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Why does China Have Only One Time Zone?

By KD Morgan
Updated May 23, 2024
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China is a vast country, yet it has only one time zone, called Beijing Standard Time (BST), or China Standard Time (CST), which is Greenwich Mean Time, plus 8 hours (GMT+8). Though it used to consist of five time zones, the Communist government changed the country to only one in the late 1940s as part of an effort to streamline it. This has led to some practical concerns for those who live far away from Beijing and, as a result, some areas do not strictly adhere to the standard time. China is the only large country besides India that only uses one time zone.

Purpose

The reason that the country only has one time zone is both practical and political. The Communist party established the country's current time system shortly after it founded the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 to streamline operations, but also to make the country appear more unified. This was a strongly political move, since the country is so large and consists of many regions and ethnic minorities, and it has historically been difficult for one power to effectively rule over all the different areas. It was particularly important to establish authority over the entire country in 1949, as it had been divided by civil war for over 20 years and had gone through a period of fragmentation before that.

Practical Concerns

Having only one official time does cause practical problems, especially for people in the western provinces. Beijing is about 3.5 hours ahead of the far Western provinces, meaning that in some cases, the official time is already 10 AM when the sun rises in places like Xinjiang and Tibet. Since many of the people in those provinces are ethnic minorities, they sometimes feel that the use of BST is oppressive and unnecessary. Additionally, many farming communities throughout the country just use their own times, since agricultural work has to be done when the sun is out, regardless of the official time

Exceptions

Hong Kong and Macau both use their own time, called Hong Kong Time (HKT) and Macau Standard Time (MST), both of which are Coordinated Universal Time, plus 8 hours (UTC+8). Neither region uses daylight savings time. Many areas in Western China, particularly Xinjiang, also work on their own unofficial time zone. Though this sometimes has political implications, it's usually more of a practical move. For instance, stores sometimes work on modified times so that people can conveniently shop in them.

History

Before the establishment of the PRC, China was divided into five time zones. From east to west, they were Changpai Time Zone, Chungyuan Standard Time Zone, Kansu-Szechuan Time Zone, Sinkiang-Tibet Time Zone, and Kunlun Time Zone, ranging from GMT + 8.5 to 5.5 respectively. After the single time zone was introduced, the country did use daylight savings time for a while, from 1986 to 1991, but it was considered inconvenient and dropped.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1000701 — On Nov 24, 2018

It's exactly the same as Mao simplifying Chinese text, for a war-torn country where his followers were mostly uneducated illiterate peasants. He simplified the text, whereas Taiwan kept it. He also simplified the time zones for the vast country into one. It does save and create confusion at the same time, indeed. From a human point of view, it makes things simple but logically and naturally it's just wrong. Time zones already are quite simplified, where 1 hour represents 15º of the sun moving, but of course, there will be differences within that 1hour zone, albeit minutes of the sun passing over that region. (It's also worth pointing out that the 24-hour day is another human concept for simplification, One day is 23 hours, 56 minutes.)

I did wonder why China is the only big country to have one time zone and now I know: politics, i.e., Mao again. I am Chinese myself, but western born. I think they should do away with daylight savings time. It just causes confusion and is largely redundant to city folk especially.

Going back to unifying time zones, it's true there is a case of it saving confusion. One example is in MMOS. The server is naturally dominated by the majority of people from that region. E.g,. for a European server, most of the players are from the CET timezone. Unfortunately, when giving times for events most just say it in their own timezone, completely ignorant not everyone who plays the game is from Central Europe. It really doesn't take any effort to mention the time zone you are in when you give times, or just give it in the game server's time to avoid confusion (Well, there's no getting around that, as people not in that time zone will need to make the deductions or vice versa in hours.)

Summary: No, time zones do matter. We're still animals and most of us favor daylight, so keeping some track of the sun is our concept of time. Agreed with the guy who said with Beijing time being the default for the land, it is cold and their way or the highway, but then isn't that always the case with a country. The capital city calls most of the shots, as does the majority ethnic group, etc.

Bear in mind, people who aren't well acquainted with Chinese culture, think yes, it is discrimination or racism. The vast majority of Chinese including myself, are Han, largest race in the history of the planet by a big margin. To put it into perspective, China's well known for it's 1.3 billion people, (1.4 billion more recently) and over 90 percent of that is Han! While it's still wrong, discrimination, inequality, etc., it puts it into perspective why things are the way they are. Over 50 Chinese ethnic groups but we have one vastly overwhelming majority.

By anon990785 — On May 09, 2015

They don't need to change something that unimportant as time zones. One time zone, unity, no daylight saving time, no confusion, no excuses for being late. Time is just a number. Most places in the world don't follow the natural solar time. Look at Central Europe where nearly every country wants to be UTC+1.

By anon989642 — On Mar 16, 2015

How hard would it be to change the time zone in China? What are the consequences?

By anon355596 — On Nov 18, 2013

Anon334695

Shanghai is of longitude 121.5E, 1.5' away from standard UTC+8 line, more accurate than most other major cities in the world. You have nothing to complain about.

By anon334695 — On May 14, 2013

I hate when I'm in Shanghai and the sun rises at like 5 a.m. Hard to sleep in on weekends.

By pleonasm — On Oct 29, 2012

@clintflint - The problem with that is that these days everywhere is connected with everywhere else, particularly within a country. So, if you've got an area where everyone starts work at 11am, they won't be able to network as efficiently with other companies.

And it really does go back to ancient China and the relationships between provinces established then. Those groups far from the heart of China were simply not considered to be on the same level.

If you want to make it in business in China you need to either be in Beijing or willing to work on Beijing time. Which means the employees of companies in areas where time is skewed will either end up with strange sleeping habits or they will miss out.

By clintflint — On Oct 28, 2012

@browncoat - It's tough to know without being there, but it might be partly just a way to establish control over the outer provinces. On the one hand it makes me sad that those areas are treated like that.

On the other hand, this really is a minor kind of thing. If it's been established that the sun rises at 10am, then just make it standard practice to go to work at 11am and work until 7pm and so forth. The clock time doesn't mean all that much when you get right down to it. It's just a method of organizing the day.

By browncoat — On Oct 27, 2012

@anon259850 - I'm not sure if the powers that be in China care as much about being efficient as being in control. It might seem ridiculous to us, but I guess to them there's no reason to change a system that seems to be working.

And to people who only live in Beijing and do most of their business there, it is working.

By anon259850 — On Apr 08, 2012

Time zones are supposed to make a society more efficient, so how does China intend to grow under this policy? When will they change?

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