12 East Asia


East Asia is a large expanse of territory with China as its largest country. The countries of Mongolia, North and South Korea, and Japan are China’s neighbors. The island of Taiwan, off the eastern coast of China, has an independent government that has been separated from mainland China since shortly after World War II. On the southern coast of China is Hong Kong, a former British possession with one of the best ports in Asia. Under an agreement of autonomy, Hong Kong and its port were turned over to the Chinese government in 1997. Next door, to the west of Hong Kong, is the former Portuguese colony of Macau, which has also been returned to Chinese control. In western China is the autonomous region of Tibet, referred to by its Chinese name, Xizang. Tibet has been controlled by Communist China since 1949, shortly after the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was declared a country. Lobbying attempts by the Dalai Lama and others for Tibetan independence have not been successful. The region of Tibet has recently become more integrated with the country of China because of the immigration of a large number of Chinese people to the Tibetan region.

Japan has emerged as the economic dragon of East Asia. Japanese people have a high standard of living, and the country has been an industrial and financial engine for the Pacific Rim. Up and coming economic tigers like Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea have also experienced strong economic growth and are strong competitors in the global economy. Balancing out the advances of the economic tigers and Japan is the extensive labor base of the Chinese people, which has catapulted the Chinese economy to its position as a major player in the global economy. Left behind in the region is North Korea, which has isolated itself behind an authoritarian dictatorship since World War II. A number of countries that were former enemies in World War II are now trading partners (e.g., China and Japan), as economic trade bridges cultural gaps with common goods and services. However, cultural and political differences between these countries remain.

East Asia is home to over one-fifth of the human population. The realm’s location on the Pacific Rim provides access for interaction with the global economy. The location of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, just off the coast of mainland China, creates an industrial environment that has awakened the human entrepreneurial spirit of the realm. Manufacturing has fueled the high-tech engines of the Pacific Rim economies, which have recently taken advantage of the massive labor pool of the Chinese heartland. Across the Pacific from East Asia are the superpower of the United States and its NAFTA partners, countries that are both competing against and trading with the East Asian Community (EAC). The Russian realm to the north of East Asia—especially its Pacific port of Vladivostok—continues to actively engage the East Asian nations.

12.1 Introducing the Realm

Learning Objectives

  1. Outline the countries and territories that are included in East Asia. Describe the main physical features and climate types of each country.
  2. Understand the relationship between physical geography and human populations in East Asia.
  3. Summarize the main objectives in building the Three Gorges Dam.
  4. Describe how colonialism impacted China. Outline the various countries and regions that were controlled by colonial interests.
  5. Outline the three-way split in China after its revolution and where each of the three groups ended up.
Figure 1. Six Countries of East Asia and Neighboring Countries. China is the largest country in East Asia in both physical size and population. Other countries of East Asia include Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Hong Kong and Macau are former colonies that are part of mainland China.

A. Physical Geography

East Asia is surrounded by a series of mountain ranges in the west, Mongolia and Russia in the north, and Southeast Asia to the south. The Himalayas border Tibet and Nepal; the Karakoram Ranges, Pamirs, and the Tian Shan Mountains shadow Central Asia; and the Altay Mountains are next to Russia. The Himalayan Mountains are among the highest mountain ranges in the world, and Mt. Everest is the planet’s highest peak. These high ranges create a rain shadow effect, generating the arid conditions of type B climates that dominate western China. The desert conditions of western China give rise to a large uninhabitable region in its center. Melting snow from the high elevations feeds many of the streams that transition into the major rivers that flow toward the east.

Created by tectonic plate action, the many mountain ranges are also home to earthquakes and tremors that are devastating to human livelihood. The Indian tectonic plate is still pushing northward into the Eurasian plate, forcing the Himalayan ranges upward. With an average elevation of fifteen thousand feet, the Tibetan Plateau is the largest plateau region of the world. The plateau is sparsely populated and the only places with human habitation are the river valleys. Lhasa is the largest city of the sparsely populated region. Sometimes called “the Roof of the World,” the Tibetan Plateau is a land of superlatives. Its landscape is generally rocky and barren.

The vast arid regions of western China extend into the Gobi Desert between Mongolia and China. Colder type D climates dominate the Mongolian steppe and northern China. The eastern coast of the Asian continent is home to islands and peninsulas, which include Taiwan and the countries of Japan and North and South Korea. North Korea’s type D climates are similar to the northern tier of the United States, comparable to North Dakota. Taiwan is farther south, producing a warmer tropical type A climate. The mountainous islands of Japan have been formed as a result of tectonic plates and are prone to earthquakes. Since water moderates temperature, the coastal areas of East Asia have more moderate temperatures than the interior areas do. A type C climate is dominant in Japan, but the north has a colder type D climate. The densely populated fertile river valleys of central and southeastern China are matched by contrasting economic conditions. Rich alluvial soils and moderate temperatures create excellent farmland that provides enormous food
production to fuel an ever-growing population.


Figure 2. China and its main climate regions.

Most of China’s population lives in its eastern region, called China Proper, with type C climates, fresh water, and good soils. China Proper has dense population clusters that correspond to the areas of type C climate that extend south from Shanghai to Hong Kong. Around the world, most humans have gravitated toward type C climates. These climates have produced fertile agricultural lands that provide an abundance of food for the enormous Chinese population. To the south the temperatures are warmer, with hot and humid summers and dry, warm winters. The climates of China Proper are conducive for human habitation, which has transformed the region into a highly populated human community. The North China Plain at the mouth of the Yellow River (Huang He) has rich farmland and is the most densely populated region in China.

Northwest of Beijing is Inner Mongolia and the Gobi Desert, a desert that extends into the independent country of Mongolia. Arid type B climates dominate the region all the way to the southern half of Mongolia. The northern half of Mongolia is colder with continental type D climates. Northeast China features China’s great forests and excellent agricultural land. Many of China’s abundant natural mineral resources are found in this area. Balancing mineral extraction with the preservation of agricultural land and timber resources is a perennial issue.

Lying north of the Great Wall and encompassing the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia is the vast Mongolian steppe, which includes broad flat grasslands that extend north into the highlands. North China includes the Yellow River basin as well as the municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin. Areas around parts of the Yellow River are superb agricultural lands, including vast areas of loess that have been terraced for cultivation. Loess is an extremely fine silt or windblown soil that is yellow in color in this region. Deciduous forests continue to exist in this region, despite aggressive clearcutting for agricultural purposes. The Great Wall of China rests atop hills in this region.

Most of western China is arid, with a type B climate. Western China has large regions like the Takla Makan Desert that are uninhabited and inhospitable because of hot summers and long cold winters exacerbated by the cold winds sweeping down from the north. In a local Uyghur language, the name Takla Makan means “You will go in but you will not go out.” To the far west are the high mountains bordering Central Asia that restrict travel and trade with the rest of the continent. Northwestern China is a mountainous region featuring glaciers, deserts, and basins.

The central portion of China Proper is subtropical. This large region includes the southern portion of the Yangtze River (Chang Jiang) and the cities of Shanghai and Chongqing. Alluvial soils give this area excellent agricultural land. Its climate is warm and humid in the summers with mild winters; monsoons create well-defined summer rainy seasons. Tropical China lies in the extreme south and includes Hainan Island and the small islands that neighbor it. Annual temperatures are higher here than in the subtropical region and rainfall amounts brought by the summer monsoons are at times very substantial. This area is characterized by low mountains and hills.


Figure 3. China and its main population regions. The region of eastern China that is favorable to large populations is called China Proper. River basins historically produce abundant food, which in turn leads to concentrated populations.

B. River Basins of China

There are two major river systems that provide fresh water to the vast agricultural regions of the central part of China Proper. The Yellow River (Huang He) is named after the light-colored silt that washes into the river. It flows from the Tibetan highlands through the North China Plain into the Yellow Sea. Dams, canals, and irrigation projects along the river provide water for extensive agricultural operations. Crops of wheat, sorghum, corn, and soybeans are common with vegetables, fruit, and tobacco grown in smaller plots. The North China Plain has to grow enough food to feed its one thousand people per square mile average density. This plain does not usually produce a food surplus because of the high demand from the large population of the region. Beijing borders the North China Plain. Its nearest port, Tianjin, continues to expand and grow, creating an economic center of industrial activity that relies on the peripheral regions for food and raw materials. Cotton is an example of a key industrial crop grown here.

The Yangtze River (Chang Jiang) flows out of the Tibetan Plateau through the Sichuan Province, through the Three Gorges region and its lower basin into the East China Sea. Agricultural production along the river includes extensive rice and wheat farming. Large cities are located on this river, including Wuhan and Chongqing. Nanjing and Shanghai are situated near the delta on the coast. Shanghai is the largest city in China and is a growing metropolis. The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River is the world’s largest dam. It produces a large percentage of the electricity for central China. Oceangoing ships can travel up the Yangtze to Wuhan and, utilizing locks in the Three Gorges Dam, these cargo vessels can travel all the way upriver to Chongqing. The Yangtze River is a valuable and vital transportation corridor for the transport of goods between periphery and core and between the different urban centers of activity. Sichuan is among the top five provinces in China in terms of population and is dependent on the Yangtze River system to provide for its needs and connect it with the rest of China.

