Mao Zedong's announcement of the establishment of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949, finished one turbulent chapter in Chinese history and began another. The fall of the Qing, growing incursion by foreign countries, and the devastation of World War II sandwiched between two periods of bloody civil war gave way to purges of the country's artists and intellectuals, increasing isolationism, the colossal failure of the Great Leap Forward, and the tragic chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
The last quarter century has been characterized by relative stability and growth. Since the late 1970s the sole power holder in the People's Republic of China, the Chinese Communist Party, has brought hundreds of millions out of poverty and significantly relaxed its iron grip on personal freedoms. Diplomatically, Beijing has also become an increasingly savvy power broker on the global stage, while Western powers have been distracted by war and economic woes.
The party has no shortage of challenges that threaten its mandate to rule, including widespread corruption, an increasingly vocal and media-savvy populace, environmental disasters, and a widening wealth gap. In 2014, thousands of pro-democracy advocates shut down city streets in Hong Kong protesting reforms to Hong Kong’s political system that would allow direct elections, but only from cherry-picked candidates that meet Beijing’s approval.
China is undergoing the greatest economic expansion the world has ever seen, with the country now the world's most important producer and consumer of just about everything. Since the launch of Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping's reform and open policy in 1978, the Middle Kingdom has experienced roughly 10% annual GDP growth and has become the world's second-largest economy, trailing only that of the United States (for now).
China's coastal region was the early beneficiary of economic reforms, with cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou powering an export-focused economic model. Today the story is the awakening of markets in second- and third-tier cities as the country moves toward a consumption-driven economy.
The media in China has primarily served as a government mouthpiece since 1949. Since 1999 the Internet has not only provided Chinese people with greater access to information, it has also given rise to "Netizens," Chinese who use the Internet to voice their concerns and displeasures with modern society.
Beijing's attempts to manage the Internet have drawn much criticism beyond China's borders, but that hasn't stopped the Internet from becoming a part of daily life for more and more Chinese. With more than 772 million people regularly going online, China is the world's largest Internet market.
Government attempts to control the Internet have caused some of the world's biggest companies to pull out of the country or be blocked. Google shut down services 2010, rerouting traffic to Hong Kong, but has attempted to re-enter mainland China in recent years with proposed censored changes to its search engine. Sites including Facebook and Twitter were blocked in 2009, presumably owing to government concerns about the potential for social media to be used in organizing anti-government activities.
Officially an atheist country, China is home to large numbers of Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and Taoists. Until recently, practicing any religion could lead to detention or worse, but now the country's temples, mosques, and churches are active once more—although the watchful eye of the government is never far away.
Despite its general increasing tolerance toward religion, the Chinese government has taken strong measures against groups that it considers a threat to its rule, most notably the Falun Gong, which it considered a cult and banned in 2000. Buddhists in Tibet and Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang frequently clash with police and soldiers, leading to heightened tension in those regions.
Despite its Olympic success, China has not been able to develop popular homegrown sports leagues. Men's soccer is seen as one of the country's biggest disappointments—China's national team has only once qualified for the World Cup. The national soccer league is riddled with corruption and empty seats, with most Chinese preferring to watch European matches.
Basketball is also extremely popular in China—even remote mountaintop villages have a court or two. In the late 1990s NBA games began to be broadcast on the mainland, to the delight of sports fans. Yao Ming, now retired from the Houston Rockets, was one of China’s most successful athletes to play internationally. Everyone from kids to grandparents seemed to have a Chicago Bulls cap, and Michael Jordan was as recognizable as Bill Clinton. Today Kobe Bryant and a new generation of stars are being emulated by Chinese streetballers, and many former NBA players are finding second careers in the Chinese Basketball Association.
China is often thought of as a sexually conservative country, but you don't get to be the world's most populous country by being a bunch of prudes. Over the centuries Chinese society has seen it all, from polygamy to prostitutes, from eunuchs to transvestite actors.
Premarital sex in China may be discouraged, but young Chinese all over the country are engaging in sex, whether it be with a steady boyfriend or girlfriend or a drunken one-night stand. Public displays of affection in broad daylight aren't commonplace, but also not unheard-of.
Part and parcel with China's economic development has been the return of prostitution. More often than not, Chinese hotels will have on-site prostitution, and the odd international five-star occasionally gets busted for offering "special services" to guests.
Homosexuality was officially considered a mental illness in China until 2001—since then the country has become considerably more accepting of gays, lesbians, and transgendered individuals. These days nearly every major city has a few gay bars, and even straight Chinese take fashion cues from their LGBTQ "comrades."
Sexual relations between Chinese and foreigners are generally accepted, but there is occasional friction or unpleasantness. On the short end of China's gender-imbalance stick, some Chinese men resent foreign men and the Chinese women who date them. On the flip side of that coin, a Chinese man who is dating a foreign woman is often hailed as a stud.