The Chinese Communist Party wants you to clean your plate, and it’s not afraid to barge into the dining room and take matters into official hands if you don’t.
Take for example an anecdote posted to Sina Weibo, China’s leading Twitter-like microblog, on Feb. 4 by Cao Lin, an editor and columnist at the state-owned China Youth Daily. Cao recounts a recent, large banquet ordered by several military officers in Beijing -- presumably on the state’s dime.
For the officers, the timing couldn’t have been worse: They convened just as the Clean Your Plate Campaign, a propaganda effort to encourage frugality and discourage food waste, especially by government officials, was taking off. Their banquet, like most government banquets, was assumed to be extravagant and include more than they could eat: “When the food came, a military inspector showed up. Those who go against the spirit of the times must be punished, so everyone at the table was criticized. Though the party hadn’t even started to eat, they were told to go Dutch and take home the leftovers and the consequences.”
For Chinese frustrated and resentful of the profligate ways of Chinese government officials and the military, anecdotes like this one, whether or not it’s true, are very welcome, especially when circulated on the nation’s populist-minded social networks.
The Clean Your Plate Campaign was started by Chinese microbloggers in mid-January, and on Jan. 25, People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, ran the campaign on its front page, joining -- if not co-opting -- the effort, which aligned well with a broader party crackdown on official extravagance.
Yet the Clean Your Plate Campaign is about much more than ruining state-sponsored nights out by junior military officers. Rather, it is the latest effort to explain, confront and control a food-waste problem that has plagued China since economic reforms began to lift the country’s fortunes three decades ago.
The scale of the waste is almost beyond comprehension, especially in a country where 128 million people lived below the official poverty line in 2011. According to Xinhua, the state news wire, China throws away enough food every year to feed 200 million people -- about one-sixth of the country’s population. In 2008, China Agricultural University estimated that the country wastes 50 million tons of food per year -- about 10 percent of its total annual grain output. The waste occurs at every level of society. According to the university’s data, a third of the food purchased in Beijing university cafeterias is also wasted.
Anecdotal evidence makes these numbers easy to believe. A stroll through almost any big-city Chinese restaurant will reveal tables where guests have left plates of practically untouched food. If you’re near a big city, visit a Chinese landfill or trash dump, as I’ve done many times, and you’ll find most of the refuse is food waste. I’ve attended dinners and banquets at which hundreds of dollars of food remained untouched on Lazy Susans. In one memorable case, I remember a large table on which three live lobsters, served as sashimi with their guts open to the room, were left uneaten, their eye buds twitching as guests (including me, with a glance back) left.
What explains such waste? A September 2001 article from People’s Daily opined that “face,” a difficult-to-define concept that refers to social prestige, is the culprit: “Restaurant customers in China, especially those who want to treat guests or those have the privilege to spend public money in slap-up restaurants, generally have such notions in mind that their face or prestige depends upon how much money they spend on dishes.”
According to the article, in 2001 Beijing was already throwing away 1,600 tons -- 17 percent of its total municipal trash volume -- of leftover food per day, while Shanghai tossed out a relatively modest 1,200 tons per day.
If the recent press reports are to be believed, things haven’t improved. However, with the start of the clean-plate campaign, the explanations have become more self-critical than those offered 12 years ago. On Feb. 2, Raymond Zhou, a columnist with China Daily, offered a similar explanation to the one given in 2001, but in a tone that more explicitly condemns the cultural values that he suggests inspire the problem:
“The No 1 culprit, as I see it, is the face issue - the traditional Chinese notion that one should order more than necessary simply to show one’s hospitality.
“Make that much more.
“Depending on the guests, it could be one third more to three times more than necessary. The more distinguished the guests, the more food the host will order.
“If every dish is finished by the end of a meal, the host will not be complimented for being smart.
“Instead, the host may receive behind-the-back sneer that he or she was being too stingy - an accusation that any conformity-minded Chinese would take pains to avoid.”
One obvious solution to this problem is the doggie bag. But as Zhou explains through an anecdote about an American who came to dinner during Zhou’s graduate student days, this, too, is fraught with social weight:
“He asked for a doggie bag, which blew us away.
“Americans are supposed to be so much richer than us, we thought, and even we would not think of such a face-losing thing as taking home what’s left on the table.”
Taking leftovers with you suggests that one needs the food that others can’t be bothered to eat. An indicator of want, if not outright poverty, it is precisely the sort of thing that a status-conscious Chinese person wouldn’t dare be seen doing at a formal banquet with co-workers or government officials (and it’s just the sort of thing a military inspector would require of soldiers who need to be humiliated for over-spending).
Yet it is precisely such contexts -- large banquets paid for by government coffers -- at which so much food waste is committed. For Chinese state media, this is a means to connect - - politely -- the food waste issue to the anti-corruption drive that new Communist Party chief Xi Jinping has started since assuming power.
China’s microbloggers are not so polite, and since the beginning of the campaign they’ve been quick and brutal in linking food waste to official waste and corruption. On Feb. 6, for example, Northern Wind, the handle for a microblogger on Sina Weibo, vented: “In China, we still have more than one hundred million people who are beneficiaries of poverty reduction efforts in villages, and tens of millions of urban poor and other people in need. Meanwhile, officials hold extravagant banquets that end with the food being stuffed into the trash can in order to obtain a bigger face.”
Can the Clean Your Plate Campaign really overcome the deep cultural imperatives that seem to encourage food waste in official settings? More pressing, can it really convince Chinese in nonofficial settings -- such as the students who waste food in Beijing’s university cafeterias -- to change their behavior?
For now, at least, the spirit of frugality has reportedly caused many bureaucrats and businesspeople to rein in their spending and thereby hurt restaurants favored by the expense-account crowd. The same can’t be said for lower-end restaurants and cafeterias and the clientele who frequent them.
Yuan Longping, a legendary agricultural scientist widely known as “the father of hybrid rice,” has a different, more authoritarian approach to changing the behavior of restaurant guests who don’t clean their plates. In a Jan. 25 article in the South China Morning Post, he was quoted as saying, “The authorities should fine them.”
(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Zara Kessler at firstname.lastname@example.org.