Northeast China was formerly known as Manchuria, named after the Manchu ethnic group that had dominated the region in Chinese history. Two river basins create a favorable industrial climate for economic activity. The lower Liao River Basin and the Songhua River Basin cut through Northeast China. The cities of Harbin and Shenyang are industrial centers located on these rivers. This region is known as the Northeast China Plain. It has extensive farming activities located next to an industrial landscape of smokestacks, factories, and warehouses. Considerable mineral wealth and iron ore deposits in the region have augmented the industrial activities and have created serious environmental concerns because of excessive air and water pollution. In its zenith in the 1970s, this was China’s main steel production area, but the region is being reduced to a rustbelt since many of China’s manufacturing centers are now being developed in the southern regions of China Proper.

The southernmost region of China Proper is home to the Pearl River Basin, an important agricultural and commercial district. Though smaller in size than the Yangtze River Basin, major global urban centers are located on its estuary, where the mouth of the river flows into the South China Sea. The system includes the Xi River, Pearl River, and their tributaries. As the third-longest river system in China, these rivers process an enormous amount of water, and have the second-highest volume of water flow after the Yangtze. Guangzhou, Macau, and Hong Kong are the largest cities located here, alongside the rapidly expanding industrial center of Shenzhen. As mentioned earlier, Macau was a former Portuguese colony and Hong Kong was a former British colony. These urban areas are now hubs for international trade and global commerce.


Figure 4. Xi-Pearl River System. An estuary is a wide area at the mouth of a river where it meets the sea. Hong Kong is located on the eastern side of the Pearl River Estuary, and the former Portuguese colony of Macau is located on the western side of the waterway.

C. Three Gorges Dam (The New China Dam)

The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River is known in China as the New China Dam. Its hydroelectric production system is the largest on Earth, with an electrical generating capacity nearly four times that of Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River. The river system is the world’s third longest, after the Nile and the Amazon. Plans and development for this project began in the decades before 1994, when the construction of the dam began. The dam first began generating electricity in 2003. Installation of the last main generator was not complete until 2012, when the dam became fully operational. The main purposes of the dam are to control the massive flooding along the Yangtze, produce hydroelectric power, and increase shipping capacity along the river.

Figure 5. Three Gorges Dam Region. The Yangtze River flows through three deep gorges where a dam has been constructed to stabilize flooding, produce electricity, and support river transportation.

Before construction of the dam, flooding along the Yangtze cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars in damage. In 1954, the river flooded, causing the deaths of more than thirty-three thousand people and displacing an additional eighteen million people. The giant city of Wuhan was flooded for three months. In 1998, a similar flood caused billions of dollars in damage, flooded thousands of acres of farmland, resulted in more than 1,526 deaths, and displaced more than 2.3 million people. The dam was rigorously tested in 2009, when a massive flood worked its way through the waterway. The dam was able to withstand the pressure by containing the excess water and controlling the flow downstream. The dam saved many lives and prevented billions of dollars in potential damage. The savings in human lives and in preventing economic damage are projected to outweigh the cost of the dam in only a few decades.

The dam produces most of the electricity for the lower Yangtze Basin, including Shanghai, the largest city in China, and has reduced reliance on coal-fired power plants. This reduces the emission of millions of tons of carbon dioxide, sulfur, and nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, which reduces air pollution and does not contribute to climate change. Heavy freight traffic on the Yangtze was the norm even before the dam was built; in fact, it has the highest rates of transport of any river.


Figure 6. China’s three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River is the largest dam in the world.


Figure 7. Tourists on the Great Wall of China.

The positive attributes of the Three Gorges Dam have contributed to the economic development of China. However, this project has also created its own problems and negative impacts on culture and the environment. By 2008, the number of people forced to relocate from the flooding of the reservoir had reached 1.24 million. Historic villages and hundreds of archaeological sites were flooded. Thousands of farmers had to be relocated to places with less productive soils. Compensation to the farmers for relocation was forfeited because of corruption and fraud. Sadly, much of the scenic beauty of the river basin is now under water.

Animal species like the critically endangered Siberian Cranes, who had wintered in the former wetlands of the river, had to find habitat elsewhere. The endangered Yangtze River Dolphin has been doomed to extinction because of the dam and the amplified river activity. The dam restricts the flushing of water pollution and creates a massive potential for landslides along its banks, exacerbating the potential for the silting in of the reservoir and the clogging of the dam’s turbines. The dam also sits on a fault zone and there is concern that the massive weight of the water in the reservoir could trigger earthquakes that may destroy the dam, with catastrophic consequences. Large development projects tend to have an enormous impact on the local people and environment. The building of the Three Gorges Dam has created controversy, with strong arguments on both sides of the issues. To further complicate the situation, other large dams are being proposed or are under construction along the same river.

D. Chinese Dynasties and Colonialism

The earliest Chinese dynasty dates to around 2200 BCE. It was located in the rich North China Plain. Organized as a political system, Chinese dynasties created the Chinese state, which provided for a continuous transfer of power, ideas, and culture from one generation to another. From 206 BCE to 220 CE, the Han Dynasty established the Chinese identity; Chinese people became known as People of Han or Han Chinese. The last dynasty, the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty, which ruled between 1644 and 1911, claimed control of a region including all of China, Mongolia, Southeast Asia, and Korea. Dynastic rule ended in China in 1911.

Europeans colonized the Americas, Africa, and South Asia, and it was only a matter of time before technology, larger ships, and the European invasion reached East Asia. European colonialism arrived in China during the Qing Dynasty. China had been an industrialized state for centuries; long before the empires of Rome and Greece were at their peak, China’s industrial cities flourished with clean drinking water, transportation, and technology. Paper, gunpowder, and printing were used in China centuries before they arrived in Europe. The Silk Road, which crossed the often dangerous elevations of high mountain passes, was the main link between China and Europe. European colonial powers met tough resistance in China. They were kept at bay for years.

Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution in Europe, which cranked out mass-produced products at a cheap price, provided an advantage over Chinese production. British colonizers also exported opium, an addictive narcotic, from their colonies in South Asia to China to help break down Chinese culture. By importing tons of opium into China, the British were able to instigate social problems. The first Opium Wars of 1839–1842 ended with Britain gaining an upper hand and laying claim to most of central China. Other European powers also sought to gain a foothold in China. Portugal gained the port of Macau. Germany took control of the coastal region of the rich North China Plain. France carved off part of southern China and Southeast Asia. Russia came from the north to lay claim to the northern sections of China. Japan, which was just across the waterfront from China, took control of Korea and the island of Formosa (now called Taiwan). Claims on China increased as colonialism moved in to take control of the Chinese mainland.

Though European powers laid claim to parts of China, they often fought among themselves. China did not produce heavy military weapons as early as the Europeans did and therefore could not fend them off upon their invasion. Chinese culture, which had flourished for four thousand years, quickly eroded through outside intrusion. It was not until about 1900, when a rebellion against foreigners (known as the Boxer Rebellion) was organized by the Chinese people, that the conflict reached recognizable dimensions. The Qing Dynasty dissolved in 1911, which also signified an end to the advancements of European colonialism, even though European colonies remained in China.

Three-Way Split in China

European colonialism in China slowed after 1911, and World War I severely weakened European powers. The Japanese colonizers, on the other hand, continued to make advancements. Japan did not have far to travel to resupply troops and support its military. In China, a doctor by the name of Dr. Sun Yat-sen promoted an independent Chinese Republic, free from dynastic rule, Japan, or European colonial influence. Political parties of Nationalists and Communists also worked to establish the republic. Dr. Sun Yat-sen died in 1925. The Nationalists, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, defeated the Communists and established a national government. Foreigners were evicted. The Communists were driven out of politics.


Figure 8. Taiwan Currency with image of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Both the Republic of China (ROC) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) consider Dr. Sun Yat-sen to be a famous Chinese historical figure.

Nationalists, Communists, and Japan conducted a three-way war over the control of China. Japan’s military took control of parts of Northeast China, known as Manchuria, and were making advancements on the eastern coast. Nationalists defeated the Communists for power and were pushing them into the mountains. The Chinese people were in support of the two parties working together to defeat the Japanese. The Long March of 1934 was a six-thousand-mile retreat by the Communists through rural China, pursued by Nationalist forces. The people of the countryside gave aid to the efforts of the Communists. The Chinese were primarily interested in the defeat of Japan, a country that was brutally killing massive numbers of China’s people in their aggressive war.

In 1945, the defeat of Japan in World War II by the United States changed many things. Japan’s admission of defeat prompted the end of Japanese control of territory in China, Taiwan, Korea, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific. By 1948, the Communists, who were becoming well organized, were defeating the Nationalists. Chiang Kai-shek gathered his people and what Chinese treasures he could and fled by boat to the island of Formosa (Taiwan), which in 1945 had just been freed from Japan. Taiwan was declared the official Republic of China (ROC). The Communists took over the mainland government. In 1949, Communist leader Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with its capital in Peking (Beijing). Japan was devastated by US bombing and defeated in World War II; its infrastructure destroyed and its colonies lost, Japan had to begin the long process of rebuilding its country. Korea was finally liberated from the Chinese dynasties and Japanese colonialism but began to experience an internal political division. Political structures in the second half of the twentieth century in East Asia were vastly different from the political structures that had been in place when the century began.


Figure 9. The Three-Way Split of China and the Emergence of Communist China in 1949.

