China and the Obese: The President Meets His Greatest Problems

Nov 18, 09 | 8:43 AM   byMichael Wolff
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For all sorts of obvious reasons, it seems like a greatly unacceptable and possibly discriminatory thing to say that the obese are a lot like the Chinese (though it’s unclear which group, if either, is being slurred). But hear me out.

It is simple math. In eight years, according to a new study released yesterday, 43% of Americans will be officially obese (not just fat, mind you, but off many scales). Likewise, the vast number of Chinese people, with their new economic muscle, have become a difficult, unsettling, unexpected, and impossible-to-avoid presence in the world.

Obese people, by their numbers, and seemingly implacable resistance to the heretofore norm, are a big problem, with a massive impact on health-care costs. The Chinese, by their numbers, and their resistance to free market norms, are a big problem, with leverage over the world economy.

In a break from our usual approach to the Chinese—we customarily browbeat them and they resentfully give us some minor concession—the president has spent the last several days in China trying to get some sort of give-and-take dialogue going. He looks pretty manhandled at this point. Even the New York Times is saying that China’s “micro-management” of the president’s trip has demonstrated the power and resoluteness of its resistance. The Republicans will shortly pile on.

And yet, what else can he do? We stamp our feet but China only becomes more powerful. A new approach, even a seemingly half-baked one, is obviously in order. Not dissimilarly, it doesn’t seem to matter what arguments or opprobrium are heaped on the overweight; their numbers, girth, and hostility merely increase. We surely need a new approach here, too.

And the stakes couldn’t be higher. The Chinese hold the world economic system hostage. The obese hold the US health care system hostage.

This president lives or dies on being able to deal with the economic effects of both groups. You can’t get more basic than China and the obese, nor confront two forces more historically obdurate, unyielding, and often defiant.

How do you negotiate with people who seem to sense their own historical and, even, genetic inevitability? Who by the most obvious calculations are taking over the world?

Of course, as liberals, the Obama White House undoubtedly believes that various programs of incentives and other positive reinforcements will achieve some concessions. But they seem to believe that less. Rather, there also seems to be a new sort of realpolitik, not so much based on power, but based on the nuance and understanding of the world being as it is.

Up against China and the world’s obese people, we have come, it seems, to the limits of our benevolent or coercive powers.

They are just larger than we are.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at You can also follow him on Twitter:
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