Known as the People's Republic of China under Communist rule for more than six decades, the Asian nation can be traced as far back as 221 B.C. In modern times, the world's most populous country represents a significant portion of the global economy and not always in a positive light. Exports from defective, rotting drywall to toxic toothpaste sparked outrage recently in the United States, whose debt is a major asset for the Chinese government. The country isn't just criticized for its labor practices; the government is often accused of violating human rights.
During the 2010 summer, China replaced Japan as the world's No. 2 economy as receding global growth sapped momentum and stunted a shaky recovery. China has emerged as an economic power that is changing everything from the global balance of military and financial power to how cars are designed. It is already the biggest exporter, auto buyer and steel producer, and its global influence is expanding.
China has been a major force behind the world's emergence from deep recession, delivering much-needed juice to the U.S., Japan and Europe. The country's growth has been spectacular, its voracious appetite fueling demand for resources, machinery and products from the developing world as well as rich economies like Japan and Australia.
But China's rise has produced glaring contradictions. The wealth gap between an elite who profited most from three decades of reform and its poor majority is so extreme that China has dozens of billionaires while average income for the rest of its 1.3 billion people is among the world's lowest with a per capita income of $3,600.
The world's largest carbon polluter, China pledged it would cut its carbon intensity -- emissions per unit of GDP -- by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 from the 2005 level. Nationwide efforts have also been made to reach the goal of improving energy efficiency by 20 percent from 2005 to 2010.
China's roadways are increasingly overburdened as the number of private vehicles booms along with commercial truck traffic hauling materials like coal and food to cities. Traffic slowdowns because of construction and accidents are common. In 2010, one traffic jam lasted for more than 10 days, an unusual length of time even for China.
Despite being North Korea's main ally and benefactor, China has backed U.N. resolutions punishing the isolated country for nuclear tests but issued only a muted response to the March 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship that an international investigation blamed on the North, which has denied the allegation.
On the Internet, Beijing encourages its use for education and business but tries to block access to material deemed subversive or pornographic, including websites abroad run by human rights and pro-democracy activists. The actions to keep China's citizens from finding politically sensitive information and images online have been dubbed the "Great Firewall."
With the world's biggest population of Web users at more than 384 million, China has a history of hacking. In 1999, Web surfers defaced U.S. government sites after the mistaken American bombing of Beijing's Belgrade embassy killed three Chinese. Nationalists have attacked Web sites in Japan and Taiwan, the self-ruled island claimed by Beijing as its own territory.
Intelligence experts say that since the 1970s, Beijing has carried on a quiet campaign to acquire foreign technology and other secrets by using Chinese businesspeople, students and scientists who travel abroad as part-time spies.