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China, health and us.

I came across two articles [vaguely] related to the 2008 Olympics, China and health. The first is an article from ‘The Guardian‘, ‘A cultural revolution to make London sit up and take notice‘ [2008.8.13], written by Marina Hyde, and the second is an item from the Reuters news agency, written by Belinda Goldsmith, ‘Armchair Olympics fuels obesity fears‘ [2008.8.15]. Although, on the face of it, they seem to be at odds with each other on closer inspection they are both correct.

The substance of the Reuters report is China is facing a [potential] obesity crisis. Work patterns have changed, average family spending power has risen and there is an increasing demand for western style foods so is it any surprise that some of the problems which have bedevilled western societies for some time are now cropping up in Eastern Asia. Over the last two decades fast food chains [MacDonald’s, KFC etc] have found their way into the middle kingdom and have been enjoying considerable success. They are quite expensive compared with normal run of the mill Chinese restaurants and dining there is something of a mark of status; children from middle class families are often taken to fast food eating places for birthdays or other treats, so the habit is established at a very early age. In the early days, shortly after Deng Xiaoping opened up China to the outside world, someone in the Politburo made the mistake of thinking that such chain restaurants represented the very highest in western cuisine and as result they were allowed in to China to trade. One hopes that after the mistake was discovered the culprit was taken away and sent on a suitable programme of re-education or at the very least, shot.

At present approximately 14% of Chinese adults are overweight and about 3% are obese [ref BMJ August2006], compared with 21% of men and 23% of women in the UK, but these figures do not paint the full picture. In China obesity is more likely to be found amongst younger people than the older generation, in the UK the reverse is true, the older the age range examined the more prevalent obesity becomes. This is good news for China as it shows the problem is a recent one, new problems are more easily remedied than those long standing, but not so good for the UK. Perhaps the most worrying thing for China, and for anyone else interested, is just how fast the population changed from one of the slimmest and most sveldte in the world to its present position. Another interesting twist to the picture is that in China obesity is more common amongst the middle classes while in the UK it occurs most frequently amongst unskilled working classes, although it must be stressed that no sector of society is free of the problem. In China most children have enough to eat but an increasing number of families have the spending power to buy more meat and to overfeed and having only one child per family, who is often tended by both parents and grandparents, the child, especially if it is a boy, is spoilt beyond belief. In the old days to be overweight was a status symbol, as it demonstrated your wealth and showed you did not have to work and this is now being re-echoed in modern China. Similar things have been happening in the UK for much longer, although one observation I would make is that with the UK, and other western nations, it is the coming of industrialised foods which has been our final undoing. Make of all that what you will but one thing which cannot be avoided is that we are faced with a health problem which, if unchecked, will become more than just a nuisance in the future.

The gist of The Guardian article is that the Chinese people take responsibility for looking after their own health and many are quite fanatical about staying fit and healthy. The main reason is quite simple; no-one else is going to do it for them.  There is no free health service in China to sort out all your ails.  The phenomenon observed by the writer Marina Hyde in her Guardian article is something which can be found all over China, in cities, towns, villages, taking place in parks, near lakes, in back-streets or on any convenient patch of ground. Reading her article the reader may be excused for thinking that only older people are involved, in fact at schools, colleges and universities morning exercise periods are as fixed a part of the day as the sunrise. Every morning at different places around the campus where I taught people would gather for exercise, sometimes individually but more often in groups. Almost every activity could be seen, taijiquan, sword dancing, fan-dancing, wushu, or just a routine of faithfully repeated exercises. All of which goes a long way towards persuading people that they have a responsibility to look after their health and giving them the means of doing just that. In the evenings, in the Peoples’ Square, similar things took place, although these were usually of a more social nature, line-dancing, ball-room dancing. At weekends, in the park, clusters of people would gather for more of the same thing, more practice on the communal exercise parks, Peking Opera, more ballroom dancing, group singing, traditional music – I was captivated and awed by the range of activities which the people would organise on their own initiative. When it comes to looking after themselves and their peers, and with the minimum of resources, the Chinese people win hands down.

