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What's Killing China's Best And Brightest Entrepreneurs?

Chinese business leaders have everything, except for their health.

Overlooking Shanghai
Overlooking Shanghai
Zhang Xiangdong

BEIJING — Lee Kai-Fu is the Taiwanese computer scientist who founded Google China and is a highly reputed business mentor based in Beijing. Since the news of his lymphatic cancer was disclosed last month, two more Chinese billionaire entrepreneurs have been diagnosed with cancer.

Both of these anonymous businessmen are about 40 years old, and both are in an advanced stage of the disease, according to Han Xiaohong, chief executive officer of Ciming Checkup, a health examination institute chain.

The health of Chinese entrepreneurs seems cursed in recent years. In 2011, Jiang Shangzhou, former chairman of the semiconductor manufacturing company SMIC, died of cancer. In 2012, Sun Bo, vice president of China Petroleum, died after a cerebral hemorrhage. In the same year, several other top entrepreneurial executives suffered fatal heart attacks, including Guo Ximin of Guoxin Securities, who was just 33 years old.

As the Ciming Checkup data demonstrates, more than 20 of China’s best-known businessmen died either of cardiovascular diseases or cancer between 2008 and 2012. Their average ages were 48 and 46 years old, respectively. Meanwhile, there seems to be a trend of cancer incidence among entrepreneurs at a younger and younger age.

“Even if this is based on a small sampling, it’s nevertheless very sad because they are in the prime of their lives,” says Han Xiaohong. According to Ciming’s findings, overwork, mood disorder, alcohol abuse and smoking are key contributing factors to their illnesses.

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Lee Kai-Fu in 2011 (TechCrunch)

Another conclusion of the survey is that the higher their executive level, the worse their health. Some 98% of China’s male corporate executives have some kind of medical problem. Of these, dyslipidemia (too much cholesterol or fat in the blood) is overwhelmingly the largest problem. Their blood pressure and blood sugar levels are on average 5% to 10% higher than that of their employees.

Of the eight examination indicators used, including spinal abnormalities, fatty liver and sugar levels, the Chinese businessmen’s incidence rates are all higher than the national average. Their rates of fatty liver, dyslipidemia and obesity are 20% more than the national average and the spinal abnormality more than 40% higher.

The attention of the authorities

Zhou Shenglai, vice president of Beijing Anzhen Hospital, says China’s particular business environment, notable for its excessive workload, and the smoking and drinking culture among business executives “are the hidden killers of entrepreneurs.”

“Chinese entrepreneurs are squandering their bodies,” Han Xiaohong says. “They are society’s elite, but all they know is how to make money. In appearance they are very glamorous. But on health issues, they are absolutely the most vulnerable group.”

Even the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership is alarmed by the health woes of the business class. Shocked by the successive deaths of so many entrepreneurs, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee even issued an administration circular to “strengthen the health care of special front-line talents.”

Not only are these people “related to the national economy” to be provided with comprehensive health management services, they are to be given priority for treatment and even emergency home care if necessary.

Zhou Ping, vice chairman of the Health Risk Assessment and Control Committee of China Preventive Medicine Association, described Chinese entrepreneurs’ high rates of illness as a “lifestyle disease.”

Zhou’s committee is also undertaking a health care cooperation program with the Lanzhou Petrochemical Company in exploring a mechanism of early assessment for both senior executives and other employees’ health risks.

Zhou despairs at the increasing number of premature deaths among Chinese entrepreneurs and other of the nation’s elites. “They are called elite because they have a better input-output ratio. They create wealth and are in a better situation for enjoying superior medical care,” Zhou said. “They don’t lack money. What they lack is time and the awareness of managing one’s health.”

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