It’s an old joke, but for the Chinese it is no laughing matter. In the past 30 years not only has there been an explosion in the Chinese economy, there has been an explosion in the ever-increasing size of the collective Chinese waistline. There are now more overweight or obese people in China than ever before. British economist Paul French and author of “Fat China” explains; “In the last 30 years they’ve gone from famine to feast in just two generations”. There are now around 200 million people in china that can be classified as being overweight. Around half of those are regarded as being obese.
It is not simply the vast number of overweight or obese people in China that is concerning, it is the speed at which the problem has developed. Obesity and the resulting health problems are now becoming more common in children. The Chinese government now faces the real possibility of a major health crisis in the coming years if this issue is not tackled. It is hard to believe that in the 1960’s, China had one of the worst famines in its history. Between 1959 and 1961, millions of Chinese died through starvation. This disaster has been attributed to a combination of drought, poor weather conditions and political policy at the time. The exact number of those who died has been debated over the years with conservative estimates at around 15 million while others believe the figure to be as high as 43 million. The truth is that it is now impossible to calculate. Even death in China is on an incredible scale.
What are the reasons for this increasing obesity problem and how have the attitudes towards food changed through the generations to arrive at this point? Like any major social and health problem, there is no single reason, but rather a combination of factors.
Social Divide and Employment
Despite the economic boom, many people in China still find it hard to make a living and feeding and clothing themselves is a daily struggle. For many in the big cities however, this is not such a problem. There is a huge financial divide between people in the cities and people in rural farming communities.
China was once an extremely lean society. Even since the mid 1970’s the vast majority of people still scraped a living off the land, working long, backbreaking hours to barely be able to feed themselves. Since the country began to allow free trade there has been a huge shift in employment opportunities.
The numbers of Chinese people working in agriculture has decreased since 1950 and there has been a sharp decline since 1970, with more people working in Manufacturing and Services. This has been due to the changing ideology of the Chinese hierarchy and the reconstruction of the country. More people are now working in factories, construction sites and offices in the cities. This shift from agricultural work has meant higher wages and on average less physically demanding jobs. That’s not to say that the Chinese don’t work long and physically demanding hours however. Many people travel many hundreds of miles to find work and send much of their earnings back home for their families. On average the standard of living has improved sharply though the generations and people now enjoy the benefits of a better economy and the perks that come with it. The perks are higher earnings allowing people to eat whatever, whenever they want. A developing middle class in China has meant that many people have a much more disposable income than ever before.
The emergence of this middle class has meant more people spend much more on commodities and luxuries than they could hope to dream of 30 years ago. People in China can now shop, where and when they want. There is no real surprise that a more westernised outlook to business and free trade has brought a more westernised style of living. Mass produced food products and the emergence of supermarkets and a 24 hour lifestyle has meant the Chinese diet is of a much poorer standard than previous generations.
The arrival of the Americanised fast food industry in China certainly hasn’t helped. McDonald’s, KFC and Taco Bell are now commonplace throughout the big cities in China. The Chinese knack for copying has meant that replicas of these types of fast food restaurants are appearing all the time. There is now a copy of Starbucks called Bucksstar, a rip off version of Pizza Hut called Pizza Huh and a knockoff McDonald’s called McDnoald’s? Although none of these can rival KFC, which is the most popular fast food restaurant in China.
Higher income has meant bigger portions too. Bigger portions and less physical exercise will inevitably lead too a bigger waistline. China is well on track to emulate the Americans in this respect. Children and young adults are the ones most likely to frequent these fast food establishments shunning more traditional foods for the quick, sugar rich alternatives. Sweets, which were typically an uncommon treat, only a generation ago, are now a common daily snack among young people.
The One Child Policy
Interestingly one of the more bizarre reasons attributed to the rise of obesity has been the Chinese “one child policy”.
Many have argued that this results in parents overindulging their children. Parents with comfortable incomes will lavish their children with snacks and big portions. This may not be the case if there were more mouths to feed. It is the younger generations that are suffering the most with a large increase of diabetes in children across China.
