More Chins than a Chinese Phonebook

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.

Fast Food

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.

Parallels

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.

Do People Care where their Phones come from?

Mobile phones are now the centre of people’s lives.  You only have to consider the implications when it is lost or misplaced to realise the grip it has on us.  No calls or texts, no email on the go, no Facebook or twitter updates, no Internet at your fingertips, no communication with the world.

Considering the impact these devices have on our lives it is strange that most people have little or no idea where their phone comes from.  As far as they are concerned they come from the phone shop.  They walk in to upgrade and leave with the latest model.  The old one is then discarded, often passed down the mobile phone food chain to a relative. I asked some of my family and friends if they knew where their phones come from.  The reaction was mixed.  A lot of them say China.  They would be correct in that assumption.  Around half of the world’s phones are manufactured in China.  I put another question to people though. How is your phone made?  This has most people stumped.  Not because the complexity of the devices themselves, but by asking who actually builds them.  “Is it robots or humans?”, I ask.  I got some interesting answers.  Most people answer that it is a combination of the two, guessing that robots make the circuit boards and people assemble the basic components on a production line.  Some people thought phones are so complicated now robots must do it all.  In reality if a component can be assembled by hand, then it is.  Robots are rare on Chinese production lines and are only used if the components cannot be assembled by hand.  However it is extraordinary what Chinese workers can achieve.  They can fit extremely small components together on a constant almost never ending production line without great difficulty.  The cost of labour is so cheap in China compared to the cost of robots, it makes financial sense to use Chinese workers to do as much of the manufacturing as possible.  The downside to this is the human cost.  Long shifts doing repetitive processes can result in repetitive injury strains and health issues.  This is the reality that Chinese workers face.  Very long working hours doing mind numbingly repetitive tasks.  How many people really consider this when using their phone?  Are people aware of the human cost that goes into making their phones? Do they even care?

Most people I spoke with are aware that China is probably where their phone was made.  However, they certainly were not aware of the amount of human effort goes in during the manufacturing process.  I’m not suggesting that we should boycott phones made in china, nor am I suggesting any slave labour.  Britain had much worse working conditions a hundred years ago and comparable working conditions the 1950’s and 60’s.  The fact of the matter is that China has a huge population of workers willing to travel huge distances to work.  They are highly motivated to better themselves.  The jobs they take up are far better paying and much less back breaking than the usual agricultural work they may have found themselves in previously.  Typical factory pay can be between around $50 – $200 dollars a month, which doesn’t sound like much.  But when you factor in that this is relative and meals are only a few cents and rent can be as low as $20 – $100 a month then the standard of living is much higher than we give credit for.  People in countries in Africa are in much more poverty than people in China.

I think that it is important to know about the people who are manufacturing your phones and indeed any of our goods.  I think that it is important to realise that what we take for granted as a simple free upgrade, Chinese workers spend hours assembling by hand.  They spend hours upon hours assembling mobile phones that they will never be able to afford.

A brand from China

 

I have worked in a mobile phone shop for the past five years.  As part-time jobs go, it’s pretty good.  It pays well, I get good benefits and I like the people that I work with.  What I enjoy most of all though is playing with new phones.  I am a gadget junkie, so getting my fix has been pretty easy.  In the past five years there has been a huge expansion in the Smartphone market.  Five years ago there were only one or two Smartphone’s available whereas now they dominate the mobile phone market.  New phones are appearing all the time.  Phones with higher and higher resolution cameras, better resolution video, faster processors, more Ram, LED displays, Retina displays, Amoled displays, crisper displays, bigger and better displays.  Technology has improved a massively in such a small amount of time.  Nearly all of this innovation is made in the countries like UK, USA, Japan and Korea.  However, pretty much all of the products are manufactured in China.

