China is experiencing a period of rapid economic change. Since the 1980s, the government has been slowly transforming the economy from a planned economy to a free-market system. The changes have affected urban and rural workers in different ways.

Although only 15% of China contains arable land, about half the population are farmers. Over the centuries, farmers have developed techniques to allow the earth to produce crops year after year-and in the south, more than once a year-without exhausting its fertility. The principal crops are grains such as rice, wheat and millet, and potatoes, tea, cotton and oil seeds. Traditionally, farm families have been poor, and after the arrival of communism, farmers found themselves working on collective farms for low wages until the 1970s. People working in agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry and fish farming now have contracts with the state. Anything produced beyond the contract amount may be used by the household or sold in the open market. Many farmers now enjoy good incomes; however, they still receive no pensions or other benefits.

Except for the territory of Hong Kong, which has a capitalist economy, the Chinese government has traditionally assigned urban workers their jobs, which are usually in industry or government services. China's industrial sector produces a wide variety of goods, from construction materials to textiles, cars and telecommunications devices.

Until recently, most urban workers spent their entire lives at the same factory or office. Basic earnings were similar in all forms of public employment, although factories did have bonus systems. Management still tends to be very hierarchical, and union activity is forbidden. Despite these restrictions, urban workers have generally enjoyed a better life than most farmers. Employees were placed in a "work unit" that organized and subsidized their housing, health care, pension and medical benefits, as well as their children's daycare and education.

With the move to a new economy, the government no longer guarantees a job for everyone. In recent years, the private sector has been growing and some workers now have the option of choosing their own place of employment.

  Did you know?
Gender discrimination in salaries for men and women has been abolished in China since the 1950s.

  Did you know?
Silk is a product of southern China. It is made from the cocoon of the silkworm moth. Over 100 cocoons are required to make one ounce of silk yarn.