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.

Haggling in Britain and China

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During today’s lecture Jonathan brought up the topic of haggling. Normally tourists are not used to the idea of haggling over prices for products and are often embarrassed to attempt it. Venders in China put up their price up to 5 times over the normal price offered.

Britain uses a fixed price system in retail even though the prices are actually just the companies suggested price. We are happy to search around for offers or spend that little bit more for new possessions. A shop with an item on sale can retract any sale price and charge more for it because the sale price is just a low price for the customer to haggle with. It doesn’t normally happen like this. There are people who haggle for prices in independent retailers. Many independent stores are happy with this because it means you get a returning customer who is willing to pay more for the higher model then they would normally go for because they can get money off it.

All this reminded me of a day when I was working in a small camera shop in Portree on The Isle of Skye. A Chinese man came in looking to buy a camera. He saw a Sony Alpha 300 in the window and indicated that that was the one he wanted. I quickly became aware as he started passing me an iphone that he couldn’t speak English. On the phone was his friend in Hong Kong who spoke some English, he explained his friend in the shop wanted to buy the camera but wanted me to explain what it came with and the price to him so he could act as translator. After all the translation and a few more questions he started to haggle the price down. I told him that the camera was at a fixed price but he carried on to explain he didn’t have enough money on him to buy it at full price. The price was haggled up until he was £10 away from the set price. His friend explained he would have to digitally transfer the money to the man in the stores account.

The camera shop was owned buy a family friend who was a freelance photographer on the island. The shop was mainly just an extra source of income which before the domination of digital cameras had been very successful developing and printing film. The price mark up was very high on SLR cameras because we were the only place within 100miles that sold SLR’s. During tourist season we would sell out our stock of high range camera within a week so we could easily afford to put the price up.

After checking with my boss I sold the camera to the man for £10 under the asking price. He was very polite and shook my hand afterwards. I came to me that a British person trying to haggle would most likely come across rude and dismissive. I worked in Comet over the Christmas period and the people who tried to haggle were all like this. Perhaps its the culture of spending money at large retail businesses where you know everything is not marked at a realistic value that makes people behave like this.

Is a fixed price created by the retailers better then a haggling system?

Here’s a link I found about how to haggle in China for anybody thinking of traveling there.

http://www.wikihow.com/Haggle-in-China  

Because it’s cheap!

I am currently studying jewellery design, but I will not be writing about beaded necklaces that are made for Mardi Gras. Actually, we do not celebrate it in Europe in the same way that it is celebrated in the United States. I am mostly going to express mine and others opinions about daily life and how we deal with jewellery and clothes shops in Dundee, the UK, France, and Europe.

In order to find the opinions of other people, I sent out a questionnaire to teenagers, workmen, students, unemployed, and retired individuals. I tried to ask people from different social classes to find if money made a difference. The questions I asked were simple and were based on questions that I was curious to find the answers to. After the answers I received, I also came up with a few more questions to ask.

The first question I asked was, “When I say ‘Made in China’, what does that mean to you?” The replies I received were very similar, ranging from “huge factories, poor people working, children workers, rapidity, profitability, cheap goods, bad quality”.  Almost everyone thought the same thing, more on a negative side. The question is, “do people continue to buy Chinese items even if they criticize it?” I found that people do still continue to buy items despite what they know.

Even as a jeweller, I admit that I buy cheap jewels that are made in China (Claire’s, Topshop, New Look, Primark). These jewels are the kind that are easily breakable, lost, cheap, and are not important.  I always check the labels of things I buy out of curiosity, including clothes and jewellery. Honestly, I know where and how the stuff I buy are made when it says “Made in China”, but out of habit I still continue to buy it. It seems wrong, especially when I am aware of the bad conditions, pollution, and other factors. Why don’t I change? It is probably because it’s a habit. I’m still a student so I always try to find the cheapest deal when I buy clothes and jewellery. Many people I interviewed do the same. Even though we are aware of what is happening, we live too far from the reality of the other side of the world and are more concerned about the money in our purse.

