote from the city proper. A county-level city will be larger than a township but not major enough to anchor the entire region.
  • Districts (区) and Townships (镇) - Within the urban or suburban area of a prefecture-level city or province-level municipality, the land is further divided into districts. In the countryside, the county is divided into townships which are generally small towns that form the economic center for surrounding villages. In Maoist times, each township formed a commune (人民公社).
  • Villages (村) or Neighborhoods - These are the smallest units of political organization. Neighborhoods are the most local level of Communist Party organization in an urban area while rural villages are the level for China's experiments with grass-roots democracy since some, under the supervision of the Carter Center, hold free and contested elections for their leaders. Many villages have long-since been absorbed by fast-growing cities and townships.

For example, in the largest-to-smallest order generally used in China: Guangdong Province - Dongguan City - Qingxi Town - Xie Kang Village.

Development zones

The skyline of Pudong, Shanghai

There are also Special Economic Zones (SEZ, 经济特区) set up to encourage development and foreign investment with tax concessions and other government measures. These began in 1980 as a provincial government initiative supported by Deng Xiaoping. SEZs tend to be prosperous, have large expatriate communities, and have more Western restaurants and facilities. They are:

Development in these areas has been phenomenal. In 1978, Shenzhen (next to Hong Kong) and Zhuhai (next to Macau) were groups of fishing villages, with a population of a few hundred thousand each; in a few years, both were bustling modern cities. By 2010, Shenzhen population was over 10 million and Zhuhai over 1.5 million. The other SEZs have also undergone enormous changes. Pudong was mostly farmland in 1990, but now has more skyscrapers than New York.

There are also many other areas where investment is encouraged. The national government started a program in 1984 that opened up 14 coastal cities, and all the capitals of inland provinces or autonomous regions, for investment. There are also many provincial, city, county and township-level economic development programs. However, the SEZs remain the most developed areas with the most advanced administrative systems for investment and spurring economic development.

Treaty ports and concessions

When Europeans came to China by sea, from the late 1500s on, the Emperor strictly controlled their trade and movements. For several centuries, the only Western base was the Portuguese colony of Macau, and trade was permitted only at Canton (Guangzhou) under a variety of restrictions.

After the Chinese defeat in the first Opium War, in 1842, much of that changed. Many of the restrictions were removed and five coastal cities were opened to Western trade — Guangzhou (then called Canton) in Guangdong, Xiamen (Amoy) and Fuzhou in Fujian, and Ningbo and Shanghai in Zhejiang. These were known as "treaty ports" because it was a treaty that opened them up. By the same treaty, Britain acquired a Far Eastern base of its own, Hong Kong.

After the Second Opium War, ending in 1860, other cities were opened to trade, including more coastal cities such as Shantou and Tianjin, and inland cities such as Nanjing and Wuhan. Eventually, there were over 80 treaty ports; Wikipedia has a full list.

Western architecture on Gulangyu

Various Western powers also took pieces of China, called concessions, and administered them; the treaties or leases specifically provided that Chinese law did not apply in these areas. To Western powers, this was an obvious precaution since the Chinese system was horrendously brutal and hopelessly corrupt. To the Chinese government of the day, it was astounding arrogance, but something the "barbarians" had to be allowed to get away with until China was stronger. The current Party Line talks of China's "century of humiliation", from the First Opium War in 1842 to the glorious rise of a "New China" with the Communist victory of 1949.

Several nations had concessions in Shanghai; today the old French Concession is one of the more elegant tourist attractions. Other areas such as Hankou (part of Wuhan), Gulangyu in Xiamen, Shamian Dao in Guangzhou and parts of Tianjin also had concessions for several nations.

Today, many of these historic areas have been or are being renovated and are popular tourist attractions for both Chinese and foreigners. Even in the days of the concessions, most of their population was Chinese and many rich or important Chinese lived there. For example, Shanghai has various historical buildings converted to museums and they are all in foreign concession areas; the French Concession has the homes of the Republic's first President, Sun Yat Sen (Sun Zhongshan), his wife Soong Qing Ling and Premier Zhou Enlai, and the building where the Chinese Communist Party had its first national meeting while the nearby Jing'an district, which was part of the British Concession, has Chairman Mao's Shanghai house.

In some areas, only one nation had a concession. These included:

  • Germans in Qingdao, which now makes a famous beer
  • French in Zhanjiang, near their Indochinese colonies
  • Russians with a large naval base in Dalian, then called Port Arthur, and Harbin which was a base for their railroad construction.
  • A British naval base in Weihai, just across the bay from Dalian.

This is not a complete list.

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