It seems that many of the reasons for the increase of obesity in China are very familiar to us. There are many parallels with us in that respect. Too many calories consumed and not enough burned off is the simple explanation. However the psychology of over-eating is the difficult part to explain. It seems that the Chinese problem is in that in trying to emulate the success that the west, they forgot to drop the parts that have been our undoing. The younger generations in China are eating more, doing less exercise and as a result are getting unhealthier. People have higher wages and an improved lifestyle, so they eat more and more often. The introduction of Americanised fast food restaurants and their Chinese copycats has meant more choice but at a price. China only has to look at the West to see where this current path will lead. To their credit, China has invested Billions of Dollars into a new national health service, but they risk jeopardising that investment with the burden of an overweight population if they cannot halt what has already been set in motion.
“There’s nothing we can do about politics,” Silence Chen, an account executive in Beijing says, “So there’s no point in talking about it or getting involved.”
Stephen Elegant of Time Magazine portrayed the apathetic attitudes towards politics of the so called ‘ME Generation’ (covering the ages of 20 to 30 year olds). Describing the materialistic and almost greedy attitudes of the younger generations in modern day China, he explained that ‘one subject that doesn’t come up [in conversation with this generation] – and almost never does…-is politics.’ This lack of interest can be seen to create a wedge between the modern day ‘ME generation’ and previous generations before them whom the author describes as ‘Chinese elites, whose lives were defined by the epic events that shaped China’s past. The writer appears to feel as though the younger generations are ‘tuning out’ the past. However, I feel that this lack of political interest can be more put down to the naivety and contentment of the current generation and their lifestyle.
Born in 1906, Zhou Youguang, unlike some of the younger Chinese generation feels that democracy is ‘the natural form of a modern society’. He doesn’t understand how ‘free thinkers’ can gain respect until they challenge and question the Communist government. However, Zhou too has admitted that his passion for politics has hit him very late in his life. Only once he had retired at the age of 85, did he start to take an interest in the subject. Let’s be honest, no matter where on the globe you find yourself, many people are just not interested in politics full stop. In particular, younger citizens may be too young to understand politics, never mind pay any attention to it. Perhaps without seeing or appreciating the effects a government and how it is run can have on themselves and on the people around them, causes them to be ignorant to politics as opposed to being apathetic to it.
It is said that there are 300 million under 30 year olds in China and that an investigation carried out by Credit Suisse showed that the incomes of 20-29 year olds increased by 34% roughly between 2004-2007 making this the largest wage increase of any age group. The have been described to possibly become ‘the salvation of the ruling Communist party’ as a result of their ‘self-interested, apolitical pragmatism’. However journalist Stephen Elegant explained that this ‘salvation’ will last only as long as the Communist Party ‘keeps delivering the economic goods.’ The idea is that this ‘ME generation’ is consumed by a world of by material products, self-gain and westernised tastes. They are described as citizens interested only in designer brands, sipping Starbucks coffees and using the latest mobile technology. They are seen to have no or little concern in regards to how the country is run and who should run it, almost as if they have become tools of the Communist government to ensure their continuing power. Magazine publisher, Hong Huang claimed that ‘On their wish list…a Nintendo Wii comes way ahead of a democracy’. This being said, this generation’s Chinese youths have surpassed previous ones in areas of education and international affairs. Comparing the ‘ME Generation’ to the apparently named ‘Lost Generation’ of the Cultural Revolution, roughly 25% of Chinese citizens around the age of 20 have gone to college at some point in their lives, whereas, in regards to those of the ‘Lost generation’, many didn’t even finish high school. Chinese native and American Citizen, Author and expert of China’s middle class Helen H Wang explained that ‘Twenty years ago, China was a very different place. We had very little information about the outside world’, whereas it is said that in 2007 alone, around 37 million Chinese citizens travelled internationally and that in the coming decade Chinese tourists will outnumber that of Europe and the U.S combined.