I’ve asked my friends and myself the reasons as to why we continue to buy cheap things all the time, especially when we don’t need it. Why do we not keep our money in order to buy something of better quality, made in Europe in good working conditions, but more expensive? The response that came up was quantity. Our society is a consumer society. The fashion society will tell you what to wear and say that what you are currently purchasing will be outdated in a few months! We do not want the expensive brand made by a fashion designer. Instead we prefer similar clothing just for the attitude and look. Most people don’t have the money to buy designer brands, unless they are from the upper class! You can just ignore that and try to buy “ethical” clothes and jewellery that was made in better working conditions or go to second hand shops. I try to do that sometimes, but I find that things made in Europe are too expensive to buy all the time or items in second hand shops are not “fashionable”.  I received similar responses from my panel. Some people are not interested in buying second hand clothes, but more to try less but Asian goods.

I’ve asked some people the reasons why they want to stop buying jewellery and good “made in China” and they reply, “ because Made in China items are destroying western jobs, factories, and the economy.” When I ask them about the working conditions, people are aware of how the products are made and feel guilty, but most of them admit that this is not the first thought that came to mind.

A few friends have argued that products “Made in China” are everywhere, so it’s kind of hard to boycott it. We can’t really do that because China has such a large export industry worldwide and it’s probably not a wise thing to do either. Europe is in a huge crisis and people are very aware of their money and how much things cost. We may tend to blame China, but actually they are just making what we want and ask for: cheap, consumable, but a detriment in quality and working conditions.

We tend to blame China for many reasons, but goods produced from other Asian countries like India and Bangladesh, South America and Turkey are all made in poor working conditions. The quality for products from these countries is similar to Chinese goods and pollution from clothing factories is quite harmful. A large number of jeans are made in Turkey and sadly workers in textile factories have serious health injuries. The public tends to turn a blind eye towards these issues. Why do we only really focus on what happens in China? I asked this question to my panel and gave them information about jean factories in Turkey as a comparison. Some people came up with interesting responses. They said that China is one of the most powerful countries in the world, western people and westerns factories are possibly afraid of that. They try to make China the black sheep because they were able to increase their economy so quickly. Chinese made goods quickly and at an affordable price in large quantity, due to the large numbers of workers they have! Westerns try to use the guilt factor with consumers in order to keep their economy alive.

Fumin Road, Shanghai

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Jing Daily has a link to a profile in Fashion Trend Digest of one of Shanghai’s newly trendy streets, Fumin Road, where the city’s up and coming fashion designers are selling their wares:

““Fumin Road, a once-sleepy street in Shanghai’s French Concession, [is becoming] something of a hotbed of activity for young local designers, several of whom have opened boutiques there as rents in fashion districts like Changle Road have skyrocketed. Much like Nanluoguxiang, Baochao Hutong and Wudaoying Hutong in Beijing, which have seen a [recent] influx of local designers and boutiques, Shanghai’s Fumin Road is now attracting independent designers like Helen Lee to multi-brand curated shops like Dong Liang Studio””

The Hive

Read the full story – in English – at Jing Daily (link via Design China.)

Why Chinese companies want to buy British businesses

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Evidence that China is much more than just the factory of the world, producing other people’s goods for them:

“The indelible stamp of “Made in China” has made an impressive mark on world trade, but this country’s ambitions are proving to be much higher.

No longer content to be known for their cut-price efficiency in stuffing Disney toys, Chinese companies now want to own high-end global brands and be at the forefront of major technological projects.

[…]

Europe’s markets are mature, full of established brands but ripe with investment opportunities and in the UK in particular, Chinese companies have been fast to realise their potential.

According to consultants Dealogic, Chinese firms have acquired stakes in 33 UK companies since 2008, acquisitions totalling almost £12bn.

They include mining, logistics and financial services companies.

[…]

China’s interest in such projects does not come as a surprise to Dr Karl Gerth from Oxford University, who has been researching how social changes in China are pushing global growth.

”China is becoming less and less competitive in manufacturing, those same jobs are moving to Vietnam and other places,” he says.
“At the same time there are millions of unemployed, college educated Chinese looking for work, who don’t want to work in factories; they want technically sophisticated jobs. In order to employ all those people the Chinese economy needs to move up the value chain and start participating in higher-end industries.”

Buying into established brands and pitching for large infrastructure projects abroad is seen as key to providing that upwards trajectory the Chinese economy needs to take.

 

(Read the full story at BBC News – Why Chinese companies want to buy British businesses.)