As Ms. Hyde says, “Mao declared that the Chinese should civilise their spirits and be brutal on their bodies. “; he may not have been right about everything but this is one gem of wisdom which seems to ring true, judging by what can be seen in China and the contrast which can be found in “London: that far-off land where the increasingly familiar sight of mobility scooters outside pubs suggests that late-capitalism is either a mixed blessing, or bold initiatives are called-for in the run-up to the [2012] Games“

It is hard to see how a couple of weeks of elite sportsmanship in 2012 could alter the health of the British nation or have any impact on the growing obesity problem. As quickly as the 2012 games come they will go, and so will the euphoria and any nine-minute wonders that the government dreams up. If we are not to end up glued even more firmly to our remote controls and TV sets [see “Success will inspire us … to pick up the remote” in The Guardian, written by Emma John] drastic action is required. As stated in The Guardian, free swimming for the over-60s is a start, but measures need to go a little further and deeper than that. At the very least we could take a leaf from the PRC government and invest in low cost, low grade exercise equipment such as is found in Chinese towns and cities and restore playing fields to all schools; these are relatively superficial things but could be part of an overall scheme. Reaching out to the population with more funding for games and sports probably wouldn’t be a bad thing either, but relies on people being willing to respond. Are those most in need of shaping up most or least likely to respond? This is not just a matter of offering opportunity and providing the hardware and infrastructure but one of culture and attitude, neither of which are easy to influence. Or maybe we must turn to Chairman Mao once again and be more brutal with the population and give people no option other than to take responsibility for their own health or suffer the consequences.

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Bring ’em on

Actually I’m not sure if China is preparing for a sports event, i.e. running around in circles, jumping over obstacles, throwing things, generally fooling around and having a good time, or about to go to war. Reading websites such as the China Daily [CD] and the Shanghai Daily [SD] you might be excused for believing the latter and that China is under threat of imminent attack.

“Missile launchers have been assigned to the Bird’s Nest National Stadium. Any perceived threats to Games venues from the air will be shot down.” in this bulletin.

“The Navy will ensure security at sea as the coastal city of Qingdao hosts sailing events.
Special task forces have also been trained to deal with nuclear or biochemical attacks.”

Nothing is being left to chance; land sea, air, nuclear, biological or chemical attacks have all been planned for and will be dealt with summarily. There is obviously a very powerful enemy afoot.

Sniffer dog patrols are out on duty as far way as Anhui province. Road security is stepped up, as shown in this bulletin, and in the Shanghai Daily report referenced above –

“From the beginning of next week every vehicle coming to Beijing will undergo a security check.

Hundreds of check points will be set up at the road entrances to Beijing, ring roads and downtown to ensure a safe Olympic Games.

Each vehicle entering the capital during the Games will be checked electronically and by sniffer dogs.

Bus passengers traveling to Beijing will have their ID cards and belongings checked from July 20.

If just one passenger fails to show a valid ID card, the bus and all its passengers will be refused entry to the city.”

The government has taken its fight against terror overseas and set up a cooperating body, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation [SCO] with neighbouring countries – Russia, Kazahkstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The first thing to notice about them is that they are all pretty dodgy regimes and all have little or no regard for basic human rights; not exactly the sort of freedom-loving partners most western governments would want to line up with.

If all this were just for show then why fuss over it, but the PRC government seems to be taking its own propaganda very seriously indeed – one might almost be lead to think it actually believes it – and these measures could cause a lot of hassle for any visitors to Beijing. Just take the last statement in the SD report regarding the possibility of a passengers being refused entry because one ID card/passport doesn’t look quite right. A whole busload of people brassed off in one fell swoop. That’s efficiency for you. There is more than ample scope for rubbing people up the wrong way and knowing the government’s enthusiasm and skill in these areas it is more than likely there will be a few toes trodden on in the coming weeks. But the most exciting little gem is the promise of a reward for anyone who provides information “about a planned terrorist attack, possible sabotage by an illegal organization, such as the Falun Gong, murder of Olympic-related personnel or foreigners, or some other major crimes“ [notice how the scope widens with each phrase] see CD again. The bulletin says “The tip-off must include accurate and detailed information“, but offering money on this scale [a minimum of 10,000 yuan and a maximum of 500,000 yuan] may be just a little too tempting. Here is an ideal opportunity to settle old scores with anyone you dislike and line your pocket at the same time. Let’s see how many ‘denouncements’ are made this summer and how many victims of this scheme end up behind bars as terrorists.

