Forget GDP and trade statistics. Look at health, nutrition and the highways as a
guide to what is happening in China. A just-released collection of surveys made
in 2002, covering all provinces and reflecting urban and rural population
weightings, show remarkable advances in nutrition, but also a widening
rural/urban gap. They also tell a tale of the rapid advance of noncommunicable
diseases linked to eating habits.
The average height of Chinese in the
3-to-18 age group has shot up by 3.3 centimeters in just a decade. But there is
an even more remarkable 4.6 centimeter gap between the heights of urban and
This is quite clearly linked to the huge
discrepancy in protein consumption, with urban dwellers eating an average 248
grams a day or almost double the rural level. Poultry, eggs and shrimp have been
the main sources of the increase. There are more Yao Mings in the making.
But that is not all good news. The
protein increase has gone along with a sharp rise in consumption of fats, which
in urban areas accounts for 35 percent of calorie intake - well above the 30
percent limit recommended by the World Health Organization.
That has helped lead to a sharp increase
in various diseases. Hypertension now affects almost 20 percent of those over
18, a 31 percent increase over the past decade. High salt intake is a major
In the cities, it is too much food and
too little exercise which is the bigger problem. In big cities, 30 percent of
adults are overweight and 12 percent are classified as obese. One result is that
in just six years the prevalence of diabetes for those over 20 in big cities
rose from 4.6 percent to 6.4 percent.
Indeed, big cities fare worse than medium
sized ones, which in turn are worse than smaller urban centers.
In rural areas, gains in nutrition have
more than offset the negatives. The gap between rural and urban protein intake
has narrowed, birth weights have increased and the incidence of growth
retardation has fallen.
However, in the poorest rural areas it
remains a major problem, affecting 29 percent of all children and 35 percent of
those under one.
These surveys are all about food and
diseases and provide an insight into the income growth and distribution in
China's food-conscious society. What they don't reflect is the devastation
caused by two other consequences of higher incomes - tobacco consumption and the
death toll on the roads.
Road deaths are now running at over
200,000 a year, compared with 43,000 in the U.S. and 3,500 in Britain 2003. The
figures are alarming, given the still-low level of car ownership in China.
Tellingly, most of the victims are not the new, largely urban car owners but the
rural pedestrians and cyclists who have the misfortune to get in the way of the
newly affluent car owners or the self-styled kings of China's roads, the bus and
As for the toll from cigarette smoking,
it's simply too big to count, or to separate from that of the smoke from
factories, powers stations and cars that chokes every big city in China.