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.

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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Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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