This question has been asked before but it needs to asked again, and again, and again until we have a real answer, otherwise how can we take China’s War on Terror seriously. What evidence, beyond the political rhetoric, is available to show that “’the three evil forces of terrorism, separatism and extremism” [Mr Chen’s words] really do exist in China? None, so far. Maybe one day the government will surprise us by showing police records, photographs and paraphernalia relating to these incidents, but until then we must reserve judgment. Just one more little question; according to the governments own reports, most of these alleged gangs are armed, principally, with knives, so are anti-aircraft missiles, naval deployments and one of the biggest land army mobilisations that has been seen for years [there are as many personnel tied up with this operation as the USA deployed in Iraq] really justified?

Welcome to Beijing 2008.

Related posts  A question of security

A question of security?

The PRC government is making an effort to systematically clear out foreigners residing and working in China, particularly those in Beijing. That the clear-out is widespread is not disputed and no one with a non-Chinese skin is safe no matter how long they have lived in China and no matter what they are there for. For any government to expel illegal immigrants is not unreasonable; there are expatriates living in China with no visa, expired visas or inappropriate visas, so they should not be too surprised when the PSB comes knocking on their door, but this goes much further. The rules regarding the issue of visas have been changed drastically and extensions to existing visas and residency permits are becoming very hard to obtain. Read through almost any blog written by an expatriate in China and you’ll soon get a feel of the problem. What is not so easy to ascertain is why this is happening.

The process started, in a low key way, some time last year when the PRC government began rounding up and deporting evangelists and missionaries [foreign evangelists are illegal in China], as reported on several websites, click here for one of them. Then early this year foreign students in Beijing were told they would have to vacate their quarters during the summer months. At the time a few people thought this a little odd, while others, myself included, felt there was probably a rational explanation somewhere and this was nothing to fuss about. During the Spring the process was extended to illegal migrant workers from neighbouring countries such as North Korea. Several of these ended up in the UK as asylum seekers as they dared not return to face Kim Jong-Il’s regime; several passed through the reception centre not far from where I live. Since then the net has spread and no one seems to be beyond its reach.

As work [‘Z’] and business [‘F”] visas have expired renewal has been denied or the application process made so long and tortuous people have given up and gone away. When ‘Z’ visas have been issued they have been limited to single entry only. Travel visas [‘L’], which once were available in a variety of formats have been reduced to one type only, 30 days, single entry. The days of multiple entry visas are over for now. One very odd rule of thumb has emerged, no one born after 1984 has been granted renewal of a ‘Z’ visa. So if you are a tourist and just wish to make one visit of 2 or 3 weeks this summer, no problem, but if you require anything else be prepared for a long wait and possible disappointment.

If it were just the ne’er-do-wells, who occasionally land up in China, who were affected I would have no qualms and might even applaud the government but this simply isn’t the case. This report on the Cup Of Cha weblog gives a general outline of the picture and this, this and this report from Simpson’s Paradox details the departure of, first, two of the blogger’s friends and not long after, her boyfriend’s sudden departure which will be followed soon by her own. Another well-known blogger has had to return to his home country to go through the visa application process, to the amusement of one or two of the commenters, as detailed in this report on The Opposite End Of China blog. A 71 year old man who who has been running his own company in China for several years has had to leave at short notice, as reported on the Wall Street Journal. And this report on the TIME magazine website outlines the problem and details a few more cases. Root around on the web long enough and you will accumulate a list as long as your arm of expulsion stories.

