Controversy has broken out in China over eye exercises practiced in schools across the country to strengthen students’ eyes and combat nearsightedness.

The debate was sparked by a widely reposted microblog message earlier this week, which claimed that the exercises “have been harming China’s youths for 49 years.”

“Only the Chinese do this exercise and in the past 49 years, nearsighted youths have amounted to 360 million, ranking second in the world,” the Sina Weibo post continued. “Many children do it with dirty hands and thus cause eye diseases.”

Pic: Meishan Ribao

First introduced in Beijing schools in the early 1960s, eye exercises were implemented nationwide in 1972.  Since then, the roughly five-minute-long exercises have been revised several times.  The current routine was unveiled in 2009 and was said to bring the exercises more in line with traditional Chinese medicinal practice.

Chinese health officials have defended the usefulness of eye exercises.  Zhu Renyuan, an expert on myopia at the Ministry of Health denied any connection between the exercises and nearsightedness.

Zhu cited his own previous research, which found that 60 percent of nearsightedness in China is inherited, while only 40 percent is caused by environmental factors.

But some experts agree with the Weibo post’s claim that the routines can be harmful if done incorrectly.

Liang Na, director of ophthalmology at the Guangzhou Red Cross Hospital warned that massaging the eyeballs rather than the eye sockets can damage the corneas and influence students’ vision.

In an interview with a local newspaper, he also noted that performing the exercises with dirty hands or long fingernails can cause inflammation and spread disease.

Doctors and educators have reason for concern, as past studies have shown that a vast majority of students have little understanding of the exercises that many of them practice twice a day in school.

One survey cited by the Guangzhou Daily found that out of 1,662 primary school students, over 95 percent could not find the correct acupuncture points used in the exercises, while 97 percent were unsure of how strongly they should press their eyes during the massage.

While the original Weibo post criticizing eye  exercises has found wide support from China’s online community and sparked controversy in the press, it is not the first time that the exercises have come under fire.

In 2007, science writer and whistleblower Fang Zhouzi similarly questioned the effectiveness of the exercises on his blog.  “China is the only country in the world that implements eye exercises, but Chinese students’ nearsightedness ranks second in the world, with primary school students at 28 percent, middle school students at 60 percent, and high school students at 85 percent.”

“In America, which doesn’t do eye exercises, the nearsightedness rate is 25 percent.”