The objective of this study was to determine how many population-based cancer registries exist in China, what methods are being used, and the statistical data that are available from them, and to identify future needs with respect to technical support. A two-stage survey was conducted in 2002 at provincial and cancer registry level. Based on the questionnaire used in these two stages, the basic distribution and descriptive information on population-based cancer registry practices in China are addressed. There are 48 cancer registries in China, covering 73 million people (5.7% of the total population of China in 2000). The oldest three registries are LinZhou, ShangHai and QiDong. There are marked variations in practice between registries, with respect to data collection, data management and coding. Differences are also found in administrative aspects and sources of financial support. In conclusion, this first national survey of Chinese cancer registry practice provides a benchmark against which development and standardization can be evaluated in the future. The survey suggests that lack of qualified personnel, insufficient funding support and lack of stability of the population are major problems in carrying out registration work in China. It also indicates several ways in which registry practice, and hence availability and quality of incidence and survival data can be improved.