Another clearing out process has been taking place which doesn’t involve foreigners but could be equally relevant to this question. Dissenters and other trouble makers have been locked up, petty dissenters, petitioners and other undesirables who were a regular feature of the Beijing streets have been moved as far away from tourist areas as possible. This has all been part of the campaign to tidy up the streets and make them more agreeable for western eyes. Walk along any city centre street in Beijing and how many beggars do you see? See Ben’s Blog.

One of the effects, which I find hard to believe was intended, has been a downturn in international tourist traffic. Bookings this year are lower than for the same period last year and even for the month of August itself the figures are not good – see this report on the Economist website.

As to why this has happened we can only theorise. The official reason is ’security’. Whether this makes any sense or not doesn’t seem to matter as the Chinese authorities are determined to put on a show of strength, as shown on this China Daily report. Some of the measures shown are ideal for TV/Photo-ops but not a lot use for dealing with real terrorism or civil disturbances. In previous months the PLA and police have been hard at work undertaking training exercises and now it all comes to fruition in the form of a massive mobilisation and a string of spectacular displays of Chinese strength and prowess. Click on to any Chinese media website [e.g. Xinhua, QQ news] and you will see propaganda photos showing the PSB, PLA, PLAN and almost anyone else who wears a government uniform, going through their paces valiantly defending the motherland and fighting off the evils of the outside world. The PRC government claims to be fighting insurgents in the far west province of Xinjiang in the form of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement [ETIM] which in turn is claimed to be linked to Al’Qaeda. While resentment against the governing Han people does exist amongst the Uygur people of Xinjiang no-one seems to know if ETIM itself genuinely exists. Early this year Xinhua reported a raid on an ETIM gang in Urumqi – click here – and during the spring an airline hi-jacking/sabotage incident was reported – click here. A search on the internet will produce alternative reports of the same incidents but in not one of them is there one item evidence, photographic or otherwise, cited or referred to to prove that these incidents occurred. Even the Xinhua reports themselves, usually published some time after each incident, are devoid of any reference to evidence that the incidents took place. One incident was purported to have taken place in a residential neighbourhood and was said to have resulted in several deaths, but none of the neighbours knew anything of it. All of which calls into question just how real terrorism in China is. Even if it were real, in what way does expelling foreign residents make the Olympic games any more safe? Or is it, as some suggest, just an excuse for a continuing crackdown on anyone the authorities don’t like?

But back to the expulsions. If security is not the real reason for this, what is? Millions of tourists are expected to arrive in Beijing during the Games and along with them will be thousands of news reporters. The authorities want them all to see China at its best and to this end they have been beavering away for several years preparing the infrastructure, the amenities, environment and the people. Over all these elements the government has some degree of control and the authorities have good reason to feel reasonably confident about the preparations, e.g. the people have been put through many re-education programmes, such as how to queue in a civilised manner, how to not spit, how to clap harmoniously, etc, but the one thing the government cannot control is the foreign population [said by some to be around quarter of a million in Beijing]. To speak to a native Beijinger [北京公民] a reporter will probably need an interpreter, and the native Beijinger will probably already know what he must [and not] say to foreign reporters. To speak to a foreign resident would not be quite so irksome – and finding foreigners is remarkably easy, just stand in the high street of any large city and see how easy it is to spot the laowai amongst the surrounding sea of jet black hair and tanned faces – and if the questions were to become too probing who knows what might be said and then reported? Could there be a risk here? So, to present the world with a picture of an unflawed harmonious society the way ahead is to make sure that the only people available on the streets are re-educated natives and first time tourists, that way there will be no embarrassing stories to deal with.

北京欢迎您

Beijing welcomes you.

Alternative Olympic Games

Many thanks to Beijing Olympics Fan for alerting us to this webpage of wonders on the Mental Floss website.