Key Takeaways

  1. China is the largest country in physical area and in population in East Asia. The realm is isolated by the high mountains in the west, which cause a major rain shadow and desert conditions in the western regions. Mongolia is the only landlocked country. The other countries and territories are located along the Pacific Rim.
  2. Robust population growth has been supported by adequate food production in the major river valleys and coastal regions of East Asia. Coastal areas receive adequate precipitation and allow access to fishing for human activities.
  3. The Three Gorges Dam was constructed on the Yangtze River to control flooding, generate electricity, and support shipping. The dam is the largest in the world. Downsides of the dam have included the relocation of human settlements, erosion, and other environmental concerns.
  4. Colonialism infiltrated China and challenged its last dynasty. By 1911, both the dynasty and European colonialism were in demise. In a three-way battle for power in China, the Communists emerged in 1949 to take control. The Nationalists fled to Formosa to form their own government.

12.2 Emerging China

Learning Objectives

  1. Summarize the main steps China has taken to transition from a strict Communist country established in 1949 to a more open society with a capitalist type of economy today.
  2. Outline the location of the political units of China with the autonomous regions and special administrative units. Establish the connection between the autonomous regions and ethnicity.
  3. Understand the population dynamics of China. Learn about the one-child-only policy and evaluate how it has affected Chinese society and culture.
  4. Describe how China has shifted its economic policies and structure in the past few decades. Outline the changes in economic development with China’s open door to Western trade.
  5. Sketch out the historical geopolitical objectives of China and how they relate to China today.

A. The Emergence of Modern China

China is the world’s largest Communist country. Isolated from Europeans and Central Asians by the Himalayas and other high mountain ranges, Chinese culture has endured for thousands of years. Rich in history, adventure, and intrigue, a tour through China would reveal a people with a deep, longstanding love of the land, traditions as old as recorded history, and a spirit of commerce and hard work that sustains them to this day. China is about the same land size as the United States, although technically it is slightly smaller than the United States in total area, depending on how land and water areas are calculated. China only has an eastern coast, whereas the United States has both an eastern and a western coast. If you recall the climate types and the relationship between climate and population, you can deduce the location of the heavily populated regions of China.

The form of Communism promoted by Mao Zedong was not the same as the type of Communism practiced in the Soviet Union. Various Communist experiments were forced upon the Chinese people, with disastrous results. For example, in 1958, the Great Leap Forward was announced. In this program, people were divided into communes, and peasant armies were to work the land while citizens were asked to donate their pots and pans to produce scrap metal and increase the country’s industrial output. The goal was to improve production and increase efficiency. The opposite occurred, and millions of Chinese died of starvation during this era.


Figure 10. China’s Communist timeline with photos of Shanghai Tower (left) and Pagoda.

Another disaster began in 1966 and continued until Mao died in 1976. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution wreaked havoc on four thousand years of Chinese traditional culture in a purge of elitism and a drive toward total loyalty to the Communist Party. Armies of indoctrinated students were released into the countryside and the cities to report anyone opposing the party line. Schools were closed, universities were attacked, and intellectuals were killed. Anyone suspected of subversion might be tortured into signing a confession. Violence, anarchy, and economic disaster followed this onslaught of anti-Democratic terror. Estimates vary, but most sources indicate that about thirty million people lost their lives during the Mao Zedong era through purges, starvation, and conflict.

During the early decades of Communism in China, all travel into or out of China was severely restricted by the so-called Bamboo Curtain. The United States had backed the nationalist movement during the Chinese Civil War and continued to support Chiang Kai-shek in Formosa (Taiwan). The United States did not recognize Communist China; the US embassy was in Taiwan, not in Beijing. As China was experiencing its disastrous experiments with Communism, the core economic areas of the world were advancing with commercial technology and high-tech electronics and sending rockets to the moon. China lagged behind in its industrial activities and became a country based on agriculture. A visit to China by US president Richard Nixon in 1972 signaled the opening of diplomatic relations with the United States and was also viewed as a Cold War move against the Soviet Union.

The Chinese Communist Party’s approach when it took power was to institute a “planned economy.” A planned economy, sometimes called a command economy, stands in marked contrast to a free market economy. In a planned economy, the government controls all aspects of the economy, including what goods and products should be produced, how much of each should be produced, how products will be sold or distributed and for what (if any) price, who should have jobs and what jobs they should have, how much people will be paid, and all other decisions related to the economy. In a planned economy, businesses are nationalized; that is, businesses are owned by the government rather than by any private entity. By contrast, in a free market economy, businesses are privately owned, and most decisions are driven by consumer and investor behavior.

The decade of the 1980s was a transition for China in that there was a shift of focus from China’s Communist economy to a more market-oriented economy. The economic collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s coincided with the opening of China to trade with the West. In 1992, China announced that it would transition to a socialist market economy, a hybrid of a Communist-planned economy and a market economy. A series of statements by China’s political leaders suggested that in order for China to enjoy a more mature form of socialism, greater national wealth was needed. They further indicated that socialism and poverty should not be considered synonymous and that the country was ready to turn its attention to increasing the wealth and quality of life of its citizens. During the next decade, China experienced an enormous growth in its economy. At the beginning of this century, China was ranked in the top five of the world’s largest trading nations, joining ranks with the United States, Germany, Japan, and France. The sheer size of China’s population contributes to the magnitude of its economy. This does not, however, mean that most of China’s population has a high standard of living.


Figure 11. China and its Administrative Divisions, including Autonomous Regions, Municipalities, and Special Administrative Regions (SARs)

B. The People


With four thousand years of culture to build on, China continues to press forward into the twenty-first century. In 2010, China had more people than any other country in the world, about 1.33 billion. Most of its people live in China Proper, in the eastern regions of the country. China Proper has the best agricultural lands in the country, the most fertile river basins, and the most moderate climates. For perspective, China has over one billion more people than the United States, with most of those people living in the southeastern portion of China. During Mao’s time, there was little concern for population growth, but after his death China implemented measures to deal with its teeming population.

In 1978, China implemented the one-child-policy, limiting family size to one child. The policy allowed for exemptions under certain conditions. Couples living in rural areas and people of minority status are two examples of exempted conditions and could be permitted more than one child, especially if the first child was a girl. Peripheral administrative regions like Macau and Hong Kong were exempt. In 2013, China relaxed this policy somewhat, allowing couples to have two children if one parent was an only child. On January 1, 2016, the one-child policy officially ended, allowing for all married couples to have two children.


Figure 12. Young Girl and Her Grandfather in Southern China. The one-child-only policy eliminated brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles in an extended family.

The one-child-only policy was implemented in an attempt to address environmental, economic, and social issues related to population growth. This policy helped reduce China’s potential population by hundreds of millions of people, but the controversial policy was not easy to implement. There were growing concerns regarding the policy’s negative impact on society. In response to the one-child-only policy, there were reports of female infanticide and a higher number of abortions. Some provinces in China have a severe shortage of women because of the policy; men in provinces where women are scarce may have to migrate to find a wife. In China there are more boys born than girls; the ratio averages more than 10 percent more boys than girls, with some provinces reaching more than 25 percent. This imbalance creates cultural issues that may have a negative impact on traditional society.

More than 50 percent of China’s population lives in rural areas, meaning there is potential for high levels of rural-to-urban migration. The core industrial cities located in China Proper attract migrants in a periphery-to-core migration pattern. China hopes that this urbanization and industrial activity will also support their population control methods and fuel the industrial labor base. China’s percent urban population increased at an unprecedented rate from 17 percent urban in 1978 to 47 percent in 2010. This rural-to-urban shift has been one of the largest in human history. It still continues; many workers shift from holding temporary employment in the cities to returning to their families in the countryside between jobs.

Language and Religion

Han Chinese are the largest ethnic group in China, making up about 90 percent of the country’s population. The main language in China, Mandarin, is spoken in different ways in different parts of the country, particularly in the north and the south. The number of languages in China (over 290) roughly corresponds to the number of ethnic groups in the country. In Western China, where the percentage of Han Chinese is quite low, most of the population is Uyghur, a group that tends to be Muslim. There are also Kazahks, Kyrgyz, and Tajiks from Central Asia, who are also predominantly Muslim. In 2010, the precise number of Muslims in China was not known, but government reports indicated there were about twenty-one million. Other reports indicate there may be three times that many. Minority groups like the Uyghurs have often experienced discrimination by the Chinese government, which has taken measures to marginalize minority groups to keep them in check.

As a Communist country, there is no official religion in China, nor is any supported by the Chinese government. Before Communism took control, most of the people followed a type of Buddhism. Other belief systems included Taoism and the teachings of Confucius. Christianity does exist in China, but it is illegal to proselytize or recruit converts. Despite that, the Christian population in China has grown rapidly in recent decades. The exact number is unknown, but the CIA World Factbook estimates 3 to 4 percent of the population to be Christian, or somewhere between thirty-nine and fifty-two million adherents.


Figure 13. China and Its main Ethnolinguistic regions

C. Economic Summary

In the past few decades, China has shifted its economy from a closed system with a centrally planned, government-controlled market to one with more open trade and a flexible production structure. These economic reforms have allowed capitalistic tendencies to drive production, have promoted increased involvement in private enterprise, and have increased international investment in the Chinese economy. China phased out collective farms and has increased agricultural production; the approach to free enterprise and international trade and investment has become more open; and the Chinese economy has grown at a rapid rate. Open trade and interaction with the global community have allowed China to catch up with the rest of the world in terms of information and communication technology, and computer and Internet use in China has opened up many sectors to new opportunities and employment possibilities. China’s policy of creating special economic zones (SEZs) increased urban and economic growth in coastal cities, fueling the strong rural-to-urban shift in the population.

