The Cost of China’s Industrialization
The pundits gushing over “The China Story” — that the Middle Kingdom’s industrialization is a boon to the global economy and China’s poor — never calculate the human cost of that runaway industrialization and the vast inequalities it has unleashed.
The human cost is staggering: at least half the population is suffering from chronic lifestyle/environmental-related illnesses and 225 million suffer from mental disorders. For context, the population of China is estimated to be 1.39 billion, roughly 4.4 times the U.S. population of 317 million, and about 20% of the total global population.
Here are some estimates of China’s public health problems: (source links below)
— Half the population is estimated to be prediabetic (suffering from metabolic syndrome/diabesity).
— 12% of the populace now has diabetes, roughly 115 million people.
— An estimated 70% of China’s diabetics are undiagnosed; only 25% are receiving any treatment and of the 25%, the disease is only being controlled in 40% of those getting treatment.
— Noncommunicable diseases — cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory diseases and cancer, account for 85% of total deaths in China today — much higher than the global average of 60%.
— Mental disorders rose by more than 50 percent between 2003 and 2008. An estimated 17.5% of the population (225 million) suffers from some form of mental problem, one of the highest rates in the world.
— More than 300 million people in China — roughly equivalent to the entire U.S. population of 317 million — smoke tobacco.
— 200 million workers are directly exposed to occupational hazards.
— Informal estimates suggest a large percentage of the urban population suffers from lung/pulmonary diseases. Over the last 30 years, deaths ascribed to lung cancer have risen by a factor of five in China,
— 160 million Chinese adults have hypertension (high blood pressure).
— In 2006, 80 percent of China’s health budget was spent on just 8.5 million government officials.
— Tthe rate of health-care coverage is high, but the level of benefits is still very low. 836 million rural residents who were officially covered by the government’s plan still had to pay the lion’s share of their medical bills. The government coverage paid a mere 8.6% of rural residents’ total healthcare expenditures.
Reliable statistics are hard to come by for a number of reasons. Authorities in China avoid quantifying China’s public health realities because it detracts from the glowing “China Story” they promote.
The rural population (still 55% of the total populace) often has little access to health care and statistics are sketchy.
Preconditions that lead to disease (for example, prediabetes and early-stage COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) are not accurately monitored.
The standard Western proponent of the China Story spends a few days in a fancy Shanghai hotel and then repeats glowing (and dodgy) economic statistics, as if that’s the whole story. For American pundits, China isn’t a country. It’s a fantasyland.
Western pundits don’t visit rural village stripped of working-age adults, where grandparents are struggling to raise the children who mourn their factory-worker parents’ absence.
Proponents don’t spend time with those on the bottom of the urban “growth story,” the millions living in makeshift hovels who receive no state aid due to their status as “illegal residents” in urban zones.
The mental health issues arising from dislocated families, uprooted workers and grinding poverty in the midst of a society dominated by an Elite that drives super-sports cars and owns lavish homes in the West are ignored by the mainstream Western media.
The rapid ageing of the Chinese populace is exacerbating an already immense public health crisis. It’s estimated that by 2040 there will be more people with Alzheimer’s disease in China than in all the developed countries combined.
Ill health and chronic disease are undercutting the economic growth everyone is focusing on. Whatever the metric used — hours of labor lost to illness, years of labor lost to early retirement due to ill-health, etc. — the costs of China’s environmental damage, disrupted social order and low investment in public health are weighing heavily on output.
The rise in health-related costs going forward will not be linear but geometric. Linear increases in pollution, diabesity, etc. can yield a ten-fold increase in diseases that require costly treatments.
Every nation, developed and developing alike, has public health challenges. What’s different about China (and India) is the scale is just so enormous: 740 million Chinese are regularly exposed to second-hand smoke, for example, and ten of millions of urban dwellers are exposed to air pollution that is said to rival smoking three packs of cigarettes a day in its negative impact on pulmonary health.
Apologists will naturally claim these estimates are exaggerated, and that China is aggressively tackling its immense environmental and public-health problems.
What’s being exaggerated is China’s response to the unfolding environmental and public health catastrophe. Public health receives lip service and a marginal slice of state funding and focus. The money flows to care for the elites, and the peasantry gets next to nothing.
The public health catastrophe that will unfold with a vengeance in the decade ahead is already baked into China’s economic/political structure.