21 June 2011

Diabetes May Thwart China’s Grand Plan

Leo Lewis, Diabetes May Thwart China’s Grand Plan,” The Australian, 21 June 2011.

MORE than 92 million Chinese live under the cloud of diabetes. It is also why Beijing’s grand visions for flotillas of aircraft carriers and fleets of stealth fighters could ultimately be crushed by a simple can of fizzy drink.

What this statistic shows is that long before the country has even flirted with being a fully developed economy, its health profile is starting to look ominously American.

As the economy has grown, ever-increasing numbers of Chinese are eating more, drinking more, driving more and sitting more. Data from makers of soft drinks suggests that sales in the more affluent parts of the country have risen fivefold in the past decade. In lower-income provinces, the increase has been even more pronounced. Cases of the disease are soaring, and show little sign of reaching a plateau.

The population is ageing more quickly than in the US, per capita sugar consumption in China has risen 48 per cent since 2001 — and that is before snacking on processed food really begins to blossom.

Type 2 diabetes, which is alarmingly close to the 11 per cent ratio that blights the notoriously obese US.

Plans that would see China’s largest producers of high-fructose corn syrup doubling output by 2013 do not inspire confidence that the problem will soon peter out.

The difficulty posed by the 10 per cent ratio of adult diabetes sufferers in China is how quickly that unhappy landmark has been reached, and the sort of financial and budgetary recalculations that the pace of increase now demands.

A 2007 report by the Economist Intelligence Unit assumed that 4.3 per cent of Chinese had diabetes. From this, analysts concluded at the time that the epidemic was draining 14 per cent of healthcare expenditure and causing the country 0.6 per cent of GDP in lost productivity. Redrawn with one in ten adults afflicted, almost 1.5 per cent of GDP is lost and treatment costs lurch even higher.

New research by the consultancy China SignPost points out that the average per-patient cost of managing Type 2 diabetes is about $US6000 ($5695) per year in America. Using conservative numbers and assuming that China is able to treat about a quarter of its 92 million sufferers at a cost of about $US2000 a year each, that implies an annual cost for diabetes treatment alone of $US46 billion – half the country’s entire official defence budget for 2011.

None of that is what the irascible generals of the People’s Liberation Army or the expansionist party bigwigs in Beijing want to hear. China’s domestic security budget is already even larger than the nation’s spending on defence, and there is no shortage of other signs that the government’s prime concern is maintaining stability at home.

As both the economy and waistlines of China grow, tough choices may have to be made: a brand new aircraft carrier or offering fair medical treatment to population of diabetics that, if it were a country, would be the twelfth-largest nation on Earth.

For further details, see Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “Internal Challenge: China’s diabetes epidemic highlights how rising healthcare costs could constrain economic growth and military spending,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 36 (31 May 2011).