The recent fast-paced growth of the Chinese economy has brought with it some negative consequences. The exploitation of resources and the heavy utilization of the environment have resulted in serious soil erosion and air pollution. The water table in many parts of China has decreased because of heavy demands on the nation’s water supply. Arable land is being lost to erosion and inadequate land-use practices. Rural areas have not received consideration or resources equal to the coastal cities, so conditions remain poor for most rural people. Half of China’s population earns the equivalent of a few dollars per day, while a fortunate few earn high salaries. Unemployment is at an elevated level for tens of millions of migrants who shift from location to location, looking for work. There is also an unfortunate degree of corruption within the government and state-run offices.

Compared to Western countries, China is an authoritarian state that does not allow labor unions, free speech, freedom of religion, or freedom of the press. There has been more openness in China’s economic reforms and in travel, but other strict rules of the state remain. There is no minimum wage law for factory workers, who work long hours and do not receive benefits or sick leave. There are fewer safety requirements or government regulations for security. China is trying to have the best of both worlds: the efficiency of an authoritarian government and an efficient market-driven capitalist economy. Sustaining the largest standing army in the world, China has become a global superpower. The next great world conflict could be a cultural war between the United States and China that would involve economic, political, and human issues.


Figure 14. Beijing. Beijing, a metropolitan center of Chinese culture, is the capital of China. Freeway development has expanded in recent years as higher incomes have allowed for automobile purchases. As a result, traffic congestion and air pollution are part of China’s current environment.

D. Growth of Enterprise and Industry

During the 1980s, following the death of Mao Zedong, China went through a transition period. The new leader, Deng Xiaoping, realized that in order for China to compete in the world market, its economy would have to be modernized. The challenge was to open up to the outside without the outside placing pressure on the Communist system inside of China. The so-called Bamboo Curtain, which referred to the restriction of movement of goods and people across Chinese borders, diminished. To attract business and tap into the global market economy, China established Special Economic Zones (SEZs) along the coast at strategic port cities. SEZs attracted international corporations who wanted to manufacture goods cheaply, while China’s population of 1.3 billion people provided an enormous labor pool and consumer market. China’s modernization efforts paid off in the 1990s, when world trade increased and US trade with China exploded.

By the year 2000, China had profited greatly because of its expanded manufacturing capacity. The coastal cities and the SEZs had become core industrial centers, attracting enormous numbers of migrants—most of them poor agricultural workers—looking for work in the factories. Compared to other jobs, factory jobs are prized employment opportunities. Rural-to-urban shift has kicked in and China’s urban growth is occurring at unprecedented rates. Chinese people are moving to the cities looking for work, just like people in many other areas of the world. The SEZs encourage multinational corporations to move their overseas operations to China and take advantage of the lower labor and production costs. China benefits from the new business opportunities and by the creation of jobs for its citizens. SEZs operate under the objectives of providing tax incentives for foreign companies, exporting market-driven manufactured products, and creating joint partnerships so that everyone benefits. In the past decade, four main cities have been designated as SEZs, along with the entire province of Hainan Island to the south. Many coastal cities were also designated as development areas for industrial expansion.


Figure 15. Coastal development and SEZs along the coast of China.

E. Geopolitics

The political environment of China cannot be separated from its geography. In terms of land area, China is a large country. It includes an immense peripheral region surrounding China Proper consisting of minority populations and buffer states. The core of China is the Han Chinese heartland of China Proper. This is where most of the population lives and where the best agricultural land for food production is located. The surrounding periphery consists of autonomous regions and minority populations, including Tibet, Western China, Inner Mongolia, and Northwestern China. Tibet is a buffer between China and India; high mountains provide a buffer between India and Tibet. Nepal, Bhutan, and Kashmir are also buffer states or regions between China and South Asia. High mountain ranges extend all along China’s western boundary.

Even the isolated sovereign country of North Korea acts as a buffer between China and the world superpower of the United States through its surrogate South Korea. The border with Southeast Asia is mountainous with difficult terrain and very little access. All these buffer regions insulate the Han heartland from the outside. China’s powerbase is actually a territorial island insulated and isolated from the rest of the world.

Technology and trade, however, have opened links between the Han Chinese heartland and the global marketplace. In the scope of geopolitics (the study of the geography of international relations), the core of China is protected on all fronts except one, the eastern coast. Coastal China is accessible to anyone with a ship. The coast makes China vulnerable. The challenge for China has been to neutralize the coastal threat and reduce its vulnerability. This is where the SEZs make a difference: the Chinese economy has relied on the SEZs to attract foreign corporations to conduct their business with the Chinese in these coastal cities. The economic world has forged ties with the Chinese along China’s coastal waters. The extensive coastal development creates a situation where it is now in everyone’s best interest to make the coastal region of China safe and prosperous.

In the geopolitical sense, China has historically operated under three main premises. The first premise is that China must secure a buffer zone in the periphery, which includes the regions along China’s borders. Second, the country needs to continue to maintain unity within the Han Chinese majority that anchors the core region of China Proper. The third component of China’s geopolitical strategy is to protect and secure its vulnerable coastal region. The country needs to find a way to marginalize outside influence and keep the heartland protected from invaders. These three geopolitical directives were designed before the postindustrial economy emerged with the information age, but the main themes of securing and protecting China remain.

China has additional political issues within the core region of China Proper. To maintain a unified Han Chinese powerbase, there should not be uneven standards of living within the core region. Manufacturing has rapidly increased in the coastal cities of the SEZs and other development areas. The standard of living in the coastal cities has improved, which has created a disparity between the coastal cities and the rural regions of the interior. Factory workers can earn much more than their counterparts working in agriculture. As a Communist country, one of the foundational principles was the even distribution of wealth. It kept everyone on the same playing field, at least in theory. The more open capitalist economy is changing this and challenging the equity issue.

China is also economically disproportionately reliant on its ability to maintain a high level of export manufacturing as its method of gaining wealth. Manufacturing requires good political and economic relationships with the international community. In summary, China’s eastern coast development is a risk that China is forced to take. The risk is a trade-off. On one hand, the eastern coast is the most geopolitically vulnerable side of China, but on the other hand, it is where the most extensive economic gains have been made in recent years. China’s Bamboo Curtain has disappeared; the country is no longer isolated from the rest of the world. Economic development has created a strong degree of dependency on other countries through the doorways of China’s coastal cities. China is dependent on the outside world for oil, raw materials, and technology. Multinational corporations are dependent on China for low-cost manufactured goods. China has become more integrated within the network of the global economy.

Key Takeaways

  1. China has embarked on a number of serious transitions since the Communist republic was declared in 1949. Since that time, the country has shifted from a command economy to a market economy and has opened up trade to the West. This has opened up more opportunities for the Chinese people as well.
  2. China has a number of autonomous regions and municipalities. Many of these political units are also home to minority ethnic groups. Han Chinese make up about 90 percent of the people of China.
  3. China’s large population prompted the government to implement a one-child-only policy, which resulted in a decrease in population growth but has also caused an imbalance in the percentages of boys and girls being born in many of the provinces. That policy officially ended on January 1, 2016, and now married couples are allowed to have two children.
  4. The creation of SEZs along the coast, and an open-trade policy, have rapidly developed China’s manufacturing sector. This trend has attracted multinational corporations to move their operations to China to tap into the low labor and overhead costs and receive tax incentives from the Chinese government. The result has been an increase in rural-to-urban shift in China’s population.
  5. China’s historical geopolitical situation was to secure a buffer around its heartland, unify the Han majority, and protect its venerable coastal region. Economic trade and interaction with the global economy has made China dependent on other countries for its continual economic success.

12.3 China’s Periphery

Learning Objectives

  1. Outline Hong Kong’s progression from a British colony through the transformation into a special autonomous region of China. Describe why Hong Kong and Shenzhen have been important to the development of the Chinese economy.
  2. Understand the development of and reasons for a government for Taiwan that is separate from the government of mainland China. Describe the current relationship between Taiwan and mainland China.
  3. Explain the challenges that Tibet has experienced in becoming an autonomous region of China. Understand who the Dalai Lama is and describe his traditional position within Tibet.
  4. Summarize the role Mongolia played during the Cold War and learn how that role is changing as Mongolia becomes more involved in the global economy.
  5. Explain why the peripheral regions of Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are important to the Chinese government and the vitality of the country.
  6. The heartland of China has always been China Proper. Surrounding China Proper are a number of autonomous regions, associated territories, and independent countries. These peripheral areas buffer China Proper from the rest of the world. They also provide China with either access to trade relationships or access to raw materials needed for development. Each peripheral political unit has its own unique physical and cultural characteristics and, in many cases, a minority population that is other than Han Chinese.

A. Hong Kong and Shenzhen

Hong Kong is a former British colony and includes a number of islands on the southern coast of China. Hong Kong includes an excellent port, Victoria—one of the best in Asia. Victoria’s deepwater port is on the interior side of Hong Kong Island and is protected from the sea, allowing ship access to an extensive sheltered harbor area. To the north of Hong Kong Island is a peninsula called New Territories, which the British agreed to lease from China in 1898 for a period of ninety-nine years. Bordering the New Territories on the mainland is the rapidly growing industrial city of Shenzhen.

Hong Kong was a major entry point into China for Britain during the colonial era. The colony was a British outpost that created a doorway for British expansion into China. The port allowed for an early trade relationship to become established. Ships would import raw materials, which would be processed or manufactured into finished products. The products would then be shipped back out at a profit.

