China, Obesity and the Wearable Tech Market: Part 1

[Editor: this article is by guest editor Blair Sugarman. Highly passionate about Chinese technology, Blair’s forages into China tech all started with a single Weibo account in 2010. Now Blair is an avid tech blogger writing on all areas of China digital.]

“I shouldn’t really be eating this.” I chirped to my friend sitting opposite me as I stared down at the massive slab of deliciousness that was the Starbucks double chocolate chip cookie on my plate, and tried to control the saliva welling up in my mouth. “Yes,” Jason replied, “be careful: if you eat that you’ll get fatter – British people are all so fat.”

CookieI slowly nodded my head and let out a small chuckle, using all my strength to cover up my anguish at the suffix ‘ter’ on the end of the word ‘fat’ (interpreting and deflecting Chinese people’s overt directness can take some getting used to, but no amount of interaction can fully prepare your ego for these occasional knocks). I swallowed my bite and pondered his retort, tentatively thinking of a response that didn’t involve breaking down in tears or picking up the pie that he was enjoying and forcefully shoving it in his face.

Somewhere above my head the proverbial light bulb illuminated.

“Well,” I said, struggling to keep the smugness from showing on my face. “Do you know the country with the second largest population of obese people, after the USA?” Jason nodded knowingly, swallowing a mouthful of pie before responding. “The UK, it’s definitely the UK.” My mental dam broke, as I allowed a smug smile to shine through. “Actually…,” I paused to build suspense, “…it’s China.” Jason froze, his forkful of bannoffee pie stopping a few inches before his mouth, as if suddenly aware that consuming it would have further impact on the statistic.

I reveled in his genuine shock before deciding to continue, the new dent in my ego still very much at the forefront of my mind. “In fact, China has around 62 million obese people – that’s almost the entire population of the UK!” I suddenly realized that in my fit of patriotic glee, I had practically shouted the stat to an entire coffee shop of Chinese consumers. The barista shot me a dirty look. I delivered my home run, pointing at Jason: “So maybe you should be careful!”

Now looking slightly defeated, Jason nodded despondently, and pushed the remainder of the banoffee pie to the side. I leaned back in my seat, letting my inner ‘smug bastard’ out of its cage as I reached out to take a massive ‘victory bite’ of my cookie, grinning at my now very deflated Chinese friend from across the table.

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You’ll have to excuse the lengthy introduction (and perhaps also my shameless statistical selectivity – I’m sure looking at obesity as % of population rather than total numbers would paint quite a different story).

The reason for me including it, rather than just giving a report of Chinese obesity statistics, is because this story highlights a number of distinctions that can’t be conveyed through data alone, including the fact not only is China’s obesity problem a very serious issue, but one of which many Chinese people are still blissfully ignorant.

Although Chinese people’s overall perception of Western countries and obesity isn’t incorrect (in high income countries, excess weight is the third-leading risk factor in death), health issues associated with China’s blossoming wealth still remain relatively unknown among the general population. With rapidly increasing consumer consumption and the rise of the ‘Little Emperor’ syndrome taking effect, the Chinese government is attempting to reduce the impact of this new wave of obesity on the beleagured healthcare system.

Blair

Technology may have the answer. Wearable tech and digitization of the Chinese healthcare system through platforms such as WeChat could provide a cheap and effective method to prevent, manage and ultimately cure the new obesity epidemic.

Devices such as the Xiaomi Miband, (retailing at a jaw-droppingly cheap US$13) and Xiaomi’s new blood pressure monitor (also remarkably cheap) are perfect examples of how health tracking apps can be made widely available to all of China’s 600 million mobile users. Xiaomi also recently invested $25 million in health and medical electronics manufacturer Andon’s ‘iHealth’ for a 20% stake in the company, showing that they too understand the link between wearable tech and health tracking.

Health

For the wealthy, upper-end market options are out there – Apple’s inclusion of its rose gold version of the Apple Watch in its lineup seems like an almost a direct sales pitch to China’s affluent population – as if the phrase ‘tuhao gold’ (土豪金), a term used to describe the color of the gold version of Apple’s phones and its association with the ‘uncultured rich’, needed further actualization. That said, reception of the Apple Watch in China is being hotly debated after ‘Bendgate’ and Apple’s decision not to prioritize China in its release of the iPhone 6.

Software innovation, through WeChat and medical consultation apps such as ‘Chunyu Yisheng’, is paving the way for a healthcare revolution that, paired with wearable tech, would allow doctors to quickly and effectively respond to health issues at minimal cost. As far as obesity is concerned, data such as ‘activity time’ or ‘duration of daily exercise’ taken from wearable tech, coupled with qualitative data about diet, food quality etc. from smart devices such as Baidu’s intelligent chopsticks, will all be extremely valuable in the fight against unhealthy weight gain.

In part 2 of this article I’ll look at some of these devices and platforms in more detail, as well as discussing WeChat’s plans for revolutionizing China’s healthcare system.