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.