Manufacturing is traditionally the best means for countries to gain wealth, since it has the highest value-added profits. Hong Kong is a good example of this; manufacturing was a successful method of gaining wealth for Hong Kong. First, low-level goods such as clothing and textiles were produced with Hong Kong’s cheap labor and low costs. As business increased, higher-level technical goods were produced, such as radios and other electronic products. Incomes increased. Soon, Hong Kong was a business and banking center trading with all global markets. International trade attracted a strong financial network that enhanced the free market system in Hong Kong. Business in Hong Kong attracted attention in Beijing. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who had begun China’s open door policy in the 1980s, viewed Hong Kong as a major access point to establish trade and commerce with. In the 1990s, the special economic zone of Shenzhen became an important development area for Chinese industries and multinational corporations. China once again used Hong Kong as a major trade corridor so that about one-fourth of all the country’s imports and exports were being shipped through the port of Hong Kong.

In 1997, the ninety-nine-year lease of the New Territories to Britain expired. Hong Kong became associated with mainland China as a special autonomous region, but remained capitalist and democratic in its operations. This opened the door for Taiwan and other trading partners to increase trade with China through Hong Kong. Shenzhen, a special economic zone (SEZ) across the border from Hong Kong in China, was ready to capitalize on its accessibility to the port and the enormous trade that had been established by Hong Kong. Shenzhen became one of the fastest growing cities in the world and has become a center of manufacturing and trade for the global economy. It grew from a moderately sized city of about three hundred fifty thousand in the early 1980s to a city of ten and a half million by 2010, and is still growing. Shenzhen has established a port of its own and is a magnet for international trade.

More than 95 percent of the seven million people living in Hong Kong are ethnically Chinese. The people have strong ties to mainland China but highly value their separate and independent economic and political status. Hong Kong is a major financial and banking center for Asia and has been working with the Chinese government to provide private banking services for Chinese citizens. The small land size of Hong Kong makes it a high-priced real estate destination. The cost of living is high, and space is at a premium and expensive. Nevertheless, Hong Kong attracts millions of visitors per year and has established itself as a tourism hub for people desiring to visit southern China. Tens of millions of tourists each year use Hong Kong as a base or stopover point to enter China’s southern provinces. Hong Kong offers visitors immense shopping possibilities in a safe and modern environment that is attractive to people from all over the world. Cantonese is the official language, but English is widely spoken in Hong Kong because of Britain’s influence and because of world trade relationships.


Figure 16. The Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong, with Shenzhen across the Border from the New Territories.


Figure 17. Taiwan (ROC). Taiwan is located just across the Taiwan Strait from Mainland China (PRC).

Taiwan (Republic of China)

Taiwan is separated from the Chinese mainland by the Taiwan Strait. In 2010, the population of the island, which is about the size of the US state of Maryland, was twenty-two million. The island is mountainous and has rugged national parks in its interior, while most of the people in Taiwan live in bustling cities along the coast. Taiwan’s push for good education and technical skills for its citizens has paid off in the form of high incomes and an industrialized economy. After World War II, when China raised its Bamboo Curtain, the United States cut its trade relations with the Communist mainland. However, the United States did trade a great deal with the Nationalists in Taiwan. The deep tensions that exist between China and Taiwan are easy to understand given the history that led to Taiwan’s current existence. One of the flash points in China-Taiwan relations has been the “One China” policy. Originally asserted by Beijing, the principle contends that there is only one indivisible China, which encompasses all of China, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet.

During the Cold War, the sizeable population of mainland China was attractive to US corporations that sought trade with China. In 1972, for the benefit of the United States and to counter the influence of the Soviet Union, US president Richard Nixon organized a visit to Beijing that opened the door to US-China diplomatic relations. There were conditions placed on the open door agreement that followed. One condition that mainland China imposed was for the US government to recognize the Communist government in Beijing as the official China. To do this, the United States had to move their US embassy from Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan, to Beijing and recognize only the Beijing government as the official China. The United States agreed to this policy. As a result, no government official in the US State Department, cabinet level or higher, can officially visit Taiwan; at the same time, no equal-level diplomat from Taiwan can officially visit the United States. This policy placed Taiwan in an ambiguous position: Is Taiwan an independent country or is it a part of mainland China?


Figure 18. Map of Taiwan.

Mainland China has always demanded that in order for countries to have good relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), they must not recognize Taiwan (Republic of China, or ROC). This has caused intermittent problems for the United States and other countries. The termination of diplomatic relations between the United States and the ROC was a huge blow for Taiwan, even though the United States continued to conduct trade with the island. The United States has always supported Taiwan’s economic independence. Taiwan’s status on the world stage has fluctuated. For about twenty years after the Nationalists set up a government in Taiwan, the ROC held a seat in the UN, and the UN recognized Taiwan’s claim as the legitimate government of China. In 1971, the UN changed its position and gave the seat to Beijing. The UN indicated it could not give a seat to Taiwan because Taiwan is not recognized as a legal country.

Taiwan’s economy continues to use its skilled labor base. In years past, Taiwan’s factories produced textiles and light clothing. As incomes and skills advanced, production shifted to electronics and high-end goods, which it has since been exporting around the world. Taiwan has achieved a high standard of living for its people. When trade opened up through Hong Kong with mainland China, many Taiwanese industries shifted production to the SEZs along China’s coast. Labor in SEZs is less expensive, leading to a corresponding rise in profits. Unfortunately, this has resulted in higher unemployment levels in Taiwan.

In the past few years, Taiwan’s focus has turned from secession to trade. In 2008, Taiwan elected a government that, though nationalist in its ideology, was committed to strengthening trade and investment with China. Taiwan entered the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 using the name Chinese Taipei. That move started a cascade of actions that improved “cross-strait” trading conditions, and within just a few years, direct trade between China and Taiwan has become extensive. The question of Taiwan’s political status is as yet unresolved and is clearly still volatile, but trade and investment between China and Taiwan are robust and growing. Taiwan has been able to independently compete in world-class sporting events, including the Olympics, under the name Chinese Taipei.


Figure 19. Street in Taiwan, ROC, Illustrating modern businesses and use of scooters for transportation.

B. Autonomous Region of Tibet

Located in mountainous southwestern China, Tibet is classified as one of China’s autonomous regions, a disputed political arrangement. It is debatable whether Tibet or any of the other Chinese regions are actually autonomous. The legal structures actually allow for very little self-governance, and most new initiatives require approval from the Chinese central government. Tibet had been an independent entity through much of its history and governed itself as a Buddhist theocracy. Its theocratic political system established the Dalai Lama as both the head of state and the religious leader of the Tibetan people.


Figure 20. Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, rests at 12,100 feet above sea level. This is the former seat of government of the Dalai Lama in Tibet and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tibet came under the control of China during the Qing Dynasty. When imperialist rule ended in China in 1911, Tibet began to once again assert its independence. Chinese, British, and Tibetan officials met and came up with an agreement that partitioned Tibet into Inner Tibet, which would be controlled by China, and Outer Tibet, which would be independent. China later indicated its intention to control all of Tibet, a move greatly resented by the Tibetan people.

When Communists took control of China in 1949, the Dalai Lama was originally allowed control over domestic affairs while China would control all other governmental functions. The Chinese government then took steps to greatly reduce the powers of the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama (spiritual leader). With the intention of spreading Communism to Tibet, China destroyed monasteries, religious symbols and icons, and other long-practiced ways of life were threatened. The Tibetans considered the Chinese political dominance a cruel and invading force. Monasteries were burned, monks were beaten or imprisoned, and Buddhism was brutally suppressed.


Figure 21. The fourteenth Dalai Lama and Tibetan leader in exile.

Tibetans revolted in 1956. Backed by the United States, the revolt continued even as China indicated it would suspend the transformation of Tibet. China brutally crushed the revolt in 1959, leaving tens of thousands of Tibetans dead or imprisoned. The Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans fled to Dharamsala, India, where they established a government in exile. At this point, China had a firm grip on Tibet, and in 1965 the reorganization of Tibet into a Chinese socialist region began in full force.

The population of Tibet is only about three million. They mainly live in the mountain valleys, below seven thousand feet. Lhasa is Tibet’s main urban center as well as its capital. In the past couple of decades, China has softened its treatment of Tibetans and restored some of the monasteries. China has also moved thousands of ethnically Chinese people into Tibet to shift the ethnic balance of the population. A major rail line now directly connects Beijing with Lhasa, Tibet. Lhasa will soon have a majority Chinese population with cultural similarities that reflect more the attributes of China Proper than Tibet. The Tibetans who live there are being compromised simply by population dilution.

As indicated previously, China wants to maintain the mountainous, rural region—with little inhabitable land area and very few people—as a buffer state between India and the Han Chinese heartland of China Proper. Tibet is also becoming more important to the government of Beijing and the business people in Shenzhen and Shanghai. To understand why this is, consider the core-peripheral spatial relationship. What do the core and the periphery usually have to offer each other? Consider also how countries gain wealth. Tibet can play an important role in the larger picture of the Chinese economy. The mountains of Tibet potentially hold vast amounts of natural resources that could support the growing industrial economy in China, which is based on manufacturing goods for the global export markets. China will continue to see to it that Tibet becomes economically integrated with the rest of China in spite of the cultural differences that may exist.


