Chronic diseases now account for an estimated 80% of deaths and 70% of disability-adjusted life-years lost in China. Cardiovascular diseases and cancer are the leading causes of both death and the burden of disease, and exposure to risk factors is high: more than 300 million men smoke cigarettes and 160 million adults are hypertensive, most of whom are not being treated. An obesity epidemic is imminent, with more than 20% of children aged 7-17 years in big cities now overweight or obese. The government of the People's Republic of China must confront these major challenges. The national cancer prevention and control plan (2004-10) is being implemented, and a national chronic disease prevention and control plan is due to be completed this year. Encouraging progress has been made in some areas, with current smoking prevalence in men declining at about 1% per year for a decade, and even better results in large demonstration programmes. Much remains to be done, and resources and sustainability are major issues. However, the surveillance and intervention mechanisms needed to ameliorate the increasing burden of chronic diseases are developing rapidly, taking account of the lessons learned over the past two decades.