China is Gaining on America

Sep 25, 2014 by

Tom Watkins –

The weight of the world is now on China. There is no doubt that China is expanding both its global influence – and its waistline.

Yao Ming, retired basketball star is worried saying, “I believe that in the next ten years, obesity will become as debilitating to Chinese People as smog is today.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, “China’s obesity rate has skyrocketed over the last three decades, resulting in 46 million obese Chinese adults and 300 million who are overweight, according to a study by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.”

I have never been “large” by American standards but I felt HUGE in my first trip to China in 1989. It seemed that the average Chinese male’s waist size at that time was 28 inches or less. With a 33-inch waistline then, I felt enormous — and the Chinese people were happy to point this fact out.

I recall a local Chinese entrepreneur making wallets, purses, and belts outside my hotel, laughing and saying through an interpreter, “I can become rich selling belts to Americans, they need to buy two to make fit.” I was traveling with two American businessmen with 50-plus inch waistlines so I told him to wait and when my colleagues appeared I would double his daily profits. As my colleagues existed the hotel, my new leather-entrepreneur, in a good natured way, nearly fell off his stool laughing, “I’m rich, I’m rich!”

In 1989, China was at the beginning stages of opening its doors to the world. Then, the only Western restaurant in China was an out of place Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), only blocks from Tiananmen Square. Today, even third-tier cities are dotted with KFC’s, McDonald’s, Burger King’s and other “fat food” establishments.

At the time, a typical Chinese meal consisted of rice/noodles, vegetables, fish, and if meat, poultry or pork was to appear on a plate it was in tiny, thin, wok cooked morsels. Even the celebratory banquets were abundant with fruits, vegetables, seafood, rice, and noodles, with only a hint of fatty or unhealthy choices. It was easy to eat healthy as there were few unhealthy choices.

Have You Eaten?  

Today, China is a country of contrasts. The country that brought about the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution is the same country that has lifted more people up from poverty than any civilization in the history of man.

Today’s obesity epidemic in China can be juxtaposed to China’s recent past of starvation. Frank Dikötter, a Hong Kong-based historian, in his book, Mao’s Great Famine: The Story of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe Between 1958 and 1962, chronicles a war raged between the peasants and the State. It was a period when the nation descended into famine and starvation. “It is reported that 45 million Chinese perished due to Mao’s Great Leap Forward policies,” Dikötter documents. “At least 45 million people were worked, starved, or beaten to death in China over these few short years. The worldwide death toll of the Second World War was 55 million.”

The World Gets Fat

According to the World Health Organization, “Obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, with more than 1 billion adults overweight – at least 300 million of them clinically obese – and is a major contributor to the global burden of chronic disease and disability.”

A recent study points out China is now No. 2 for obesity, with its number of obese residents outstripped only by the United States. Its obesity rate has skyrocketed over the last three decades, resulting in 46 million obese Chinese adults and 300 million who are overweight, according to a study by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

The Big “Little Emperors”

The phenomena of 4-2-1 (four grandparents, two parents and one child) likely contributed to China’s bulging guts. As The Economist points out, “childhood obesity has grown hugely in richer coastal cities … perhaps the most surprising consequence of urbanization is that obesity is expanding even faster in rural China than in the cities.” The country’s long standing ‘one-child policy’ created a landscape of “little emperors” where grandparents and parents cater to the one child’s every want, not their historical need.

We’re # 1!

America is still the fattest county on the planet today. China could well learn from America about the devastating health issues that obesity causes. The U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention points out the devastating consequences of being overweight:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Cancers (endometrial, breast, and colon)
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Stroke
  • Liver and Gallbladder disease
  • Sleep apnea and respiratory problems

Despite the challenges facing the US-China bilateral relationship, both countries should collaborate and address the health needs our people. Yet, both countries, while protecting their national interests, should seek areas in which to collaborate and address the health needs of our people.

That long-ago leather maker got a good chuckle over the overweight Americans who visited China in 1989. Today they are catching up with the rest of the world, surpassing the U.S. not only in automotive production, but could well pass us as the world’s largest economy before the year is out. China is now number two, behind only the U.S. in the size of their waistline and national economy. It would not be healthy for them to become number one in both.

Confucius reminds us: “The commander of a mighty army can be captured, but the aspiration of an ordinary man can never be seized.”

So while the Communist Party of China revs up its propaganda apparatus in order to inform and educate the Chinese people to the health risks of obesity, ironically, freedom of choice and individual behavior may ultimately become deciding factors if China becomes the “fat capital of the world”.

A fat country is an unhealthy country, and China is quickly gaining on America.

Tom Watkins has had a lifelong interest in China sparked by a great fourth grade teacher. He has worked for over three decades to build economic, educational and cultural ties between the US and China. He is advisor to the University of Michigan Confucius Institute, Michigan’s Economic Development Corporation and Detroit Chinese Business Association. He can be reached at or follow him on Twitter @TDWatkins88.

A Heavy Feeling: China is Gaining on America | CHINA US Focus.

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