Skip to main content

Advertisement

Advertisement

Xi declares war on food waste, and China races to tighten its belt

BEIJING — Chinese regulators are calling out livestreamers who binge-eat for promoting excessive consumption. A school said it would bar students from applying for scholarships if their daily leftovers exceeded a set amount. A restaurant placed electronic scales at its entrance for customers to weigh themselves to avoid ordering too much.

Xi declares war on food waste, and China races to tighten its belt

Diners at a Haidilao, China’s most popular hot pot chain, in Beijing, June 30, 2018.

BEIJING — Chinese regulators are calling out livestreamers who binge-eat for promoting excessive consumption. A school said it would bar students from applying for scholarships if their daily leftovers exceeded a set amount. A restaurant placed electronic scales at its entrance for customers to weigh themselves to avoid ordering too much.

China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, has declared a war on the “shocking and distressing” squandering of food, and the nation is racing to respond, with some going to greater extremes than others.

The ruling Communist Party has long sought to portray Xi as a fighter of excess and gluttony in officialdom, but this new call for gastronomic discipline is aimed at the public and carries a special urgency. When it comes to food security, Xi said, Chinese citizens should maintain a sense of crisis because of vulnerabilities exposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Cultivate thrifty habits and foster a social environment where waste is shameful and thriftiness is applaudable,” Xi said in a directive carried by the official People’s Daily newspaper last week.

Xi’s edict is part of a broader message from the leadership in recent weeks about the importance of self-reliance in a time of tensions with the United States and other economic partners. The concern is that import disruptions caused by the global geopolitical turmoil, the pandemic and trade tensions with the Trump administration, as well as some of China’s worst floods this year, could cut into food supplies.

But like so many top-down orders in China, the vaguely worded directive prompted a flurry of speculation. State news media moved quickly to tamp down panic about imminent food shortages, reporting that China had recently seen consecutive bumper grain harvests and record high grain output.

The edict was also met with sometimes ham-handed measures. The restaurant that offered to weigh patrons in the central Chinese city of Changsha quickly drew a backlash and was forced to apologise over the weekend.

“Our intention was to advocate not wasting food and for people to order in a healthy way,” the restaurant said. “We never forced customers to weigh themselves.”

Xi’s “clean plate” campaign strikes at the heart of dining culture in China. Custom dictates that ordering extra dishes and leaving food behind are ways to demonstrate generosity toward one’s relatives, clients, business partners and important guests.

Such habits have contributed to an estimated 17 million to 18 million tons of food being discarded annually, an amount that could feed 30 million to 50 million people for a year, according to a study by the Chinese Academy of Science and the World Wildlife Fund.

Xi’s call is as much a warning against the dangers of profligacy as it is a reflection of the generational shift in values that has emerged as living standards rise.

For Xi, the issue of food security has taken on more importance as China grapples with overlapping crises including a shaky economy and severe floods that have left large swaths of the country’s farmland under water.

Food prices climbed about 13 per cent in July compared with a year ago, according to official statistics. The price of pork, a staple food for many Chinese families, increased by about 85 per cent during that same period, in part because the floods affected production and transportation.

Farmers in the central Chinese province of Henan, a crucial grain-producing region, admitted to stockpiling much of their grain harvests this year in the hopes of selling for higher prices later, according to a report published Monday in the party-backed China Youth Daily newspaper.

As tensions with other countries have risen, the party has been girding itself for the possibility of being cut off internationally — and making sure it can produce enough food to feed China’s 1.4 billion people.

“In an ideal environment, international relations would be very good and China could freely import food from other places,” said Hu Xingdou, a Beijing-based political economist. “But practically speaking, China may have some big problems.”

Wu Qiang, a political analyst based in Beijing, said the pandemic and the floods were reminiscent of the challenges that dogged China’s emperors, whose legitimacy largely rested on their perceived ability to maintain harmony between humans and nature.

By taking steps to preempt a food shortage, Xi is showing that he recognises the challenge these crises, if left unchecked, could pose to his hold on power, Wu said.

“So now he’s pushing the responsibility onto the people, telling them to be thrifty,” he said. THE NEW YORK TIMES

Related topics

Xi Jinping environment food waste

Read more of the latest in

Advertisement

Popular

Advertisement

Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.

Aa