 

China is the world’s biggest manufacturer of mobile devices and the vast majority of Smartphone’s are manufactured there.  Companies like Apple, Samsung and Blackberry use the cheap labor opportunities China has to offer when mass-producing their products.  These are products designed in the West, built in China and then shipped to the West for sale.  This is a situation that has suited both parties for a number of years.  The West designs, China builds.  However in recent years this has not exclusively been the case.  Chinese companies are now designing and manufacturing their own mobile phones.  ZTE and Huawei have been the two big mobile manufacturers to emerge out of a new China.  Their cheap range of handsets have made phone ownership and indeed Smartphone ownership much more attainable in an increasingly expensive market.  For example a Samsung Smartphone would cost around £100, whereas the ZTE or Huawei equivalent would cost around £70.  These handsets are typically rebranded as network handsets in the UK.  What I mean by a rebrand is that a Network carrier like T-Mobile for example, will hire a contract manufacturer like ZTE to sell them phones with there own Network branding.  The name, packaging and logos of the new mobile product will all reflect this Network rebranding.  The same handset can end up being sold by a number of Networks but with varying names and packaging.  The color and software also usually differs.  Below are two phones designed and manufactured by ZTE, the Orange Miami and the T-Mobile Touch II.  Exactly the same phone but different branding.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is something that HTC, a Taiwanese company, did for a number of years during the early days of the Smartphone.  As well as designing handsets for O2, Orange and T-Mobile in the UK, they also design for networks in the USA, working with Cingular, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T Wireless.  HTC created some of the first Smartphone’s in 1998 and the first Microsoft powered handset in 2002.  This was the direct predecessor to the Smartphone we know today and it was universally adopted as the PDA phone.  They all typically ran a version of Windows Mobile and were targeted at businessmen.  It basically looked like a mini laptop with a touch screen without any of the apps and endless features that we take for granted on the current Smartphone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, a couple of years ago, HTC began to develop its brand within the west and began to sell phones under their own name in western countries.  They are now one of the biggest manufacturers of Android Smartphone’s in the world.  If HTC can make the change from being network branded, then why can’t a Chinese company?  With the countries vast recourses and manufacturing expertise they will surely do the same won’t they?

 

China was once a very innovative country.  China gave the world the bank note, gunpowder, paper, printing, the abacus, tea and bells.  These are but a few examples of Chinese invention and ingenuity.  For two thousand years the Chinese contributed a huge amount of technological advancement to mankind.  However due to it’s historical inwardness, many of these inventions were not passed onto the West.  Subsequently they were not attributed to the Chinese and instead invented separately in the West sometimes may hundred of years later.

Now it seems that innovation has been lost, or at least temporarily forgotten.  As its people have lost their individual freedoms, new innovative design and technology has been very limited.  Strangely, with a loss of freedom has come great prosperity for many Chinese.  This is because the speed of Chinese growth would not be possible without the control placed upon its people.  So it could be argued that loss of individual freedom has directly contributed to the rate of expansion, but has unintentionally stifled the Chinese creativity for design.

 

China today is the workshop of the world, producing the majority of the worlds manufactured goods.  However not all the manufacturing is legit.  China is also the counterfeit workshop of the world.  It seems that there is nothing that cannot be copied.  From DVD’s and clothes, to mobile phones and even cars, there is nothing it seems that the Chinese cannot reverse engineer.  Some of these copies are of a pretty good standard and can easily be passed off as genuine.

 

Individual freedom is essential for good design.  People need freedom to create. If this is lost or stifled then new creative ideas are not developed.  China certainly has the recourses to manufacture and mass-produce but until the great Chinese expansion plan is completed, then individual freedom will continue to be restricted.  As China develops over the next ten years and restrictions on freedom are lifted, and as Chinese students return from the West, Chinese design will become much more influential on the world stage.  New and influential companies like those seen in the west will emerge from this new China.  In the future it may be Chinese companies who drive forward global trends for technology.

