Posted by Damjan DeNoble
The Chinese are probably getting fatter, and their rates of cancer detection are undoubtedly going up. But it’s a stretch to claim American habits are somehow the primary culprit responsible for this sea change in the China demographic, as CBS seemingly implies here, and makes their case by citing a study who’s summary can be found here. Let me lay out why and how this claim is overstated, and probably flat wrong.
First off, my humble opinion is that these habits are not American. Rather, they are the predictable result of increased buying power and a natural human tendency to minimize exertion (read: sit around more) and maximize energy intake (read: eat more). The view that the Chinese are somehow imitating Americans is very ethnocentric and sells the Chinese people short, to an insulting degree. One is essentially claiming that hundreds of millions of people are sitting around teaching their kids the virtues of being fat, sick, unhappy, and dying a slow, painful death. It is, however, a very effective way to soften the perception of China as rising economic power; “These guys are not a rising power guys – They’ve already gotten fat, unhealthy, and complacent so we’ve got nothing to worry about!”
It seems to me (and, I am sure that most China watchers and bloggers would agree) that a large portion of China articles originating abroad in Western mainstream media originate from no more than an hours worth of Googling by someone that has superficial China experience (i.e. No in-China experience). And, so called “Google Journalists” have no time to think through the many facets of very complex epidemiological trends, since the twenty-four hour media cycle is powered by catchy headlines and provocative conclusions. Since the natural outcome of most research is usually not exciting all of the time, or even most of the time, confirming evidence is favored over a deductive process.
Instead of starting with comprehensive research that resulted in an article of which the primary conclusion could have been, “Chinese are using cars more, and rates of obesity and cancer are both rising, but the reasons for these developments are complex and still being debated,” the Google journalist responsible for the CBS artice started with a catchy title “American Health Habits Influence China;” then, she slapped together a one minute twenty second interview segment with a chubby Chinese cancer patient; when it finished airing she slapped it on a web page, and wrote a two hundred word article based around a talking point by a surgeon from a definitively inferior Chinese hospital, who gives nothing but an opinion that supports the article’s by now clear message;
“When China connected with Western countries, we imported their lifestyles too,” explains Zhang Jin, the chief breast cancer surgeon at Tinajin Cancer Institute and Hospital.
On top of that, the reporter does not have the integrity to triple check the name of the institute. I’ve been in China for a long time and never heard of Tinajin. Where is that again? Next to Tianjin?
As a personal exercise, James Flanagan (contributing editor to this blog) and I put together a hypothetical train of thought illustrating how the conclusions of the article might have come about. Comments are welcome;
1.) Google (CHINA, FASTFOOD): Fast food chains in China are doing well + Preconception: The traditional Chinese diet is based on rice = Fast food is corrupting the traditional Chinese diet, which is healthy, because it’s based on rice.
2.) Google Image (CHINA OBESITY): There are obese people in China! + Google Image (CHINA 1970): Mao era Chinese were a lot thinner! = there are more obese people in China than there were twenty years ago.
3.) General World View: American’s drive big cars and don’t exercise, it’s a part of our national identity + Google (CHINA, PROGRESS, NEW DRIVERS, EXERCISE): The Chinese have more money today, drive more, walk/ride bikes less, and have developed an appetite for American goods = As the Chinese get richer they are adopting American cultural behaviors, like driving big cars more, and exercising less!
4.) General Fact from cited study: Lifestyle choices might be responsible for up to 34% of all cancer cases in the United States + Conclusions 1-3: combined: American cultural staples are consciously being adopted by the Chinese population = News report headline: “American Health Habits influence China” + an article that implies America is to blame for China’s developing obesity epidemic and spiking cancer rates.