Hong Kong and Macau aren’t independent countries, but you will get your passport stamped when traveling from those territories to “mainland China.” And then there’s Taiwan, which is officially called the “Republic of China.” Many travelers confuse the territorial divisions of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, so we want to help clear things up for you.
China’s political divisions are in the news right now, given the current protests in Hong Kong.
It’s a sensitive topic for historical reasons, and we don’t want to get into the political debate; we simply want this article to help you better understand the differences between the 4 regions that can be called “China”:
- mainland China
- Hong Kong
Informally, the term “Greater China” is used when referring to the entirety of these 4 regions.
But what does it all mean? And next week, don’t miss the next part: why should you visit each of these regions.
Greater China Overview
Here is a map of where all 4 territories are located.
The country that is always referred to as China, that everyone knows as China, is officially called the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Here’s how each of the 3 other territories relates to “China.”
China… and Taiwan
First, Taiwan is a state located on an island around 160 kilometers off of China’s (the People’s Republic of China) southern coast across the Taiwan Strait.
Taiwan’s official name is the Republic of China (ROC).
With both having “China” in their names, it can be confusing for many. For example, China Airlines is the national carrier of Taiwan (while Air China is the national carrier of China). And many don’t understand the complex political situation.
China (the PRC) has no actual control over the island of Taiwan, but they consider Taiwan to be a part of China. So Taiwan isn’t a part of the United Nations because mainland China strongly advocates for the “One-China policy”: they refuse diplomatic relations with any country that recognizes Taiwan, isolating Taiwan on the international scene.
Taiwan and China are, therefore, completely separate for travelers, each having their own visa policies, for example. But while Taiwan is de facto self-governing, its political status remains uncertain. It is an independent state, but one with limited recognition.
This complicates things for those like us who want to visit every country in the world, as the list of countries is generally based on UN membership. But yeah, this is a minor detail.
So why are both called “China”?
Well, in 1949, the Chinese government fled to Taiwan (which was then part of China) when the Communist Party of China took control of the mainland during the Chinese Civil War, leading to the current situation.
Politically, Taiwan is a multi-party democracy, while China is a unitary one-party socialist republic. While China has a population of 1.4 billion, Taiwan has a population of only 24 million.
China is huge—it’s the world’s third-largest country covering a large portion of continental East Asia with huge cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and many, many others. Taiwan only controls the island formerly known as Formosa, as well as a few small neighboring islands, and its capital and main metropolitan area is Taipei.
Finally, the UN’s Human Development Index is one measure of how developed a country is: China ranks 86th while Taiwan would rank 21st if it were a UN member.
China… and Hong Kong
Now, let’s move to the two territories that are actually controlled by China. The relationship between Hong Kong and China is what is at the root of the current protests in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is also a group of islands, but it is very close to China, as it is just off the Chinese mainland, and it’s a much smaller territory than Taiwan. It is essentially only one city with surrounding islands.
The question is: Is Hong Kong in China or not? Hong Kong was a British colony up until 1997, which isn’t that long ago. It was then transferred to China.
So Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China: it is part of China but has a high degree of autonomy. “One country, two systems” is how China describes it. Hong Kong retains its own separate economic, legal and administrative system.
That means Hong Kong has its own immigration channels, passport, legal system, and currency (after visiting 59 countries, it’s still the only one I’ve ever seen that has a private bank’s logo printed on it). It has a capitalist economic system.
When I went in 2017, I took the subway from Hong Kong to Shenzhen (in China), and the border formalities between the two areas were the same as if I had crossed into a completely different country (although I am not aware of any other place in the world where you can take the subway to cross a border).
Full disclosure: Hong Kong is one of my favorite cities in the world, and it really is a unique place. Unique, notably, because of the mix of cultures and many expats.
With over 7 million inhabitants in the very compact city, it’s one of the most densely populated places in the world. The city also has the most skyscrapers in the world, and for that reason, it is often called the world’s most vertical city. I love skyscrapers, so one last nugget: there is no city in the world with more people living above the 14th floor than Hong Kong.
Despite its small population, it is one of the world’s leading financial centers, and its currency is the 9th most-traded in the world, helped by the fact HK is the 10th largest exporter and 9th largest importer (impressive since HK would rank 102nd in population if it were a country).
Finally, Hong Kong ranks 7th in the world on the Human Development Index. Its population has the 9th longest life expectancy in the world, and it has the highest concentration of ultra-high-net-worth individuals of any city in the world.
I’ll stop here so you come back next week to learn more about Hong Kong.
China… and Macau
This one will be very simple: Macau (sometimes spelled Macao) is just like Hong Kong. It is also a small territory very close to the mainland (an even smaller city in fact), it is also a Special Administrative region, it also belonged to a European nation up until the late 1990s and also has its own legal system, currency, and passport.
The difference is that Macau was a Portuguese colony instead of a British colony, and they ceded it to China in 1999, two years after Hong Kong. It is located not too far from Hong Kong, on the other end of the mouth of the Pearl River.
Instead of being a hub for commerce and finance like Hong Kong, Macau is a hub for gambling.
In fact, Macau generates 7 times more gambling revenue than Las Vegas does! There are many casinos, and the territory ranks 9th worldwide in terms of tourism revenue overall!
The nearly 500-year rule of the Portuguese created a unique culture and heritage, and it’s the only place you’ll see street signs in Chinese (Cantonese) and Portuguese. When the Portuguese ceded it to China, many considered it to be the last formal “colony” in the world.
Population-wise, Macau is tiny: only 700,000 people live there (10 times less than Hong Kong). But since the territory is also smaller, it is officially the densest territory in the world (but don’t expect as many skyscrapers as in Hong Kong; it’s nothing like it).
Macau also has a very high Human Development Index score—it would rank in the top 20.
Why Visit Each Region Of Greater China?
Come back next week to get our best tips to get to these destinations for less, and the reasons why you should visit all four.
Or even better, get it in your inbox directly:
The complex political situation can be hard to understand. But hopefully, you now have a better sense of why China and Taiwan both use the “China” name, and how Hong Kong and Macau are related (and differ from) mainland China.
Have any questions about the different territories? Ask in the comments below!
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Featured image: Map of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau (Photo Credit: James Coleman)
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