What is it about New York Times columnists and Chinese autocrats? Several years ago, you may recall, Thomas Friedman was expressing admiration for the "reasonably enlightened group of people" running the show in Beijing. Among other things, Friedman praised their brutally invasive restrictions on reproduction, which he said "probably saved China from a population calamity." Now one of Friedman's colleagues at the Times, Mark Bittman, is placing his hopes for fighting obesity in the same totalitarian system that engineered China's current imbalance between young and old, and between men and women, by inserting itself into deeply personal decisions. "Without limits," Bittman warns, "the consumption of unhealthy foods will result in higher rates of obesity." He thinks China's dictators, unencumbered by democracy, the rule of law, or civil liberties, are well positioned to take on "the scourge of junk food and liquid candy [a.k.a. soda]":
Say what you will about the Chinese, but they know how to make wholesale changes, and sometimes those changes are inarguably for the good….
Because things are moving so fast in China, and because that country can learn from the example of the United States and others, perhaps it can pull off a public-health leapfrog and avoid the West's fate of a rapid and tragic increase in obesity levels and the diseases with which they're associated.
And there's hope: The authors [of an editorial in The Lancet] wrote that Li Bin, China's new minister of health and family planning, "has the political will, together with the support of international colleagues, to meet the urgent challenge" of these noncommunicable diseases and the problems they pose for China's future.
Not that Bittman's hopes are necessarily misplaced. Trying to control people's diets is inherently tyrannical, and China's leaders have proven that they are very good at tyranny.