Reporting from Beijing — Each morning before the doors of the department store where she works swing open to a teeming public, Nie Yingchao engages in a bit of pregame warm-up.
Wearing her form-fitting skirt and high heels, the 24-year-old cosmetics clerk joins her co-workers for eight minutes of semi-strenuous exercise: a sort of office-place Rockettes routine that's spiced by Far East martial arts moves, peppy music and precise instructions broadcast over state-run radio.
"I'm used to it," Nie says with a shy smile. "When I was in school, we did the same routine every day."
They're called radio calisthenics, the twice-daily fitness broadcasts that reached their peak in the 1960s during China's Cultural Revolution to make sure that diligent worker groups got their daily labors off to a good start.
The routines gradually lost popularity, but now China's rigorous Communist Party past is catching up with the present: By next year, officials plan to make the daily fitness routines compulsory for all employees of state-owned enterprises, such as Nie's department store.
Some say officials are worried that as Chinese earn more disposable income, many are eating fattening snack foods and gaining weight. Others call the routines yet another sign of the party's emphasis on the power of the group over the individual.
"Any exercise done by the individual can be tedious and boring," Yu Junsheng, vice president of the Beijing Federation of Trade Unions, told the China Daily. "Through collective [exercise], people feel more relaxed and have greater efficiency at work. That's why we want to resume the fitness activity."
Critics blast the plan as a return to the regimented attitudes of the past.
"This is all connected to the singing of revolutionary anthems," one Internet blogger said. "It totally shows that history is moving backward."
Added another skeptic via a Twitter post: "There have only been three countries in the world that go in for this sort of thing: One was the former East Germany, another was North Korea, and the third was China."
Officials say the aerobic exercises are part of the nation's 10-year plan to improve worker health. This year, the government dispatched 5,000 exercise instructors to visit offices and stores to teach workers the specifics of Dance Routine No. 8.
Begun in 1951, the routines have been updated every five to 10 years, officials say, leading to the current eighth generation, which takes into account more modern movements.
Music and instruction for the routines are broadcast at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily over government-controlled Beijing Sports Radio. Some sessions are conducted in office parking lots, with women hobbling along in heels. Others are indoors.
But many workers and their bosses quietly groan at the return to military-style rigors that were the staple of their state education as children.
"People secretly admit they don't want to do it," Nie said. "They say it's childish. It's not cool."
One worker at a state-owned bank told the Global Times in Beijing, "We can't stop working at 10 a.m. to exercise while customers are waiting."
At Xidan Shangchang department store, not far from Tiananmen Square, saleswoman Fanny Du rolled her eyes at mention of the daily aerobic requirement. "It's uncomfortable — especially in high heels — but it's required," she said. "What can you do?"
Upstairs in the cellphone department, worker Du Jing joked that he didn't have to worry about high heels. The muscular 29-year-old doesn't see the exercises as evidence of Big Brother's attempt at control.
"Chinese have lives that are busier and busier," he said. "We eat more, and less healthy. I don't know what people are complaining about. Just do it. It's good for you."
Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.