Xi Makes a Political Gamble by Telling Chinese to Clean Their Plates
Xi Jinping wants 1.4 billion diners to clean their plates. But the Chinese president’s campaign against food waste risks touching a third rail in a country where meals are a cornerstone of private life.
This week, Xi rolled out a new push to curb the “shocking and distressing” problem of discarded leftovers, as he seeks to fortify a fragile food supply strained by floods, epidemics, locusts and trade wars. He cited a Tang Dynasty poem imploring people to “know that each grain on your plate comes from the labor of peasants.”
The response to the “Clean Plates Campaign” has been swift, even by the standards of China’s vast state-directed media apparatus, with editorials, exposes and even catering associations joining in. The national legislature is also fast-tracking legislation around it, suggesting the government will make sure Xi’s order is strictly enforced.
While official Chinese sources have avoided laying blame, local food prices climbed about 10% year on year in July -- led by an 86% surge in the cost of pork. The coronavirus, locust swarms and severe floods across much of China’s key farming areas are all putting pressure on supplies. At the same time, worsening security disputes with key import sources such as the U.S. and Australia have raised new questions about the nation’s long-term food security.
The bid to extend Communist Party oversight over eating habits, however, risks alienating the public. The ruling party has kept largely out of China’s dining rooms since the days of Mao Zedong, who had instituted a rationing system to control people’s intake of key staples as part of the planned economy.
“For ordinary Chinese, what to put on dinner table is their biggest politics,” said Chen Daoyin, a political commentator who was an associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law before relocating to Chile. “Xi has always aspired to becoming a paternal leader of the Chinese people. With this campaign he’s attempting to intervene in and discipline people’s everyday life.”
Frugality has been a tried-and-tested theme for Xi, highlighting his connection to ordinary people by cracking down on extravagance. Xi’s “Eight Regulations,” which among other things required more modest food consumption by party members, were an offshoot of an anti-corruption campaign launched early in his tenure. A similar “empty your plates” push in 2013 sought to stop food waste from increasing.
The new campaign appears broader. One story published by the Chongqing Daily -- an official mouthpiece of the southwestern city’s government -- exposed four restaurant patrons who ordered eight dishes and finished none. Catering associations have issued guidelines pushing eatery owners to offer customers the option of smaller portions.
“Women should play an important role in families, saving every bit of rice, flour, edible oil to reduce wastage,” the government-run All China Women’s Federation said Friday, adding that parents should also take the initiative to foster the habit of saving among their kids.
Trey McArver, co-founder of Beijing-based research firm Trivium China, said the potential for backlash depended on the intensity of enforcement.
“The public is pretty used to such guidance and will largely take it in stride,” McArver said. “However, if this does lead to new laws or regulations -- coupled with strict enforcement -- I could see some level of public resentment.”
While the party has seen popular support rise to historic highs in recent years, according to a study released last month by Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, researchers found that Chinese public opinion was particularly responsive to changes in individuals’ material well-being. The problem is, that could include both food prices -- a common driver of unrest around the world -- and people’s freedom to consume as much as they can afford.
The campaign comes as Chinese officials prepare for a review Saturday of their “phase-one” trade deal with U.S. Although Beijing has been boosting purchases of soybeans, corn, cotton and pork from the U.S. to cool prices and as part of its commitments under the pact, its purchases of American farm products in the first half of this year were still about 20% of the 2020 target.
China wasted an estimated 17-18 million tons of food annually as of 2015, according to the World Wildlife Fund, enough to feed as many as 50 million people. Some waste may stem from a culture of communal eating in which dishes are ordered and shared by an entire table, making portion control more difficult, while some including state broadcaster China Central Television have blamed the newer phenomenon of live-streaming food shows -- so-called eating broadcasts.
In response, leading video platforms such as Douyin -- the China version of TikTok -- have pledged to strengthen content reviews and remove videos and block accounts that promote extravagance and waste, Shanghai-based state media the Paper reported. Some have questioned the need for the campaign on Chinese social media platforms, although censorship makes it difficult to gauge the level of criticism.
“The problem is ordinary people would not waste their own money,” one user named @Xiwu wrote on the Weibo social media platform. “Only those eating with public funds are squandering. Why do they have to blame ordinary people and regulate how many dishes we should have?”
Regulation did appear to be coming. Zhang Guilong, an official with the National People’s Congress legislative work committee, said in an interview Thursday that the body would form a special team to curb food waste. Fan Bonai, vice director of Zhejiang University’s Public Policy Research Institute, suggested fining both diners and restaurants for ordering too much food, the Hangzhou-based Qianjiang Evening News reported.
The speed and scale of the effort suggested that the push could grow into something that substantially affects people’s lives, said Chen, the political commentator.
“Will this campaign evolve into something like a witch hunt, leaving everyone feeling insecure?” he said. “Only time will tell.”
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.