Figure 22. Periphery: Have-Nots. The core-peripheral spatial relationship can be appropriately applied to Tibet and its relationship with China. Tibet is a peripheral region with raw materials that provide benefits to the core areas of China, which require the raw materials for industrial development

C. Mongolia

Mongolia shares a similar geography with much of Kazakhstan, which is the world’s largest landlocked country; Mongolia is second-largest. Despite Mongolia’s large land area (slightly smaller than the US state of Alaska or the country of Iran), its population is only about three million, and the country is the least densely populated country in the world. Mountains, high plains, and grass-covered steppe cover much of Mongolia, a country that receives only between four and ten inches of precipitation per year, most of it in the form of snow. The Gobi Desert to the south, extending from southern Mongolia into northern China, receives even less precipitation. Inner Mongolia is a sparsely inhabited autonomous region south of Mongolia that is governed by China.

Mongolia’s modern capital city of Ulan Bator is home to about one-third of the people of Mongolia; it has the coldest average temperature of any world capital. Mongolia’s history includes the great Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan, which was established in the thirteenth century. The Soviet Union used Mongolia as a buffer state with China. Mongolia’s Communist party dominated politics until the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s. The current government has to contend with Mongolia’s position between the two large economies of Russia and China.

Tibetan Buddhism is the dominant religion in Mongolia and is practiced by about 50 percent of the population. The Communist influence is evident in that approximately 40 percent of the population considers itself nonreligious. Most of the people are of Mongol ethnicity. Today, about 30 percent of the people are still seminomadic and migrate seasonally to accommodate good grazing for their livestock. A round yurt, which can be constructed at whatever location is selected for the season and disassembled for mobility, is the traditional dwelling. Mongolian culture and heritage revolve around a rural agrarian culture with an extensive reliance on the horse. Archery, wrestling, and equestrian events are some of the most popular sporting activities.

Mongolia’s economy has traditionally centered on agriculture, but mining has grown in recent years to be a major economic sector. Mongolia has rich mineral resources of coal, molybdenum, copper, gold, tin, and tungsten. Being landlocked cuts Mongolia off from the global economy, but the large amounts of mineral reserves are in demand by core industrial areas for manufacturing and should boost the poor economic conditions that dominate Mongolia’s economy. China has increased its business presence in Mongolia and has been drawing Mongolia’s attention away from its former Soviet ally to become a major trading partner.


Figure 23. Men wrestling on the rugged grasslands of Mongolia. Wrestling is a major sport of the country.

Key Takeaways

  1. Hong Kong was a British colony with an excellent port that provided access to China during the colonial era. Hong Kong became an economic tiger and regained its importance for trade with the mainland during the open door policy of China in the 1980s. The colony was returned to China in 1997 under an autonomous arrangement.
  2. Taiwan created an independent government after the three-way split in China. The separation from the mainland government has created strained relations between Beijing and Taipei. In recent years, trade and economic exchanges have brought the two Chinas together and they have become more dependent on each other.
  3. Tibet established itself as a Buddhist theocracy before the 1949 declaration of the Communist PRC. The Dalai Lama ruled as both political and religious leader of Tibet until China took control. The Dalai Lama fled to India, where he set up a government in exile to continue to promote Tibetan culture and support Tibet.
  4. Mongolia is an independent landlocked country with a small population and a large land area. It receives only modest amounts of rainfall. The country was a historic buffer state between the Communist countries of the Soviet Union and China. Mongolia is working to capitalize on its natural resources to engage the global economic situation.

12.4 Japan and Korea (North and South)

Learning Objectives

  1. Summarize the physical geography of the Korean peninsula.
  2. Understand how North Korea and South Korea developed independently.
  3. Outline the political structure of North Korea.
  4. Describe how South Korea developed a high standard of living and a prosperous economy.
  5. Express how the concept of regional complementarity can apply to the Koreas.
Figure 24. Japan’s four main islands and its core urban and industrial areas.

A. Japan

Japan consists of islands that lie along the Pacific Rim east of China and across the Sea of Japan from the Korean Peninsula. Most of the archipelago, which has more than three thousand islands, is just north of 30° latitude. Four islands make up most of the country: Shikoku, Kyushu, Hokkaido, and Honshu. The islands have tall mountains originating from volcanic activity. Many of the volcanoes are active, including the famous Mt. Fuji, located just west of Tokyo, which is a widely photographed mountain because of its symmetrical volcanic cone. The physical area of all Japan’s islands is equivalent to about the size of the US state of Montana. The mountainous islands of Japan extend into two climate zones. All but the northern region of Japan has a type C climate. The island of Hokkaido in northern Japan has a type D climate and receives enough snow for downhill skiing. Japan hosted the Winter Olympics there in 1998.

Cities like Mexico City, São Paulo, and Bombay, which have vast slum communities, each claim to be the world’s largest city but lack firm census data to verify the population. The largest metropolitan area in the world that can be verified is Tokyo, with a population of 37.8 million in 2016, just one million fewer than the entire US state of California and two million more than all of Canada. The Tokyo metropolitan area is located in an extensive agricultural region called the Kanto Plain and includes the conurbation of Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kawasaki. The second-largest urban area in Japan is located in the Kansai District, and includes the cities of Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto. Japan is a mountainous country, and most of its large cities are located in low-lying areas along the coast. Most of the population (67 percent) lives in urban areas such as Japan’s core area, an urbanized region from Tokyo to Nagasaki. The 2016 population of Japan was about 125 million, which is less than 40% of the population of the United States. It is ironic that the world’s largest metropolitan area is built on one of the worst places imaginable to build a city. Tokyo is located where three tectonic plates meet: the Eurasian Plate, the Philippine Plate, and the Pacific Plate. Earthquakes result when these plates shift, leading to possibly extensive damage and destruction. In 1923, a large earthquake struck the Tokyo area and killed an estimated 143,000 people. In 1995, an earthquake near Kobe killed about 5,500 people and injured another 26,000.

In March 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck forty-three miles off the eastern coast of northern Japan. The earthquake itself caused extensive damage to the island of Honshu. A shockwave after the earthquake created a tsunami more than 130 feet high that crashed into the eastern coast of Japan causing enormous damage to infrastructure and loss of life. This was the strongest earthquake to hit Japan in recorded history. It resulted in more than 15,500 deaths and billions of dollars in damages. Nuclear power plants along the coast were hit hard by the tsunami, which knocked out their cooling systems and resulted in the meltdown of at least three reactors. The nuclear meltdowns created explosions that released a sizeable quantity of nuclear material into the atmosphere. This is considered the worst nuclear accident since the 1986 reactor meltdown at the Soviet plant at Chernobyl. The next big earthquake could happen at any time, since Japan is located in an active tectonic plate zone.


Figure 25. Expanse of the metropolitan area of Tokyo, with Mt. Fuji in the Background.


The country of Japan is an interesting study in isolation geography and economic development. For centuries, shogun lords and samurai warriors ruled Japan, and Japan’s society was highly organized and structured. Urban centers were well planned, and skilled artisans developed methods of creating high-grade metal products. While agriculture was always important, Japan always existed as a semi urban community because the mountainous terrain forced most of the population to live along the country’s coasts. Without a large rural population to begin with, Japan never really experienced the rural-to-urban shift common in the rest of the world. Coastal fishing, always a prominent economic activity, remains so today. The capital city of Tokyo was formerly called Edo and was a major city even before the colonial era. Japan developed its own unique type of urbanized cultural heritage.

Encounters with European colonial ships prompted Japan to industrialize. For the most part, the Japanese kept the Europeans out and only traded with select ships that were allowed to approach the shores. The fact that European ships were there at all was enough to convince the Japanese to evaluate their position in the world. During the colonial era, Britain was the most avid colonizer with the largest and best-equipped navy on the high seas. Britain colonized parts of the Americas, the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Australia and was advancing in East Asia when they encountered the Japanese. Both Japan and Great Britain are island countries. Japan reasoned that if Great Britain could become so powerful, they should also have the potential to become powerful. Japan encompassed a number of islands and had more land area than Britain, but Japan did not have the coal and iron ore reserves that Britain had.


Figure 26. Japanese Colonialism. Japan was a major colonial power in the Asian Pacific Rim. Japan colonized parts of Russia, China, Taiwan, Philippines, Southeast Asia, and Korea.

Around 1868, a group of reformers worked to bring about a change in direction for Japan. Named after the emperor, the movement was called the Meiji Restoration (the return of enlightened rule). Japanese modernizers studied the British pattern of development. The Japanese reformers were advised by the British about how to organize their industries and how to lay out transportation and delivery systems. Today, the British influence in Japan is easily seen in that both Japanese and British drivers drive on the left side of the road. The modernizers realized that to compete on the high seas in the world community they had to move beyond samurai swords and wooden ships. Iron ore and coal would have to become the goods to fuel their own industrial revolution. Labor and resources were valuable elements of early industrialization in all areas of the world, including Asia.

Japan began to industrialize and build its economic and military power by first utilizing the few resources found in Japan. Since it was already semi urban and had an organized social order with skilled artisan traditions, the road to industrialization moved quickly. Japan needed raw materials and expanded to take over the island of Formosa (Taiwan) and the Korean Peninsula in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Japan was on its way to becoming a colonial power in its own right. They expanded to take control of the southern part of Sakhalin Island from Russia and part of Manchuria (Northeast China) from the Chinese. Japanese industries grew quickly as they put the local people they subjugated to work and extracted the raw materials they needed from their newly taken colonies.

