Like many countries around the world, China has a massive problem with food waste. In 2015, the country tossed enough to feed at least 30 to 50 million people — the populations of Australia and New Zealand combined, or the state of Texas — for an entire year, according to Chinese state media
Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the campaign to tackle what he called the “shocking and distressing” problem of food waste on August 11, state-run news agency Xinhua said. His message came as the Covid-19 outbreak disrupted global food supply chains.
But his directive lacked specifics, leaving it up to zealous officials and citizens across the nation to engineer sometimes drastic methods to tackle the issue.
More strict measures are to come. China’s top legislative body has announced it will look into passing laws against food waste, while major streaming platforms have threatened food bloggers with potential bans for overeating online.
Food is a sensitive topic in China, where a famine that saw 45 million people starve to death during the 1950s and 60s remains within living memory for many. Being able to eat what they want, when they want is seen by many as a sign of China’s new wealth, and the world second-largest economy has a culture that has communal eating at its heart.
Experts warned that monitoring meal times could be seen as one intrusion too far into citizens’ increasingly surveilled personal lives.
“Three meals a day is something very personal to the ordinary people,” said Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing and former political science professor at Tsinghua University. “Even the most politically apathetic person can feel their daily life habits challenged and threatened (by this campaign).”
Food and wealth
When the government withdrew food vouchers in 1993, it was a powerful symbol that the days of food shortages were over, with people free to eat as they chose. As China’s economy opened up to the world, the country’s new wealth was conveyed on dining tables through luxury items such as shark’s fin and bird’s nest soup. “Eating and drinking to one’s heart’s content is the symbol that people are living a good life,” said Wu.
Multi-course banquets are routinely used to celebrate birthdays and weddings, as well as holidays such as the Chinese New Year, with dish quantity and elaborate ingredients signifying wealth. Alfred Wu Muluan, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, explained that ordering an abundance of dishes is a often “question of face” — the more a person orders, he said, the more status and respect they will have.
When China’s huge population of 1.4 billion people is considered, that’s better than some Western nations. Per capita, China wastes about 72.4 pounds of food a year, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2018 Food Sustainability Index. Australia tosses out 168 pounds of food every year per capita, while the United States is ranked lowest on the index at 209 pounds of food annually.
“Beijing city generates 18,000 tonnes of domestic garbage per day, in which a huge amount of unconsumed foods including bread, sandwiches, fast food, large pieces of fish and meat, and unopened bags of rice can be easily found,” the report said.
But asking restaurants to serve less food in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which closed restaurants for much of the first half of this year, is controversial.
Wang, a Wuhan resident whose restaurant shut down due to the lockdown during the Covid-19 outbreak, said China’s food industry was still struggling to recover from the epidemic, and now faced pressure to serve less food.
“How can restaurants restrict customers from ordering more food?” he said. “Restaurant owners all want to have good business,” he said. Wang asked to keep his first name private for fear of an official backlash for speaking out.
Some Chinese citizens have been frustrated by what they see as yet another political limitation on their everyday lives.
Until the new campaign, eating was “one of the few things people can freely do under China’s authoritarian system,” said Wu, the political analyst.
Those caught on camera with food waste more than three times will be named and shamed, with footage of their “crimes” to be played on television screens across the canteens.
Some local governments have expanded their surveillance of food waste to entire cities, with Shanghai encouraging citizens to report each other if they saw someone eating too much or wasting food. The punishments for this offense were not specified in the announcement.
“Why should I be reported for things I bought with my own money?” one social media commentator said about the new regulations on food consumption, comparing it to the political supervision during Mao’s era.
“Lang, I support you. It is your right to upload videos of yourself eating. Personally I don’t agree with eating so much at a time … but it’s your right. You didn’t break the law and shouldn’t be subjected to the crackdown,” a fan said in the comment section.
Xi’s anti-food waste campaign comes as China’s agriculture sector is reeling from a series of natural disasters.
China has mostly contained the virus, but the pandemic continues to disrupt global supply chains, and Beijing’s ongoing trade war with Washington has jeopardized imports of soy beans and other food products.
Grain stores in China are “exceeding demand,” according to the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, which quoted one expert saying the priority is now “destocking” excess supplies.
‘People will forget’
While measures to tackle food waste in China are long overdue, some have questioned whether the government’s broad call to simply waste less will achieve this.
Ma Jun, director of environmental advocacy group the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs, said the government’s policy push could be better targeted, adding it would be more appropriate for Beijing to enforce specific rules on waste restrictions at government agencies and public institutions, for example, than to restrict how much individual consumers can order at restaurants.
“For the general public, it is better to raise their awareness (on food waste) and change social customs through advocacy … rather than compulsory measures,” he said.
Willy Lam, from the Center of China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said in addition to the challenges presented by the vagueness of Xi’s policy, this was a particularly bad time to implement the campaign, right after the social hardships imposed by the coronavirus lockdowns, when millions of Chinese were unable to leave their homes for months.
All many people want to do now, Lam said, was go to restaurants, eat and enjoy themselves. “So this frugality goal might be difficult to achieve,” he said.
“The truth is, the implementation won’t be very strict,” said Wu, of the National University of Singapore.
Changing how nearly 1.4 billion people eat is a tall order.
CNN’s Steven Jiang contributed to this article.