Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday, 18 August 2020



China cracks down on waste with Clean Plates Campaign, raising questions of potential food crisis

A customer is weighed before heading into a restaurant in China.
One restaurant in China is offering to weigh diners in order to suggest the right-sized meal for them.(Weibo: Chuiyan Fried Yellow Beef)

Chinese President Xi Jinping has issued a directive to his country's restaurants: practice thriftiness and fight food waste.

In comments relayed by official state media last week, Mr Xi said the issue of food waste was "shocking and distressing" and highlighted "the need to maintain a sense of crisis regarding food security".

"Effectively cultivate thrifty habits and foster a social environment where waste is shameful and thriftiness is applaudable," he was reported as saying.

But the results of this order from the land's highest office have been ad hoc to say the least.

At least one restaurant has copped criticism for encouraging its customers to weigh themselves before being seated, with staff offering patrons suggestions on what they should order based on their weight.

Chinese food on a table
Ordering more food than you need is often seen as a way of showing hospitality in China.(Wikimedia: Chensiyuan)

A woman weighing less than 40kg could probably get by with just two smaller dishes, while a woman over 60kg might be better off adding a third dish, according to the restaurant's guide.

This particular interpretation of Mr Xi's Clean Plates Campaign has drawn a predictably fast and furious response online, but it is just one way restaurants in the world's most heavily populated country are looking to cut down on waste.

In Chinese culture, ordering or serving more food than is needed is seen as a way of demonstrating the host's hospitality, and people traditionally share dishes when eating out.

However experts say the renewed push to get frugal may point to deeper food security problems in China, which has in the past year faced supply disruptions of almost biblical proportions.

How else are restaurants reacting?

One restaurant in China's north has focused its attention on its waiters instead of its customers.

Managers deduct points from their employees' performance evaluations if customers they serve leave the premises with food still on their plates.

An employee wearing a face mask to protect against the coronavirus clears a table at a restaurant.
Some restaurants are opting to serve less food to patrons based on how many are dining at a table.(AP: Mark Schiefelbein)

Some local governments have come up with a more formal system for reducing waste.

The Wuhan Catering Industry Association has told restaurants to serve patrons one less dish than the number of people at a table, which they have dubbed the "N-1" system.

Not wanting to be outdone, their colleagues at the Liaoning Catering Industry Association went a step further and proposed an "N-2" system, in which two fewer dishes would be recommended to customers.

But the impact of the campaign is having an impact beyond the country's restaurants.

So-called "big stomach kings" — internet celebrities who film themselves eating a large amount of food in a short amount of time — are also now facing pressure.

Chinese President Xi Jinping sits behind a bright red wall while speaking at a meeting
Chinese President Xi Jinping says food waste is "shocking and distressing".(Xinhua/Ju Peng: AP)

China's state broadcaster CCTV has labelled their behaviour wasteful, and the social media platform TikTok (known as Douyin in China) has said it will direct users away from such content.

Douyin users searching for these sorts of videos will now get a message telling them to "reject waste and eat reasonably", Reuters has reported.

Why is China pushing for less waste?

While food waste is a real problem in China, some are suspicious about why officials are so keen on the Clean Plates Campaign.

As you might expect from a country that is home to 1.4 billion people — almost one fifth of all the people on Earth — China does not produce all the food its citizens eat.

A crowd of commuters line up outside a train station, many wearing face masks to protect against smog
China relies on a mix of imported and domestically produced food to feed its massive population.(Reuters: China Daily CDIC)

China imports substantially more food than it exports, according to research done by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and this situation is not likely to change given the relative shortage of arable land in the country.

This does not mean China could not feed its entire population by itself if it had to; the country has a 95 per cent self-sufficiency rate when it comes to key crops such as wheat, rice and corn.

But the picture gets a bit more complicated when you factor in the things people really want to eat, such as pork for example.

China is the biggest consumer of pork in the world and imports a substantial amount to meet demand.

These imports ballooned after China was last year hit by a particularly bad outbreak of African swine fever (ASF), which wiped out about half of the country's swine herd.

A worker feeds pigs at a farm in China
China has lost hundreds of millions of pigs due to the swine fever outbreak.(Reuters: Stringer)

This led to a rise in the price of pork in China — something was only compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, which has hampered global trade.

"After the outbreak of COVID-19, China's exports have declined significantly, and this has reduced foreign reserves mainly in the form of the United States dollar," He-ling Shi, an associate professor in economics at Monash University, told the ABC.

Natural disasters have also played a part. Deadly floods in the past couple of months affected important rice-growing areas and also led to a resurgence in ASF infections in southern China.

A wooden building sits on its side in floodwater with karst mountains in the background.
Heavy floods in June and July have also had an impact on China's agriculture sector.(AP: Xinhua/Lu Boan)

Infected pigs are typically buried and it was suggested the flooding may have caused the disease to spread through groundwater and infect some recovering herds.

Despite the plagues, floods and even more plagues, Chinese state media has been adamant that there is no food security problem in China, or even one looming on the horizon.

However Dr Shi said the fluctuating pork price told a different story.

"The price, as far as I know, has increased by about 70 per cent in the last three months. That implies there is quite a severe shortage of pork in the Chinese market," he said.

"Prices will tell you the truth. A 70 per cent increase in the price of pork obviously tells us there's quite a serious problem."

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