In a sparkling white cap and oversized sunglasses, 55-year-old retiree Zhang Yongli and dozens of neighbours liven up a Shanghai park by doing the jitterbug, part of a public dance craze that has become China national pastime.
Every day, an estimated more than 100 million people — dubbed “dancing aunties“ as they are primarily older women — take over squares and parks to tango, waltz, and grind out everything from flamenco to Chinese traditional dance.
Complaints over speakers blaring late at night have ensued. But toes are tapping to an ever-quickening beat as “square dancing” — as it is known in China — booms.
Teams are competing in dance-offs featuring thousands of contestants, while a thriving market of dance-related paraphernalia and mobile apps catches the attention of the business world. Even the government has jumped on the bandwagon to extol the health benefits.
“Square dancing happens wherever there is a square,” said Wang Guangcheng, a fitness instructor and choreographer who helps the government devise dance routines and is widely known as China’s “Square Dance Prince”.
Over 240 million Chinese are 60 or older, a number expected to double by 2050.
Zhang “was sitting at home, doing nothing” after retiring five years ago undergoing treatment for diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol.
“Since I started dancing, my (health) indicators are now normal. I no longer need medication,” she said.
A 2016 national fitness plan stresses “square dancing” as a team sport to be “vigorously developed” and last year it became an official event at China’s National Games.
Shanghai retiree Li Zhenhua‘s team worked with a professional instructor for weeks, enduring the winter chill and the summer heat of their local square to train for a months-long citywide contest that culminated in August.
The team, drawn mostly from China‘s ethnic Korean minority, took the title with their traditional Korean dances, beating out 750 other troupes. But it has really taken off lately as an increasingly prosperous China finds more leisure time, and nearly every neighbourhood park or square today is enlivened by dancers availing themselves of the free exercise.
China’s November retail sales grew at their weakest pace since 2003 and industrial output rose the least in nearly three years as domestic demand softened further, underlining rising risks to the economy as China works to defuse a trade dispute with the United States.
The world’s second-largest economy has been loosing momentum in recent quarters as a multi-year government campaign to curb shadow lending put increasing financial strains on companies in a blow to production and investment.
The slowdown in Chinese industries has started to weigh on consumer sentiment this year, tapping the brakes on retail sales. Big-ticket items have been the first to be hit, with auto sales declining since May.
Pace of retail sales slows
Retail sales rose 8.1 percent in November from a year earlier, data from the National Bureau of Statistics showed Friday, below expectations for an 8.8 percent rise and the slowest since May 2003. In October, sales increased 8.6 percent. Auto sales fell a sharp 10.0 percent from a year earlier.
The slump was in line with data released by China’s top auto industry association, which showed sales dived 14 percent in November, the steepest drop in nearly seven years.
The stresses on broad activity have been compounded by a sharp escalation in China’s trade dispute with the United States, which has threatened to fracture global supply chains, chill investment, exports and growth.
Pace of industrial output slows
Industrial output rose 5.4 percent in November, missing analysts’ estimates and matching the rate of growth seen in January-February 2016. Factory output had been expected to grow 5.9 percent, unchanged from October’s pace.
Over the weekend, China reported far weaker than expected November exports and imports, reflecting slower global demand and waning domestic factory activity as profit margins narrow.
With economic growth at its weakest since the global financial crisis, Chinese policymakers are ramping up spending, pushing banks to increase lending and cutting taxes to shore up businesses and ward off a more damaging slump.
The weaker November industrial output and retail sales growth numbers showed that downward pressure on the economy is increasing, said Mao Shengyong, spokesman at the statistics bureau.
Still on track to hit growth target
But China is on track to hit its 2018 economic growth target of around 6.5 percent, Mao told reporters.
“On balance, the latest data show an economy that is under pressure on both the external and domestic front, with policy efforts to shore up growth still falling short,” Julian Evans-Pritchard, senior China economists at Capital Economics, wrote in a note.
A temporary 90-day trade war truce agreed by the United States and China early this month may have removed some of the immediate pressure on the economy.
The impact on China’s economy from the Sino-U.S. trade frictions are not apparent yet, Mao cautioned, adding that the nation will face more “external” uncertainties in 2019.
Indeed, even in the unlikely event the world’s top two economies reach a durable resolution in their dispute, ebbing domestic demand, mounting household debt and a cooling real estate sector point to a further slowdown in growth next year. (VOA)