Famine to feast

Cars, holidays and hamburgers are transforming lives in urban China, with far-reaching consequences for the nation’s health. In an extract from his new book, Karl Gerth considers the changing role of food.

Does the world need tens of millions of obese Chinese? 

This question gets at a central dilemma related to the rapid spread of consumer lifestyles in China, including the new ability to eat as much as one can afford and as often as one likes. 

Political and business leaders the world over, including in China itself, urge Chinese consumers to replace overspent Americans and western Europeans and to drive global economic development. Ask McDonald’s, Starbucks, Coke and all the other multinationals banking on Chinese consumer spending. Such companies – and the economies that depend on them – need Chinese consumers to consume. And the more, the better.

But there are downsides. Even if Chinese consumers manage to spend enough to rescue the world economy, consider the consequences of Chinese eating more junk food, driving more cars or taking more vacations in Shanghai or Paris. Fat Chinese people are only one unintended negative consequence.

The push to get Chinese to consume more and the impacts – large and small, local and global – are visible everywhere in urban China, especially on the bodies of its citizens. Perhaps no irony better highlights the changed world for the Chinese consumer than the fact that increasing numbers of them are using this new abundance of choices to overeat, perhaps even to an early grave.

Food has always defined differences among Chinese in at least two ways: who could afford to eat meat divided China by economic class and rice-eating distinguished southern Chinese from their wheat noodle-eating northern compatriots. National and international supermarket and convenience store chains have accelerated the integration of national and even global markets, bringing not only a wider variety of traditional foods but also more processed food to consumers across China.

Similarly, when fast-food restaurants first arrived in Chinese major cities, they were novelties visited infrequently. Now, as the thousands of KFCs, McDonald’ses and their Chinese equivalents popping up across urban China confirm, fast-food restaurants play a wider role in urban lifestyles. The result: Chinese eat much more oil, fatty, salty and sugary foods.

Accompanying the increase in calories are expanding waistlines, a problem compounded by sedentary office work and the displacement of the bicycle as the primary means of transportation. Twenty years ago one rarely saw fat Chinese teenagers; now they’re commonplace. While 20 years ago the idea of fat camps for overweight children would have been considered absurd, now they are widely advertised. It doesn’t help that pudgy babies have traditionally been viewed as healthy and that anyone born in the 1960s or earlier is old enough to remember famine.

The new food options, along with economic inequality, have expanded the traditional distinctions made through food to include who can afford to contract “lifestyle diseases” such as cancer and diabetes, which the World Health Organization estimates could kill as many as 80 million Chinese in the next decade.

The effects that economic inequality has had on the Chinese diet are also clearly written on Chinese bodies. For instance, urban residents eat twice as much protein as their less affluent rural counterparts, mostly from poultry, eggs and shrimp, which translates into height differences. Urban residents stand, on average, 4.6 centimetres higher, becoming a symbol of the inequality between urban and rural consumers and even a source of discrimination.

But these diet changes have also included increased consumption of fats. Over the past 10 years, the number of Chinese suffering from high blood pressure increased by a third, and hypertension now afflicts a fifth of those over 18. In major cities, where the shift toward western-style diets has been most marked, nearly a third of adults are overweight, and one in 10 is obese. The trends for urban children are even more alarming. By the end of the 1990s, childhood obesity in the country as a whole had increased from 4% to 6%; but in urban areas, the percentage of overweight urban children had risen from 15% to 29%.

Overconsumption is visible in other ways. In the Mao era, extravagant banquets and other opportunities to overeat were for most Chinese nonexistent or exclusively for special occasions such as New Year’s festivals and weddings. The notion of “leftovers”, even less of “doggie bags”, had not yet arrived. Now doggie bags are common and discarding leftovers is even more routine. Shanghai alone throws away 2,000 tonnes of food every day and Beijing discards 1,600 tonnes.

Despite water shortages across the country, water, too, is wasted in new ways. In one egregious and widely publicised example, a Harbin brewery – in a bit of poorly considered consumer outreach – used 90 tonnes of beer to create a fountain in a downtown square; the stunt required not only 18 tonnes of barley and rice but also 1,800 tonnes of clean water.

Food waste is also embedded in Chinese customs. The difference now is that what was once an affectation of a very select wealthy and powerful few has become a status-gaining gesture for the ever more numerous aspiring middle classes. Wu Mingzheng, a manager of a Hangzhou export company, explaining why he ordered 16 dishes at a four-star restaurant for a table of business contacts, few of whom touched much of the food, said that “if there aren’t enough dishes or the guests don’t have enough to drink to their heart’s content, everyone will think I am cheap and it may affect our business dealings.”

This scene is repeated hundreds of thousands of times a day across China. According to a survey conducted in Zhejiang Province [eastern China], 70% of those taking guests out to dine decline to take away leftovers.

Officials make periodic attempts to discourage overconsumption. In 2008, Zhang Xinshi, a city official in Jiangsu province, for instance, charged in his blog that “China was the most wasteful consumer of food and beverages”, adding that Chinese should emulate other countries and have fewer but better dishes.

Zhang’s conclusion was backed by stories of waste from around China. In the north-east city of Harbin, one reporter estimated that the city’s 20,000 restaurants discarded at least 400 tonnes of food a day. Although she found waste in all restaurants, she also discovered that the more expensive the restaurant, the more the waste. In many cases, more than half the food went to waste, particularly by those dining at public expense. But in all cases at least a fifth of the food was left behind. In response, Zhejiang provincial authorities launched a campaign to urge consumers to avoid “unscientific and uncivilised” consumer practices such as deliberately wasting food and hosting extravagant wedding celebrations.

But platitudes and a few specific policies have done little to counter an ancient cultural practice suddenly put within reach of millions more Chinese.

Obesity and waste are just two of the clearly unexpected and undesired consequences of the increasingly unleashed and prodded Chinese consumer. And, as has proven true elsewhere in the world, the new consumer culture is more likely to produce market reactions – from increased sales of diabetes medication to food delivery services to fat camps – than it is ever to be reformed. Thanks to the introduction of modern retailing practices, though, one thing we know for sure is that the Chinese are unlikely ever again to be far away from opportunities to consume as much and as frequently as they can afford – for better or for worse.

Of course, nobody should begrudge the Chinese their McDonald’s Happy Meals, Cokes, or any of the other pleasures non-Chinese consumers enjoy. But everyone everywhere needs to contemplate the collective impact of these seemingly minor changes in Chinese lifestyles. The Chinese state certainly is. But can legislation successfully offset the impacts and do so fast enough?

This question is as true for obesity as it is for so many other questions related to the negative impacts of new consumer lifestyles. It boils down to this: can China save both the global economy by adopting the consumer habits of developed economies and do so without all the negative consequences for everything from Chinese bodies to everyone’s biosphere? If this contradiction isn’t reconciled for China, will India, Brazil and other rapidly developing consumer markets be any different? 

The way China goes is a harbinger for much of the world.


Karl Gerth is an historian of modern Chinese consumerism at Oxford University. This article is adapted from his new book As China Goes, So Goes the World: How Chinese Consumers are Transforming Everything.

Homage image from PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE


Also in this series:

Is earth justice possible?

How to make China happy

Growth can’t go on

Towards sustainable capitalism

Tim Jackson on restoring social balance

The dangers of happiness indices

“China must measure happiness”

Bhutan’s experiment with happiness