The three-way split in China revealed that the Japanese colonizers were a major force in China even after the other European powers had halted their colonial activities. Japan’s relative location as an independent island country provided both quick access to their neighbors and also protection from them. By World War II, Japan’s economic and military power had expanded until they were dominating Asia’s Pacific Rim community. The Japanese military believed they could invade the western coast of North America and eventually take control of the entire United States. Their attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941, was meant to be only a beginning. History has recorded the outcome. The United States rallied its people and resources to fight against the Japanese in World War II. The Soviet Union also turned to fight the Japanese empire. The end came after atomic bombs, one each, were dropped by the United States on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The terms of Japan’s surrender in 1945 stipulated that Japan had to give up claims on the Russian islands, Korea, Taiwan, China, and all the other places they had previously controlled. Japan also lost the Kurile Islands—off its northern shores—to the Soviet Union. Japan offered Russia an enormous amount of cash for them, but the islands have never been returned. Japan also agreed not to have a military for offensive purposes. Japan was decimated during World War II, its infrastructure and economy destroyed.


Figure 27. Shinto shrine in Nagasaki. This photo, taken after the atomic bomb blast of World War II in 1945, illustrates all that was left standing of a Shinto shrine in Nagasaki.

Economic Growth

Since 1945, Japan has risen to become Asia’s economic superpower and the economic center of one of the three core areas of the world. Japanese manufacturing has set a standard for global production. For example, think of all the automobiles that are Japanese products: Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Nissan, Isuzu, Mazda, and Suzuki. How many Russian, Brazilian, Chinese, or Indonesian autos are sold in the United States? The term “economic tiger” is used in Asia to indicate an entity with an aggressive and fast-growing economy. Japan has surpassed this benchmark and is called the economic dragon of Asia. The four economic tigers competing with Japan are Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea.

Japan’s recovery in the last half of the century was remarkable. What was it that caused the Japanese people to not only recover so quickly but rise above the world’s standard to excel in their economic endeavors? The answer could be related to the fact that Japan already had an industrialized and urbanized society before the war. The United States did help rebuild some of Japan’s infrastructure that had been destroyed during World War II—things like ports and transportation systems to help bring aid and provide for humanitarian support. However, the Japanese people were able to not only recover from the devastation of World War II but rise to the level of an economic superpower to compete with the United States. Japan used internal organization and strong centripetal dynamics to create a highly functional and cohesive society that focused its drive and fortitude on creating a manufacturing sector that catapulted the country’s economy from devastation to financial success.

The loss of colonies after World War II prompted Japan to look elsewhere for its raw materials. Extensive networks of trade were developed to provide the necessary materials for the rapidly growing manufacturing sector. The urbanized region around Tokyo, including the cities of Yokohama and Kawasaki, swelled to accommodate the growth of industry. Japan’s coastal interior has a number of large cities and urban areas that rapidly increased with the growing manufacturing sector.

The basis for Japan’s technological and economic development may be related to its geographic location and cultural development. Japan’s pattern of economic development has similarities to the patterns of other Asian entities that have created thriving economic conditions. Hong Kong and Taiwan are both small islands with few natural resources, yet they have become economic tigers. Taiwan exports computer products to the United States, but Russia, with all its natural resources, millions of people, and large land area, does not. Explaining how or why countries develop at different rates can be complex, because there may be many interrelated explanations or reasons. One element might be centripetal cultural forces that hold a country together and drive it forward. The ability to manage labor and resources would be another part of the economic situation. The theory of how countries gain wealth may shed some light on this issue. Japan used manufacturing as a major means of gaining wealth from value-added profits. This is the same method the Asian economic tigers also developed their economies. Japan developed itself into a core economic country that took advantage of the peripheral countries for labor and resources during the colonial era. Japan took advantage of every opportunity that presented itself to become a world manufacturing center.


Figure 28. Timeline of Japanese Development.

Modern Japan

Japan is a homogeneous society. In 2010, all but one percent of the population was ethnically Japanese. Japan is a good example of a nation-state, where people of a common heritage and aspirations hold to a unified government. This provides a strong centripetal force that unites the people under one culture and one language. However, religious allegiances in Japan vary, and there are a good number of people who indicate nonreligious ideologies. Shintoism and Buddhism are the main religious traditions. Shintoism includes a veneration of ancestors and the divine forces of nature. There is no one single written text for Shintoism; the religion is a loosely knit set of concepts based on morality, attitude, sensibility, and right practice. It is possible for a Shinto priest to conduct a wedding for a couple, whereas the funeral (hopefully taking place much later) for either of the spouses might be conducted by a Buddhist priest. The Buddhism that is practiced in Japan is more meditative in nature than mystical.

Modernization has brought new opportunities and problems for the Japanese people. With a highly urban and industrial society, personal incomes in Japan are high and the fertility rate is quite low, at only about 1.2 children. The replacement level for a given population is about 2.1 children, which means Japan has a declining population. The population is aging and there are not enough young people to take entry-level jobs. The family has been at the center of Japanese tradition, and the elderly have been venerated and honored. As the country has become more economically developed, higher incomes for young people have prompted a shift toward convenience and consumer amenities. Consumer goods are available, but all the oil and about 60 percent of the food products have to be imported. Income levels are high, but the cost of living in places like Tokyo is also quite high.


Figure 29. Centripetal v Centripetal Forces (Japan). What cultural centripetal forces have been holding Japan together?

Japan is facing a labor shortage for many low-level service jobs that had traditionally been held by young people entering the workforce. Japan is now in stage five of the demographic transition, and is at the start of a serious population decline. While Western Europe and the United States also have a declining percentage of young people, in those countries the declining youth cohort has been replaced by an elevated level of immigration, both legal and illegal. Culturally, this is not an attractive option for Japan, but they are forced to address the labor shortage in any way they can. Their economy will depend on the ability to acquire cheap labor and resources to compete in the global marketplace.

B. Korea

The Korean Peninsula juts out into the Pacific Ocean from northeastern Asia. The peninsula is bound by the Sea of Japan (the East Sea) and the Yellow Sea. North and South Korea share the peninsula. These countries have been separated by the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) since 1953. To the west and north is China and to the far north along the coast is Russia. Korea is separated from China by the Yellow Sea and by the Yalu and Tumen Rivers to the north, which form the actual border between North Korea and China. Japan is located just east of the Korean Peninsula across the Korea Strait. The capital city of North Korea is Pyongyang, and Seoul is the capital of South Korea.

Approximately 70 percent of the Korean Peninsula is mountainous, with relatively little arable land. The highest peak in North Korea rises more than nine thousand feet. The Korean Peninsula has four general areas:

  1. Western Region with an extensive coastal plain, river basins, and small foothills
  2. Eastern Region with high mountain ranges and a narrow coastal plain
  3. Southeastern Basin
  4. Southwestern Region of mountains and valleys

North and South Korea have very different, yet related, environmental issues, primarily related to the degree of industrialization. With a low level of industrialism, North Korea has severe issues of water pollution as well as deforestation and related soil erosion and degradation. Other issues in North Korea include inadequate supplies of clean drinking water and many waterborne diseases. South Korea has water pollution associated with sewage discharge and industrial effluent from its many industrial centers. Air pollution is severe at times in the larger cities, which also contributes to higher levels of acid rain.

For centuries, Korea was a unified kingdom that was often invaded by outsiders. After the fall of the Chinese Qing (Manchu) Dynasty, the Japanese took control of the Korean Peninsula (1910) and controlled it as a colony. Japanese colonial rule ended in 1945 when the United States defeated Japan, forcing it to give up its colonial possessions.

The conclusion of World War II was a critical period for the Korean Peninsula. The United States and the Soviet Union both fought against the Japanese in Korea. When the war was over, the Soviet Union took administrative control of the peninsula north of the thirty-eighth parallel, and the United States established administrative control over the area south of the thirty-eighth parallel. The United States and the Soviet Union divided Korea approximately in half and eventually established governments in their respective regions that were sympathetic to each nation’s own ideology. The Soviet Union administered the northern portion; the United States administered the southern region. Politics deeply affected each of the regions. Communism dominated North Korea and capitalism dominated South Korea. In 1950, with aid from China and the Soviet Union, the Communists from the north invaded the south. After bitter fighting, a peace agreement was reached in 1953 to officially divide the Korean Peninsula near the thirty-eighth parallel. Korea remains divided to this day. The United States has thousands of soldiers stationed along the Cease-Fire Line (or DMZ), which is the most heavily guarded border in the world.


Figure 30. The Korean Peninsula between the North and the South. The thirty-eighth parallel cuts across the peninsula in the area of the DMZ farmland. The DMZ is the Cease-Fire Line between North and South Korea.

North Korea

The government of North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) was formed with the leadership of Communist dictator Kim Il Sung, who shaped his country with a mix of Soviet and Chinese authoritarian rule. Having few personal freedoms, the people worked hard to rebuild a state. Using the threat of a US military invasion as a means of rallying his people, Kim Il Sung built up a military of more than one million soldiers, one of the largest in the world. People could not travel in or out of the country without strict regulation. North Korea existed without much notice until the 1990s, when things suddenly changed.


Figure 31. Giant statue of North Korea’s “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung This giant statue of North Korea’s “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung stands in the capital city of Pyongyang and is called the Mansudae Grand Monument. This mammoth bronze statue was built in 1972 to celebrate the Great Leader’s sixtieth birthday.

When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, North Korea lost a valued source of financial support and oil. Without fuel and funding, many of the factories closed. Unemployment rates rose significantly. Meanwhile, China adopted a more open posture and began to increase its level of trade with the West. The result was that China began to lose interest in propping up North Korea politically. North Korea was facing serious problems. Massive food shortages caused famine and starvation. Thousands of people died. Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and the country lost their “Great Leader.” He had ruled the country since World War II and in the end was deified as a god to be worshiped by the people.