One year in China

 When Stewart landed in Pudong on the outskirts of Shanghai, he was knackered.  Almost twelve hours on an aeroplane will do that to you.  It was early March 2006 and it was cold, very cold.  Stewart, like many other people has the travelling bug.  On completing his degree several years ago, he began to look for a job, but after a few months when nothing materialised he began to look for alternatives.  Teaching overseas seemed like a good idea, combining a decent paying job and some travelling in a nice yearly package.  But why China I asked?  Stewart explained that he had “always had a fascination with the Far East and wanted to really experience other cultures”.  “The pay was also much better in China” he added.  More and more people are choosing to teach English overseas and China is becoming a more favoured destination.

Stewart’s first cultural introduction came upon hearing a strange hocking sound from behind him.  Upon turning around was presented with the sight of an old woman “gobbing” into a bin.  But what struck him above anything else was the enormous scale of the place.  Looking out of one of the airport windows it seemed like there was no life beyond the airport, just an empty, endless, industrial landscape.  Built on huge concrete pillars, the motorway leaving the airport seemed to rise up into the sky.  He gets a connecting flight to Xi’an airport where he meets his contact and makes the hour’s drive to the centre of Xi’an.  It was on this drive through the impoverished villages on the way to Xi’an that Stewart thought to himself “Oh no, what have I let myself in for”.  The initial meet and greet did not go well.  He arrived in Xi’an tired, hungry and very overwhelmed.  He needed a good nights sleep.

The next morning, he awoke to find the sun illuminating the city and he began to realise that the Chinese concept of architecture and design was a lot different than that of the West.  “It was an incredible sight”, he explains.  There are skyscrapers as far as the eye can see.  He has a walk around the city and goes for something to eat.  He has a sandwich from a shop that he describes as “a lower floor flat that seems to have been converted into a business”.  It seems that it is very easy to open a business, with seemingly no health and safety, environmental health or permits to get in the way.  “One of the biggest things that you find out about China” he explains “is that anyone can open up a business”.  He picks up his new car and soon realises that on China’s roads, there are no rules, but for some bizarre reason it works.  This chaotic organisation almost sums up what China is like.  Hectic but functional.  He drives to his new school in Yang Liang, which is a suburb of Xi’an and about an hour and half drive from the city centre.  This is where Stewart spends the majority of his time when he is in China.

Stewart tells me about the differences in culture.  “It’s amazing how quickly you integrate into it”, he says.  “But this partly because the Chinese are amazing at looking after people” he remarks.  “Especially when it comes to looking after people that can benefit them in some way”, he adds.  This intrigues me a lot.  I ask him if he was almost viewed as an investment.  He agrees saying “they look after their investments”.  This corporate minded opinion is something that you can’t get away from in China.  Corporate China, it’s industry, it’s international trade and business is everywhere.  It’s financial muscle can be seen everywhere.  “It’s filled with the corporate, business environment”, he says.

I decide to ask Stewart about the freedom of speech issue that constantly surrounds China.  I ask him if he has negative experiences.  “I never experienced anything personally.  I never felt like big brother was watching”.  However he did experience the notorious Chinese firewall when browsing the Internet in one of the many Net Bars that fill the country.  A seemingly harmless Karate site was blocked, probably for containing an undesirable key word.  “The presence of authority is very overt in China”, he tells me.  The overt presence and showing of power is a big thing in China.  “It’s not a historical thing” he says, “It’s always been a big thing in Chinese culture”.

We talk for a while longer and the more I think about it, the more China seems like a contradiction.  A riddle surrounded by myth and intrigue.  It is a Communist country, yet it is a Capitalist country.  It is a country with huge third world population that lives within the borders of the world’s richest superpower.   It is a state controlled, censored society, with a poor human rights record that is having the biggest and fastest cultural reinvention witnessed in living memory.  This inherent contradiction is why people might feel uneasy about China.  Perhaps some people simply do not know what to make of this ever-expanding enigma.  Maybe China even scares people.  China is changing.  It is changing almost faster than we can define it.  As it changes we have to be willing to let go of our prejudices and stereotypes.  China is already much different than people imagine.  It’s been six years since Stewart lived in China and wonder how much it has changed in that short time.