China's system of political geography differs somewhat from that in other countries. Most of it is broken up into provinces (省), but there are several other geographic units of the same hierarchical rank as provinces:
▪ Various ethnic groups have autonomous regions (自治区), although their autonomy is far from complete. For the traveler, these can generally be thought of as provinces, but in political discussions the distinction may be important.
▪ Four of the larger municipalities (市) are not part of provinces, but independent entities whose leaders report directly to Beijing. The smallest of these, Tianjin, has a population well over 10 million. The largest, Chongqing, has over 30 million residents.
▪ Hong Kong and Macau are special administrative regions (SARs， 特别行政区). These are former colonies — Hong Kong British and Macau Portuguese — that rejoined China in the late 90s. Their economies and distinct political systems are allowed to flourish under separate regulatory regimes from the Mainland under the slogan "One country, two systems". The SARs have their own currencies, issue their own visas, and elect their own representative assemblies through a combination of direct and indirect representation.
A full list of province-level divisions is:
Province — capital
Autonomous region — capital
▪ Beijing Municipality (北京)
▪ Chongqing Municipality (重庆)
▪ Shanghai Municipality (上海)
▪ Tianjin Municipality (天津)
Special Administrative Regions
▪ Hong Kong (香港)
▪ Macau (澳门)
Taiwan is a special case. At the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, the Communists held most of China and the defeated Nationalists held only Taiwan, the Pescadores and a few islands in the South China Sea. That situation continues to this day; Taiwan has had a separate government for 60 years. While listed as a province in the P.R.C., from the practical traveler's point of view, it is a separate country with its own visas, currency and so on.