The government dictatorship continued as the Great Leader’s son, Kim Jong Il, took over the leadership role. Kim Jong Il, known as the “Dear Leader,” took repression of his people to new levels. Televisions and radios sold in North Korea can only receive government-controlled frequencies. Cell phones and the Internet are banned. The government takes a hard line against dissenters. If you are caught speaking against the state or taking any action to support dissent, you can be arrested, fined, placed in a prison camp, or executed. People are not allowed to leave or enter the country without government approval. Only a couple hundred tourists are allowed into the country per year and are closely escorted.

Kim Jong Il took hard measures to stay in power and to avoid yielding to the capitalist frenzy of corporate colonialism. He developed nuclear weapon capability and used his military weapons production as a bargaining chip against the United States and other world powers. After his death in late 2011, his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, became the supreme leader of the country.


Figure 32. North Korean soldier looks across the DMZ in the Joint Security Area (left). The modern “63 Building” in Seoul, South Korea, stands as witness to the prosperity and advancements in the South Korean economy (right).

North Korea has demonized the United States as the ultimate threat and has used state-funded propaganda to indoctrinate its people. North Korea’s government continually tells its people that the United States will invade at any minute and to be prepared for the worst. Propaganda has been used to create and enforce military, economic, and political policies for an ideology that supports the unification of all of Korea under Communist control.

North Korea is mainly mountainous; there is little quality farmland. While only 2 percent of the land is in permanent crops, about a third of the population works in agriculture. The best farmland in North Korea is located south of the capital city of Pyongyang. The capital is a restricted area where only the most loyal to the state can live. There is a serious shortage of goods and services. Electricity is not available on a dependable basis. Massive international food aid has sustained the people of North Korea. Outside food aid is accepted even though the country has a long-standing policy of self-reliance and self-sufficiency called Juche. Juche is designed to keep Korea from becoming dependent on the outside. The policy of Juche has been quite effective in isolating the people of North Korea and keeping dictators in power. The policy of Juche also holds back the wave of corporate capitalism that seeks to exploit labor and resources in global markets for economic profit.

One way that North Koreans are finding out about the outside world is through smuggled-in cell phones and VHS videotapes from South Korea. Popular VHS productions include South Korean soap operas, because of the common heritage, language, and ethnicity. The North Korean government has attempted to crack down on smuggled videotapes by going from home to home. Electricity is turned off before entering the home. Once the electricity is turned off, videotapes cannot be removed from the video player. The government agents then recover the videotape. Citizens found with smuggled videotapes are punished with steep fines or imprisonment. Desperate North Koreans have escaped across the border into northern China, where thousands of refugees have sought out better opportunities for their future. It is ironic to think that Communist China, with historically few human rights, would be a place where people would seek refuge, but China’s economy is growing and North Korea’s economy is stagnant, which creates strong push-pull forces on migration.

South Korea

In 1993, South Korea became a fully-fledged democracy with its first democratically elected president. Seoul, the capital city and home to almost ten million people, is located just south of the DMZ. The United States has many military installations in this area.

South Korea manufactures automobiles, electronic goods, and textiles that are sold around the world. South Korea is a democracy that has used state capitalism to develop its economy. After the World War II era, South Korea was ruled by a military government that implemented land reform and received external economic aid. Large agricultural estates were broken up and redistributed to the people. Agricultural production increased to meet the demands of the population. South Korea has much more agricultural production than North Korea and is therefore in providing food for the high population density. A once-modest manufacturing sector has grown to become a major production center for export trade.

The fifty million people who live in South Korea have a much higher standard of living than the residents of North Korea. Personal income in the north is barely equivalent to a few dollars per day, while personal income in the south is similar to that of Western countries. The economic growth of the south was a result of state-controlled capitalism, rather than free-enterprise capitalism. The state has controlled or owned most of the industrial operations and sold its products in the global marketplace. Giant corporations, which forced industrialization along the coastal region, have promoted South Korea as the world’s leading shipbuilding nation. South Korean corporations include Daewoo, Samsung, Kia Motors, Hyundai, and the Orion Group. As an economic tiger, South Korea continues to reform its economic system to adapt to global economic conditions.

South Korea has announced plans to conduct a comprehensive overhaul of its energy and transportation networks. Government funding will augment efforts to create more green-based initiatives. Part of this effort will focus on lower energy dependency with environmentally friendly energy developments such as wind, solar, bike lanes, and new lighting technologies. High-speed rail service and increased capacity in electronic transmissions lines are planned as part of a next generation of energy-efficient technologies that will increase economic efficiency. These policies have been enacted to update South Korea’s economy and create new products for manufacturing export.

Buddhism has been a prominent religion in Korea for centuries. The teachings of Confucius are also widely regarded. About 30 percent of the population claims Christianity as their religious background; this is the highest Christian percentage of any Asian country.  About two-thirds of the Christians are Protestant and one-third are Catholic. Up to half of the population makes no claims or professions of faith in any organized religion.


Figure 33. Reunification Buddha in South Korea, Erected to Signify the Unity of the Korean People

Unification of North and South

What if North Korea and South Korea would become unified again? In geography, there is a concept of regional complementarity, which exists when two separate regions possess qualities that would work to complement each if unified into one unit. North and South Korea are the classic illustration of regional complementarity. The North is mountainous and has access to minerals, coal, iron ore, and nitrates (fertilizers) that are needed in the South for industrialization and food production. The South has the most farmland and can produce large harvests of rice and other food crops. The South has industrial technology and capital needed for development in the North. If these two countries were reunited, they could work well as an economic unit.

The harder question is how and under what circumstances the two Koreas could ever come to terms of unification. What about the thirty-five to forty thousand US soldiers along the DMZ? What type of government would the unified Korea have? There are many young people in South Korea that would like to see the US military leave Korea and the two sides united. The generation of soldiers that survived the Korean War in the 1950s understands the bitterness and difficulties caused by the division. This segment of the population is highly supportive of maintaining the presence of the US military on the border with North Korea. Unification is not likely to take place until this generation either passes away or comes to terms with unification. The brutal dictatorships of Kim Jong Il and his son Kim Jong Un have been a main barrier to unification. This is a political division, not technically a cultural division, even though the societies are quite
different at the present time. The geography of this situation is similar to that of East and West Germany after World War II and during the Cold War. Korea may have different qualities from Germany, but unification may be possible under certain conditions, foremost being different leadership in the north.

Key Takeaways

  1. Japan’s mountainous archipelago has provided isolation and protection for the Japanese people to maintain their unique culture and heritage. The islands were created by tectonic plate action, which continues to cause earthquakes in the region.
  2. Japan was a colonial power that colonized much of the Asian Pacific region. Its defeat in World War II devastated the country and liberated all its colonies. Since 1945, Japan has been developing one of the strongest economies in the world through manufacturing.
  3. Japan is a highly industrialized country that is in stage 5 of the demographic transition. The country’s small family size and declining population are a concern for economic growth in the future.
  4. The Korean Peninsula is divided in two by the DMZ. North Korea is a Communist dictatorship with a low standard of living and absolutely no civil rights. South Korea is a capitalist democracy with a high standard of living and a free-market economy.
  5. North Korea is more mountainous and lacks arable land to grow food. South Korea has more farmland and fewer mountains. If the two countries were to be united with a common economy, they would complement each other with a balance of natural resources.

End-of-Chapter Summary

  • East Asia is anchored by Communist China, a large country that dominates the physical region. High mountains on its western borders have isolated China. The peripheral regions of Tibet, Western China, Mongolia, and Manchuria act as buffer states that protect the core Han Chinese heartland in China Proper, where most of the population lives.
  • To boost foreign trade and increase its manufacturing sector, China has established special economic zones (SEZs) along its coast in hopes of attracting international businesses. Shenzhen is one such SEZ, which is located across the border from Hong Kong. Urbanization and industrialization have prompted a major rural-to-urban shift in the population.
  • The world-class port and strategic geographic location of Hong Kong have played a large role in its development as an economic tiger. High-tech manufacturing with banking and financial services have catapulted the small area into a major market center for Asia. In 1998, Hong Kong was united with China, opening the door for massive trade and development with China and Shenzhen.
  • Taiwan is a small island off the southeast coast of China. It has developed into an economic tiger with high-tech manufacturing and high incomes. The island has a separate government from mainland China and has a capitalist economy. There has been historic tension between Taiwan and Beijing ever since the Nationalists moved here in 1948. Economic trade between Taiwan and mainland China has brought the two sides closer together.
  • Japan is made up of a number of large islands. After its defeat in World War II, Japan worked to recover and become a core manufacturing country and the second-largest economy in the world, although that title is now held by China. Japan has a homogeneous society in which about 99 percent of the population is Japanese. Family size is low and the population has begun to decline in numbers, causing an economic concern about the lack of entry-level workers.
  • Korea is split between an authoritarian-controlled North Korea and a capitalist South Korea. North Korea is isolated with a weak economy. Its citizens are denied basic human rights. South Korea has developed into one of the economic tigers of Asia. South Korea has a strong manufacturing sector that produces high-tech electronics and information technology. Thousands of Korean and US soldiers remain stationed on the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas.


A Brief Introduction to World Regional Geography Copyright © by Steve Wolfe. All Rights Reserved.

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