Another apparent reason for the apathy of the young generation is that any previous attempts they will have heard from their elders, to stand up against the government have had negative outcomes with those such as The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. This, and the fact these issues were so long ago, the ‘ME Generation’ have accepted that they are growing up in times better than their parents and their grandparents before them. They are probably reminded of this on a daily basis, so they have little motivation to care for politics. All they see is an ever growing strength in China and a flourishing economy and in the words 27 year old of Maria Zhang ‘We have so much bigger a desire for everything…and the more we eat, the more we taste and see, the more we want.’ This being said, there is one political event the younger generation has encountered and this is the incident of Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Zhou Youguang, 106 years old, explained in regards to the massacre of 1989, he feels that ‘one day justice will be done’. This shows that he disapproves of the Governments actions on that day. Nonetheless, to some younger citizens the student protests, if allowed to continue, would have upset the progress the country has made. Vicky Yang, who is 27 and an actuary at a consulting firm, explained her belief that ‘the students meant well’ but felt that the forced end to the demonstrations ‘was needed’. It may simply be that Vicky was only 11 when she witnessed the demonstrations, and perhaps didn’t fully understand the situation. It can also be the fact that perhaps, she is just content with the government as it is and feels change is not necessary. With they’re current economic success; can one really fault this belief? It is difficult to see however, who supports a Communist Government and who is just content with their lifestyle as it is now. Mr Zhou says we cannot say how favourable support for a Communist government really is, as ‘The people have no freedom to express themselves, so we cannot know’.
In spite of the previous comments of the so called ‘ME Generation’, there is still proof that change does lie on the tongues of some of Chinas youths today. As society modernises in China, many citizens take to the internet to communicate with each other. Apparently a new blogging language is starting to emerge in which the bloggers are said to ‘ridicule the government, poke fun at Communist Party leaders, and circumvent the heavily censored internet in China’. They have also been named by China Digital Times as part of the ‘resistance discourse’. For example the government’s claims of trying to maintain ‘harmony’ within China, is mocked by internet users who use words and mild insults which are almost homonyms of the Chinese word for harmony, and these represent suppression. This is proof that many feel dominated by the Communist government and this could be the beginning of an age directed more towards free thinking. In the words of Marc Macdonald of IHT, ‘To be harmonised, these days, is to be censored’, however to disallow these mild insinuated criticisms online would inevitably contradict the ‘harmonious society’ that the government is claiming to sustain. So it is as if, in the belief of Chinese writer Yu Ha, that ‘harmony has been hijacked by the public’.
Zhou Jiaying, a young school girl describes her opinion of China as she sees it saying, ‘On the surface China looks luxurious, but underneath it is chaos…Everything is so corrupt’. This is proof younger citizens do show interest in politics, beginning even at a young age. Her teacher on the other hand feels that ‘Just because they’re [the younger generations are] curious to see something doesn’t mean they want it for themselves…Maybe they will try something—dye their hair, or pierce an ear—but in their bones, they are very traditional’. This creates the thought that on some level, it may be that a general misunderstanding between the young and their predecessors. The idea that China’s younger generation does not share an interest in who runs the government is not really true. No matter where you are in the world there are always those who are not interested in politics; however it is unreasonable to mark a whole generation with this label. Perhaps this misunderstanding between generations is a result of the rate of such drastic change, forcing a wider gap between them. For it can be seen, despite all the condemnation of the youth of China, this ‘we want more’ generation is communicating political views in new and innovative ways from very young ages. It has been reported that working class riots and protests in the more rural areas are already increasing as the government continues to cater mainly for the middle and upper classes and although these sorts of political statements may be lacking in the satisfied middle class it is certainly not true that this so called ‘ME generation’ lacks concern in political matters. Naturally as the country flourishes economically, a political revolution is not logical. As it is, China as a country is doing very well for itself, and the public see this. To call this social contentment politically apathetic is ridiculous. Political interest is within the youth of China and it’s always been there and grows with them. One just has to look for it.
This is a concept for a new skyscraper development in Beijing. It’s not intended for construction – it’s just the idea itself that is intended to challenge attitudes towards property and people in China.
Take a closer look at it and you’ll see that it’s just a structure within which are built actual houses.
Though private property doesn’t really exist in China (and buying a property only ensures its use for 70 years), the designers of this structure feel that land use needs to be reexamined in China, as a private home is a basic human right. Their proposal to bring every person a place to live takes into account the country’s exploding population and need for dense development, and thus is oriented vertically. Inspired by the Chinese character 田 the traditional siheyuan residence and ancient Chinese urban planning, these designers have dreamed up a giant reinforced concrete structure that serves more as infrastructure than a building. It is “land” for housing, instead of the housing itself – a 3-D checkerboard that houses units within each cell. The structure is the same length as the Forbidden City, and is located directly to the east of it.”
Really interesting Ted talk, with Martin Jacques, about the rise of China as a political and economic force.