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Waist Not Want Not

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

#光盘行动# Chinese Communist Youth League "Operation Clean Plate" gets 620 million views on Weibo.

A panda at the Chengdu reserve fully committed to "Operation Clean Plate."

Photo ©Wishnick/Robertson

China is facing biblical-level challenges right now--record floods, the pandemic, the crop-destroying armyworm--not to mention the ongoing U.S.-China trade war. Why is Xi Jinping choosing this moment to mobilize the public in a campaign against food wastage? In response to what he views as a "shocking" amount of food waste, the Chinese leader issued instructions on August 11th, 2020 to safeguard food security by encouraging public dietary abstemiousness and frugality.

Xi first cracked down on wasteful official banquets in 2012-13 but, in "Clean Your Plate 2.0", the focus is on raising public awareness of perceived overconsumption and food wastage. A 2018 report by the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research (Chinese Academy of Sciences), and the World Wildlife Fund, estimated major Chinese cities waste 17-18 million tons of food annually, enough to feed 30-50 million people annually, nearly the population of South Korea.

"Operation Clean Plate" is part of Xi's broader effort to encourage self-reliance, enhance self-sufficiency in food, and minimize the impact of supply chain disruptions as a result of the trade war, the pandemic, and now significant flooding in food-producing areas. The campaign also evokes Mao's appeals of the 1950s for "diligence and frugality" and illustrates how Xi deploys the digital tools of the modern state while drawing inspiration from the Maoist playbook.

The nationwide social credit system has already been used to penalize Shanghai residents who fail to compost their organic waste properly. While the Chinese government has yet to unveil the full range of penalties and policies for combating food wastage, their first target has been urging social media and microblogging platforms to crack down on videos of egregious displays of overeating, known as mukbang, a trend that began in South Korea a decade ago. Primary schools in China also are promoting efforts to be a "Clean Plate hero" and prevent food wastage. Netizens have begun posting photos of their empty plates on social media.

The new mealtime virtue signaling #光盘随手拍#

Photo ©Robertson

In a country where ordering food in excess is essential to good hosting, "Operation Clean Plate" faces an uphill battle. Some restaurants have taken up the challenge, perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, such as the Changsha restaurant that was pilloried on social media for weighing its patrons upon entry and had to apologize. The Wuhan Catering Association has promoted the N-1 system, whereby a party of ten diners can only order nine dishes. The campaign has attracted its share of public criticism--mostly for enabling restaurants to serve smaller portions at higher prices, but also for fat shaming, though N-1 appears to be spreading nationally nevertheless.

Peking duck restaurant Quanjude now encourages smaller portions.

Photo ©Wishnick

Where's the Risk?

Risks to China

In his August 2020 remarks, Xi gave a mixed message, on the one hand urging a sense of crisis about food wastage, while at the same time reassuring the public with talk of recent bumper food crops. The website of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (the Chinese Communist Party's internal watchdog organization) claimed a 0.9% increase in summer crops in 2020 despite the pandemic and the floods. Some growers claim that local officials inflated figures, and foreign media have observed that the Chinese government has purchased less grain for reserves than last year. Chinese experts attribute the latter to growers opting for higher prices in the market, and there were also reports of farmers withholding grain from the market to boost prices.

Mixed messaging has only increased public concern about the actual food security situation. For example, a video posted on Chinese social media last month of moldy corn in a Sinograin warehouse in northeastern China led to a ban on cell phones at the site, which in turn fueled speculation about the quality and quantity of the nation's corn supply. Meanwhile Chinese media reported that the invasive and voracious armyworm has spread to the northeastern corn belt, where half of the country's corn is produced. Last year the pest damaged 1 million hectares of corn and sugarcane.

Chinese authorities have rebutted foreign reports and social media about a food security crisis. An official at the Ministry of Agriculture stated that the country's "rice bowl" held firm and a series of bumper crops had helped maintain a high level of grain reserves. Ye Yingqing, director of the Rural Economic Research Department of the State Council's Development Research Center, confirmed that grain supplies are sufficient but also announced a series of measures to boost the quality and quantity of grain production.

Global Risks

Food wastage is a global problem -- the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that one third of the world's food goes unconsumed, 1.3 billion tons, as well as other resources needed to produce it. This leads to ever greater demand for staple grains, affecting global supply levels, which in turn increases water usage. In response to supply chain disruptions this spring as a result of COVID-19 and the U.S.-China trade war, Chinese grain imports surged by 80% in June, which reduces global supplies and has an environmental impact on producing countries.

Chinese officials estimate that every 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of grain the country produces requires 800 kg of water (2o0 gallons). Water usage faces many challenges in China due to widespread pollution and controversies over water allocation and quality have often led to tensions with neighboring countries, as China is located upstream of most of its land neighbors.

Fossil fuel use in China contributes to climate change, exacerbating flooding and reducing food security. At the same time food waste, which releases methane into the environment, also contributes to climate change, which partly explains the high-level promotion of "Operation Clean Plate" in China today.

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