The sports/activities/antics [delete as required] depicted on this page, each with a demo video clip, beat diving, dressage, and most other Olympic sports hands down. Shame upon BOCOG for not selecting wife-carrying [if you really think this is a time-waster just take a look at the prize] as an alternative event to hurdle racing and underwater hockey surely beats synchronised swimming every day of the week. Some of the names are self-explanatory, such as underwater hockey but others take a little thinking about. Ga-Ga for instance isn’t something that happens to grannies and granddads but is a form of Dodgeball, played in an octagonal pit. And for all the tired and jaded baseball watchers out there pesapallo is just what’s needed to turn a rather repetitive mediocre activity into genuine entertainment. No more neat and tidy circuits of the diamond to score, instead the players run an apparently random zig-zag route to make their points. It looks quite chaotic but apparently there are real rules [somewhere] and they are just as precise as those of the original game. Almost on a par with Extreme Ironing – now there’s real sport for real men [and women]. 🙂

Torch Fatigue in Suzhou

Thank you to Beijing Olympics FAN for bringing this posting on the This Is China blog to my attention.

Every country which hosts the Olympics adds a little extra flavour which is all its own, but no one has done this on such a grand scale as China with the resulting outcome that the Olympic element is almost lost beneath that added by China. These games are ‘owned’ by the Chinese people and don’t you, the waiguoren, forget that – and don’t even think of making any negative comments about them.

Full post here.

A step nearer . .

So the Olympic flame has arrived on the top of Mt. Everest/Qomolangma/ Zhūmùlǎngmǎ Fēng/珠穆朗玛峰/jo-mo glang-ma ri/Sagarmatha/सगरमाथा or whatever you want to call it – a mountain by any other name is just as steep.

Here is a page on QQ news, translated by Google-analytics, with a few more photos of the event.

No protests were reported.

The ‘b’-word

blindman.jpgThe ‘b’-word has been mentioned in the press. Again. At the time of Mr Spielberg’s disengagement with BOCOG there was some talk of boycotting the 2008 Olympics in protest over China’s involvement with Darfur, but it then faded away. Since the recent troubles in Tibet the topic has been revived and the notion is now being discussed amongst some European political circles. I’ve said once before that not going to the 2008 Olympics seems rather foolish after going to all the trouble of awarding the games to Beijing in the first place and I still feel the same way so perhaps a little clarification is necessary.

 

 

Does anyone remember the 1980 Games, held in Moscow? That year the USA persuaded many other countries [about 60, I believe] to join it in boycotting the Moscow games in protest at the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. The games went ahead as planned; the only disappointment for the spectators was that the records were not pushed as far forward as might have happened if everyone had participated. The conflict in Afghanistan continued for another 10 years and the only people to have been affected directly from the action were those athletes instructed by their countries to not participate. Did the boycott achieve much? Well, the following Olympic games in 1984, and held in Los Angeles, were boycotted, tit for tat, by the Russians and that is the only result I am aware of. Not long ago Prime Minister Brown boycotted the EU Conference in Lisbon as President Mugabe [of Zimbabwe] had been invited to attend. I’m unsure what Gordon Brown hoped to achieve by that, teach Robert Mugabe a lesson and scare him back home perhaps, tell Europe that Britain and Zimbabwe don’t mix maybe, I can only guess. What I do know is that he scored a resounding silence with this fatuous gesture. So much for the power of the boycott.

 

Looking at this from a slightly different angle, in what way are the British public and other westerners getting involved in this matter. Are they boycotting Chinese goods? Refusing to buy anything with a ‘Made in China’ stamp on it? Are western businessmen withdrawing from deals struck with Chinese enterprises? Have our ministers refused to attend trade missions in China? Have we advised all tourists to not travel to China? No. Really? In fact, for the rest of the world it’s pretty much business as usual. So why must athletes be singled out to bear this message of disapproval to China and have their years of training and hopes sacrificed? At best this can only be described as an exercising of double standards, but at worst it is nothing short of gross hypocrisy.

 

In the b-camp there are some who are convinced the way forward is to stage an all-out boycott and there is some logic in this as only a boycott supported by the vast majority of participants could effectively stop the event from being staged, but there are others who take what they see as a more pragmatic and moderate view. Instead of denying athletes the opportunity to compete they say we should go ahead and attend, as planned, but boycott the opening ceremony. And if that wouldn’t teach them a lesson I don’t know what will!

Related posts – Xizang, Take Note.