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The People's Republic of China is the world's most populous nation - more than 1.3 billion people call the Asian country home. China is playing an increasingly important role in the international community: it is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and one of the world's nuclear powers.
China has one of the world's oldest continuous histories and civilisations, dating back 4,000 years. Its history has been that of the rise and fall of imperial dynasties, culminating in its embrace of communism from the late 1940s onwards. Today, the communist state is juggling the needs of economic reform with efforts to maintain social control.
Following wars with Japanese invaders and China's Nationalist Party, the leader of the Communist People's Party, Mao Zedong, proclaimed the foundation of the People's Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949.
Mao focused on land reforms and the collectivisation of agriculture in the 1950s. However, his move to communes and intense focus on steel production at the expense of other activity during the 1958 Great Leap Forward led to three years of mass starvation - up to 20 million people died - and economic decline.
The failure of the program resulted in a serious split with the Soviet Union over the leadership of the communist world. In 1959, Liu Shaoqi replaced Mao as chairman of China, although Mao still controlled the powerful CCP politburo.
In 1964 Mao removed Liu Shaoqi as his successor and introduced a program of radical reforms to regain supreme power, known as the 'Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution'. From 1966 to 1976, Mao set out to make the health, education and cutural systems less elitist and also formed the Red Guard student movement, which helped spread the message of socialism around the country and staged a violent crackdown on the 'elite'.
Following Mao's death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping - whom Mao had once labelled as a 'despotic dwarf' and expelled twice - emerged as leader. Deng recognised that communist economic policies were failing to deliver growth and in 1978 he began to introduce economic reforms.
However, economic growth was not accompanied by political reform. Tension came to a head in 1989 when students led a pro-democracy demonstation in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Tanks and military forces were sent in to crack down on the protestors. Amnesty International believes up to 3,000 people were killed, but Chinese authorities put the figure at 300.
Today China is the world's largest economy and the most popular destination for foreign investment. But the government is under international pressure to improve its human rights record. International human rights groups highlight the state's intolerance of dissent and its execution of hundreds of criminals each year.
The island of Taiwan remains a thorn in China's side. China considers Taiwan part of its territory waiting to be reunified, by force if necessary, since the two sides split in 1949 at the end of the civil war. China has hundreds of missiles aimed at the island and relations between the two remain tense.
In 1997 the former British colony of Hong Kong became a special administrative region of China. The territory is governed under the principle of 'one country, two systems' - under which China has agreed to give the region a high level of autonomy for 50 years from the date of the handover. Hong Kong's constitution provides for the development of democracy, however pro-democrats in the territory have accused the Chinese government of dragging its feet on political reform.
While China's economy is rapidly reforming, political control in the communist state remains tight. Effective political control of the country is in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CPP), which has about 50 million members. No substantial opposition parties exist.
The National People's Congress (NPC) - China's parliament - is the highest state body. It is elected every five years and holds one session per year. The NPC elects a Standing Committee which meets regularly and has the power to appoint and remove the president and vice president of the country. It also supervises the enforcement of laws and has the power to change the constitution.
The president of the People's Republic of China is the country's head of state. Both the president and the vice-president are elected by the NPC for five-year terms. They can be elected for a maximum of two consecutive terms.
The State Council is the most important administrative organ of the central government. The main functions of the central government are to look after the economy, and appoint or remove top office holders.
The Chinese Communist Party takes care of economic development strategies, social priorities, foreign policy and military affairs. The government is subordinate to the party.
The 16th Party Congress in November 2002 and the 10th National People's Congress in March 2003 saw the largest change in the senior Chinese Party and state leadership since the early 1980s. All Politburo Standing Committee members stepped down except Hu Jintao, who succeeded Jiang Zemin as party general secretary and president.
China is the fastest growing major economy in the world. The growth is fuelled by rising consumption, more exports and foreign investments, privatisation of industries and strong growth in the housing market.
Communist China began dismantling collective farming and making its transition to a more market-based economy in 1978.
Growth and reform have brought major shifts in the country's economy.
Industrial and services sectors continue to grow, while agriculture is in decline - now contributing less than 15 per cent to the economy. The non-state sector, including private enterprise, is expanding rapidly, accounting for more than 70 per cent of China's gross industrial output in 2002.
China joined the World Trade Organization in December 2001, agreeing to a number of commitments to open up and liberalise its markets. Joining the WTO has given the country a huge economic boost, and in 2002 it passed the United States as the most popular global destination for foreign investment.
China's main agricultural products are rice, wheat and potatoes; and its main export commodities are machinery and equipment, textiles and clothing, footwear, toys, sporting goods and mineral fuels.
The Chinese currency - the yuan - has been pegged at a fixed rate to the US dollar since 1994. The US has for years urged China to alter its currency regime, arguing that the level of the exchange rate is a big factor in fuelling a trade imbalance.
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