China should be wary of fast-food revolution

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 June, 2006, 12:00am

McSinopec is an idea whose time has come. The plan to start a chain of McDonald's drive-thru outlets in petrol stations run by China Petroleum & Chemical Corp (Sinopec) is a merging of three mainland growth stories: fast food, car ownership and the national road network.

The march of the golden arches along the mainland's highways will be a globally recognised - if foreign - symbol of the country's modernisation and the growing fulfilment of the dream of owning a car.

But as the mainland grapples with pressures spawned by rapid growth, it is also a reminder of some serious problems. The most obvious among them is pollution. As quality of life has emerged as a casualty of the emphasis on industrial expansion, the additional threat of pollution posed by the growth in the number of cars on the roads looms large. The number of vehicles rose from about 1.3 million in 1978 to about 27 million in 2004, and is projected to reach 130 million by 2030. That prospect prompted Vice-Minister of Construction Qiu Baoxing to appeal to cities to put cyclists back on the roads by restoring bicycle lanes.

Turning back the clock may not be the answer but his remarks reflect top-level debate about how to solve traffic congestion. McSinopec may yet be serving queues of hungry cyclists.

One of the most topical problems recently has been the alarming rate of economic growth, particularly in the upmarket property sector. The central government has tried to rein it in by urging local governments to control capital spending and land supply and crack down on luxury villa developments. Petrol stations are an essential service on the inland arteries of the mainland's economy. But a mushrooming nationwide network of land-hungry takeaways may be seen as a luxury and out of step, although they will generate jobs.

There are also health concerns. The mainland's march of the golden arches is also out of step with other parts of the world. In Britain, for example, falling sales recently forced the closure of 25 McDonald's outlets. The turnaround is attributed to public worries about foods high in fat, salt and sugar. It coincides with a ban on junk food in school vending machines.

The role attributed to fatty, salty sugary foods in obesity and the onset of associated ailments in the west, such as heart disease and diabetes, is well documented.

The mainland would be sensible to take note, given the popularity of fast food there. It can ill afford an explosion in modern western diseases among a huge population with problematic access to affordable health care. And studies have found that Asian immigrants to the United States are more susceptible to Type 2 diabetes, in that they develop it at lower weights than people of other races.

There is a good case for the mainland to start a revolution in healthy fast food - drive thru, cycle-thru or walk-thru.