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List of Chinese provinces and regions

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China's system of political geography differs somewhat from that in other countries. Most of it 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.

Province-level divisions[edit]

A full list of province-level divisions is:

Province — capital

Autonomous region — capital


Municipalities


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" means 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, the Pescadores and a few islands in the South China Sea. That situation continues to this day; Taiwan has had a separate government for 60 years. While listed as a province in the P.R.C., from the practical traveler's point of view, it is a separate country with its own visas, currency and so on.

Lower-level divisions[edit]

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

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. 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 lives and grew up elsewhere.

Development zones[edit]

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. By 2008, Shenzhen had a population of 10 million and Zhuhai approached 2 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[edit]

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, 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 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 several inland cities such as Nanjing and Wuhan.

Various Western powers also took pieces of China, called concessions, and administered them. Some of the treaties specifically provided that Chinese law did not apply in these areas, or to foreigners in China. To Western powers, this was an obvious precaution against a barbaric system; to many Chinese, it was a deeply felt insult. 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. These historic areas have been or are being remodeled and have become very popular tourist attractions for both Chinese and foreigners.

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

  • Germans in Qingdao, which now makes its 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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