“For most of its 3,500 years of history, China led the world in agriculture, crafts, and science, then fell behind in the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution gave the West clear superiority in military and economic affairs,” write the editors of the 1999 CIA World Factbook. As the 21st century begins, the country is beginning to modernize its economy, and in the process, is lifting millions of Chinese out of poverty. China is once again taking its place among the world’s great powers.
Still, China faces many challenges. For example, the nation’s move from an agricultural-based economy to an industrial one is causing enormous environmental problems. In addition, many Chinese are being left behind as China’s economy is transformed: From 60 to 100 million surplus rural workers are adrift between the villages and the cities, subsisting on part-time low-paying jobs. Some experts warn that this could lead to political instability in China, as these poor workers begin to demand action from the government.
All these difficulties are exacerbated by the sheer size of China. The nation is home to over 1.2 billion people, roughly one-fifth of the world’s total population. Thus, China’s most serious problems are occurring on an enormous scale. From air pollution and food shortages to economic or political upheaval, developments in China will inevitably affect the global community. The viewpoints in this chapter examine some of the most pressing problems facing China.