China's single time zone

From East to West, citizens set their watches to Beijing time...
24 October 2023

Interview with 

Rana Mitter, Harvard University


Shanghai city


For millions of years, life on Earth has evolved to align itself with the day/night cycle. But with the advent of timekeeping devices independent from the passage of the Sun and artificial sources of light at night, humans have been fighting the instincts of their body clocks.  China is of particular interest here where, despite its land mass being spread across 5 different geographical time zones, the authorities have decided to establish a uniform timezone across the country: which is called Beijing time. Chris Smith spoke to Rana Mitter, professor of US-Asia relations at the Harvard Kennedy School...

Rana - China itself is, at the moment, either the most or possibly the second most populous country in the world. It's got something like 1.3 billion people. It's being closely lapped by India, which may even have exceeded it in population, but it's still a huge number of people. It goes all the way from the Western side which borders India, the Northern side which borders Russia, and the Eastern side which gives onto the Pacific Ocean. So China's a tremendously large land mass, but it is not a place that has lots of variant time zones. Officially speaking, the entire country, which ought to have really five time zones, just has one.

Chris - What's the impact in practical terms of life under that time regime? If one takes an example of, I'm getting up in the morning in Beijing and it's daybreak, what will it be like for the people at the extremes of the geography?

Rana - What it means is that if you are in the capital city, Beijing, or one of the other major cities of China that's basically on the same longitude, in other words, somewhere like Shanghai or Guangzhou, previously known as Canton, which is on the South coast, you won't actually notice too much that is different from a normal day anywhere else, the reason being that essentially the time zone is set around you. But if you go all the way to the far Western side of China, the territory known as Xinjiang, there you will find that, in practice, although everything runs on Beijing time, in fact, you might find that actually people there refer to their own time as being two hours behind Beijing time. In other words, they've invented their own unofficial time zone. Essentially, people begin to adapt a little bit, but it's worth noting that China is a culture where, broadly speaking, people tend to get up quite early for work when the light makes it possible, work through the day, and then come home relatively early as well. It's not necessarily, in most cases, a very late night culture. I should say that this is something that, in historical terms, is relatively new. Beijing time, the one time zone that China has, only existed in that form since 1949, the year of the Communist revolution when Mao Zedong, the revolutionary leader of the Chinese Communist Party, conquered all of China. He had a revolutionary army that defeated the existing government and brought his communist party to power. He founded the People's Republic of China. that of course is still the government of China today. Now, up to that time, and certainly in the first half of the 20th century, China had five different time zones. So it's much more like America. But Mao decided as the leader of China's revolution that he wanted all China to feel unified, to feel like one country, and one way that he made that happen was to insist that the entire country must share one time zone.

Chris - And how did that go down?

Rana - The early period of the People's Republic of China was a term of immense change in general. So we have to think about the change to a unified time zone as part of a wider set of changes around time and space - makes it sound a bit like science fiction - what I mean is that people started to think in new ways about the time, but also in new ways about the size of their own country. Don't forget that, when the time zone was imposed in 1949, the vast majority of China's population, maybe 90%, lived in the countryside. They were agrarian rather than urban. And that meant that, in practice, it didn't really matter often quite what exactly the time was because you'd get up with the sun and go to bed with the dark. Even running water and electricity were not always widely found. So we need to think of this as a system that was imposed on a country where many people would not regard looking at a clock or a watch as necessarily the most important way for them to tell what the time was. Of course, as time went on and China became more industrialised, more urbanised, more people became caught up in what you might call the regime of modern time. And by regime I mean the way of thinking about how you look at your watch, you look at your clock. But by that stage, the regulation had already been introduced and that meant that people got used to it as people tend to with things which are part of the furniture, so to speak. They don't necessarily rethink what they have been told to do in terms of their everyday lives.

Chris - Is it, in the more modern era, having any kind of impact on business, on people's ability to conduct their affairs when time is so shifted in daylight terms across the country in that way? People in the far west, are they being impacted by this as we move into a more modern way of working?

Rana - Overall, I don't think that most Chinese think that potential time zone differences are a really major part of what gets in the way or helps them out with their particular issues or businesses or ways of life. You have to remember that many things operate in China these days on a 24 hour basis. It's got one of the world's most sophisticated electronic payment systems, people now trade day and night. So the question of morning and night is not irrelevant by any means, but it's rapidly becoming subsumed by aspects of modernisation through technology.

Chris - Do they do DST in China? Do they change their clocks like we do?

Rana - China does not do DST, Daylight Savings Time. It did try it as an experiment for about five years or so from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, but essentially found it was too disruptive from their point of view so they abandoned it. So now, no, China does not set the clocks back or forward in the way that happens in North America or Western Europe.

Chris - Do you see any of this changing in the near future? China embracing time zones like the other big continents or or doing DST?

Rana - Of the various reforms and changes which are likely to come to China, which could be in the fields of economics, international relations, a whole variety of changes of things that concern people on everything from the possibility of a conflict with the United States to attempts to try and shore up the economy, which has been doing quite badly recently, all of those, I think, crowd out attention on things that don't have some immediate pressing, urgent need. And my sense is that a discussion of time zones is really not something that China has had much of a conversation about in recent years.


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