20 May 2019
Li Keqiang, Chen Shui-ban and Kim Jong-un are among the political figures reportedly suffering from diabetes in the region. Photos:, Xinhua
Li Keqiang, Chen Shui-ban and Kim Jong-un are among the political figures reportedly suffering from diabetes in the region. Photos:, Xinhua

Diabetes and politics

What do Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Taiwan’s former president Chen Shui-ban and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have in common?

Well, all three are said to be suffering from severe diabetes, adding a new element to the political scene in the region.

This week, a media report claimed that Li’s health has deteriorated and that he could step down from his post in the mainland. Job-related stress has worsened the premier’s diabetes, affecting his ability to perform his tasks, a US-based Chinese publication said. 

Meanwhile in Taiwan, there has been speculation that the island’s former leader Chen Shui-ban, who is serving a long jail term for bribery, could be released on medical parole. Though authorities have denied such plans, the matter hasn’t come to rest yet.

Chen’s diabetes and urinary problem is said to be so bad that he needs to visit the bathroom as many as 70 times a day. 

Elsewhere, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is believed to be suffering from gout and diabetes, though state media says the leader continues to “walk the path of leadership like fire for the people”.

Television footage aired in October showed Kim walking with a limp, suggesting a diabetes-related foot problem. The story goes that Kim’s passion for Swiss cheese, acquired during his school days, contributed to his weight gain and other problems.

Meanwhile, coming back to China’s Li, one would have thought that he would be the last person to be afflicted with health issues. The premier is certainly not overweight, and he has been known to exercise quite regularly, taking a jog or a swim in the mornings.

Now, there is some speculation that Li is coming under pressure due to his perceived inability to arrest China’s economic slowdown and President Xi Jinping’s tendency to centralize power to himself.

For Li, who holds a PhD in economics, the charge that he is failing to implement economic reforms must be even worse than the diabetes-related rumors. As China is entering a “new normal”, one cannot expect the economy to keep growing 10 percent every year as it did in the past decades.

The premier is credited with coming up with the “Keqiang index”, where three financial indicators – railway cargo volume, electricity consumption and loans disbursed by banks – are seen offering a better picture of the economy than the reported GDP figure.

I presume diabetes is a good excuse to make a leadership change, as happened with former Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa ten years ago as he suffered foot pain.

Diabetes certainly appears to be reaching epidemic proportions in the social and political arena, especially in China which has a third of the patients worldwide. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, 114 million Chinese, or 11.6 percent of the nation’s adult population, suffer from diabetes.

Similar alarming figure was reported in Hong Kong, where there were 720,000 diabetes patients, according to the findings of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The patients are getting younger too as an earlier survey showed that one in five diabetes sufferers in Hong Kong are under age 40.

As such, we have reasons to believe we’ll have more diabetic politicians in the coming years. But it’s a fair assumption that not all their problems would stem from just bad eating habits.

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EJ Insight writer

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