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Chinese children practice Latin dance in Chengdu.

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Kai Ryssdal: Congratulations of a sort are in order -- the Centers for Disease Control reported today American obesity rates are leveling off. Still, it's not a pretty picture. About a third all adults in this country are obese.

And as in so many other things, China's gaining on us. Rising childhood obesity rates there are a side-effect of rapid economic development. They're historically predictable. But Beijing's answer to it? Not so predictable...

From Shanghai, Marketplace's Scott Tong reports.


Scott Tong: Everybody boogie -- that's the new mandate this year for every Chinese school kid, K through 12. At Shanghai's Hongkou Number Three Elementary School, a couple-hundred third graders are bopping to the beat on the schoolyard grass. It's part square dance, part karaoke, part free-for-all.

The government's not laughing, though, about slimming kids down. One in four children in big cities like Shanghai is obese. In the past two decades, the percent of very fat kids has quadrupled. This slightly pudgy 9-year-old sounds determined to avoid that fate:

Chinese girl #1 (translated):

When fat people dance, they sweat, so they can lose weight.

She's working off the pounds to get elected school president.

Chinese girl #1 (translated): If I don't lose weight, people will tease me that I'm fat. They won't vote for me because they think I work too slow.

In developing countries, child obesity goes hand-in-hand with rapid growth. China's numbers are still a fraction of say, America's -- but since China's economy has gone from zero to 60 so quickly, the epidemic has spiked out of nowhere. A big reason? Dietary changes. James Rice of Tyson Foods has worked in China since the '80s.

James Rice: Twenty years ago, if you went to a Chinese person's home as a guest, the snacks they would have put out on the table to receive a guest, it would have been hot tea, and then seeds, or vegetables, fruit and nuts. And of course those were the only choices in China in those days.

Today, when you visit that Chinese host, you get:

Rice: Coca-Cola, 7-Up, Pringles potato chips, Frito-Lay snacks, and these sort of processed foods.

Chinese kids nowadays have fewer chances to burn off bad calories. Hans Troessen of the World Health Organization says more and more children live in modern cities that are a bit too comfy.

Hans Troessen: They are less likely to do exercise, they might go buy motorbike or cars instead of walking or going by bicycles.

In the U.S., obese kids tend to come from poorer families. It's the other way around in China, where elite kids get pushed by their elite parents to study: i.e. sit on their bottoms.

Troessen: They have less time for playing games and for physical exercise, need to do much more studying, often have access to computers which will limit their time to do other things.

And this is a generation of only children, because of the one-child policy. Translation: spoiled. Third-grade parent Chen Gang:

Chen Gang: My brother's kids, they live with their parents and grandparents under the same roof. So the kids are little emperors -- whatever they want, they get. So they eat too much junk food.

Mr. Chen's public enemy number one: French fries.

As part of the shape-up policy, the central government's picked song-and-dance routines for different age groups. Middle schoolers get down to this number (music)... and high school teenagers waltz.

The forced dancing isn't just for losing weight. It's also meant to help China's only children improve their social skills. But critics quoted in state media fear it'll encourage members of the opposite sex to develop, quote, "curious feelings." Gasp.

It doesn't seem a problem at this school, where good old-fashioned cooties talk is alive and well:

Chinese girl #2 (translated): Bad breath -- this boy in our class, no one wants to dance with him, because he has bad breath.

The third-grade boy next to her then retorts with a crack about those "those stinky, stinky girls." In Shanghai, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

Staff researcher Linda Lin contributed to this report.

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