From XS To XXL: China's Expanding Waistline

Fast food in Shanghai
Fast food in Shanghai
Jonathan Kos-Read

BEIJING - We all know about China's economic growth. But the country also has the world's fastest growing obese population in absolute numbers, according to data from the World Health Organization. This is not only because China has the world's biggest population, but also because it has seen proportionately sharp rise in obesity.

In 1980, there were hardly any overweight people in China. By 2005, China already had 18 million people who were obese. By 2009 this number had hit 100 million.

According to a joint research program conducted by China's Academy of Sciences and the University of Northern Carolina, several factors can explain the phenomenon. The first one seems to lie in the cultural aspect: Most Chinese don't regard physical exercise as necessary in improving their life quality. On the contrary, children spend a lot of time sitting in classes while adults commonly work overtime in the hope of boosting their careers.

A survey conducted in 2010 showed that 22 % of Chinese parents believe that their normal-weight children are actually under-weight. Overweight boys are considered as being of strong build. Another statistic also shows that the education level has exactly the opposite effect on male and female adult weight. While few educated women are overweight, Chinese men exhibit a contrary tendency. Some believe that it's due to the fact that many Chinese still believe that to be plump symbolizes being wealthy.

Like in the developed world, television advertising plays a role in people's dietary choices. Adverts of high-calorie, high-protein foods have a disproportionate impact on people's eating habits and in particular on those of youngsters. In addition, as Chinese people get richer, their diet has largely changed. In the past ten years, the consumption of beef has doubled -- and so has the sale of frozen foods that go with the convenient westernized life style. Prepared food generally contains hidden sugar, starch and fat.

Picking up the West's bad eating habits

Meanwhile, western fast food is also conquering Chinese clients. In the eight biggest Chinese cities, 50% of the urban population eats at fast food chain stores. The annual turnover of these chains in China now represents $15 billion. In these eight cities, 21% of the business comes from western-style fast foods, and the majority of their clients are under 25-year-olds.

Consequently, the problem of obesity is much more present among the younger generation: In Beijing and Shanghai, one fifth of the children have been diagnosed by China's Ministry of Health as suffering from clinical obesity.

The scale of obesity in China is going to increase the incidence of obesity-linked diseases, and have a direct impact on China's health care. The rising wave of diabetes will have the most significant consequences of all. According to a WHO estimate, the number of type-2 diabetes sufferers will rise dramatically between now and 2050, making diabetes the disease that consumes most of China's health care resources in the future.

Take a look at the situation in the UK and the U.S. for example. The UK has proportionally the world's third biggest obesity population. According to UK obesity expert Tony Leeds, by 2015 obesity-related health care will cost Britain's National Health System 6.5 billion pounds annually. This does not include the indirect cost -- 27 billion pounds per year -- caused by decreasing productivity. Meanwhile, the United States, with two thirds of its population either overweight or obese, is estimated to spend around $300 billion per year on this problem, taking into account all indirect costs as well as directly attributable medical expenses.

China is on the path to repeating the Anglo-American experience, which has stranded their health systems on a mud bank of high health care costs. The prevalence of diabetes among people of 20 and over in China was 9.7 percent in 2010, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. This made it second in the world right after the United States at 10.7 percent. The heavy burden this will bring to China's health care is foreseeable.

*This is a digest item, not a direct translation.

Read the full article in Chinese.

Photo: Jonathan Kos-Read

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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