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Hungry for Change

China's Clean Plate Campaign garners support and takes a few licks


Hungry for Change

China's Clean Plate Campaign garners support and takes a few licks


Mama always told me “haste makes waste” and to never-ever waste food. Curiously, China, with its 1.3 billion people, is attempting to do just that. After Xi Jinping spoke about reducing waste in society to CCTV on January 29, a new movement is in the works addressing food security. China’s “Clean Plate Campaign” is an interesting movement because it’s hard to say no, but the narrative changes depending on whom you ask.

A “Grassroots” Movement

Some news sites argue that the “Clean Plate Campaign” is a grassroots movement co-opted by NGOs. After the People’s Daily reported on the ordinance, the floodgates opened for other media to critique “waste” in China. China Digital Times observed that some news outlets took advantage of the campaign as an excuse to investigate corruption.

Other people clung to the message of “food security” quite literally. One follower is Yuan Longping, known as the “father of hybrid rice” for his development of high-yield varieties in the 1970s. The South China Morning Post reported that Yuan was disappointed to see huge banquets wasting food.  “It was difficult to improve rice’s output, but after we did we found the food was being wasted,” he said. “I suggest the government prohibit wasting food by treating it as kind of crime and shameful behavior.”

Longping’s advice trickled down to the schools and interwebs. At the primary school level, even children are learning to clean their plates. China Daily lauded the movement in a slideshow. Its public forum also allowed netizens to express their sentiments, with one blogger enthusiastically posting: “If you find a girl who always empties her plate, just marry her.”

Getting away from China Daily, however, people still voice their support and voice it organically. China Digital Times chronicled the following memes on Weibo:

“Today, leave no leftovers / It starts with me / I have a “clean plate” (above)“@LongjiangGourmet 'Clean Plate' movement starts with me' (below)

(above) “Today, leave no leftovers / It starts with me / I have a ‘clean plate’ “
(below) “@LongjiangGourmet ‘Clean Plate’ movement starts with me”

Global Food Dialogue

With such hysteria, it is worth asking if championing “food security” in China is a worthwhile cause. According to the UN’s Report on the Status of China’s Food Security, China is relatively food secure. In 2005, China stopped receiving aid from the World Food Program. Today, the country is 95% self-sufficient in grain and only 11% of the population was undernourished in 2000.

But maybe “food security” looks different in China. A standard banquet table costs around RMB 8,000. China’s leftovers could feed more than 200 million people each year. University students throw away more than one-third of their food, while food scraps at home account for 61 percent of household waste.

China’s “Clean Plate Campaign” became part of an international discourse on hunger. London’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers noted that food waste is a big deal, with 30-50 percent of food thrown away annually. The problem is exacerbated by expiration dates, coupons and the demand for aesthetically-pleasing food.

China’s campaign comes at a time when Beijing is reforming its recycling policies. In particular, Xicheng District wants to compost food at cafeterias and restaurants and to use the compost in city-wide green spaces. The Beijing Municipal Garbage Management Ordinance, issued in March 2012, calls for management of household waste in both urban and rural areas.

“A Traditional Communist Style Campaign”

While the people have taken to the “Clean Plate Campaign,” how much of the hype is self-motivated and how much is state-induced? It seems the People’s Daily raised awareness first with its half-page spread of articles stating: “浪费之风务必狠刹!” (Làngfèi zhī fēng wùbì hěn shā “This atmosphere of waste must be put to an end!”)

Xi Jinping is also following through with his words. In a run-up to Spring Festival, Xi traveled to Gansu province. There, he inquired about the rising prices of food at a vegetable market and supported a subsidized meal program for the elderly.

With so many actors driving the “Clean Plate Campaign,” how long will this movement last?

I sat down with my professor for Chinese Political Reform, Mr. Gui Yongtao. He noted that cutting down on waste is part of the eight regulations set by the Politburo last December. The CCP is trying hard to walk their talk, spending less at restaurants and reducing flower decorations at the recent Congressional meet.

Followers of the “Clean Plate Campaign” have mixed feelings. It is a moral cause but also an economic issue. Since the policy, many food industries in China are hurting. Catering, which is a 2.38 trillion yuan industry, is expected to see a decline in profits. Restaurants are already promoting discounts, such as free “dǎ bāo” (打包 food “to-go”).

However, Mr. Gui hopes that the “Clean Plate Campaign” lasts a “somewhat longer time.” While food security is important, waste is a larger issue that needs to be addressed. Gui already sees improvements because of the campaign, including Xi’s refusal to use traffic control when traversing through the city.

So, next time you don’t finish your rice, remember that a “clean plate” may have a bigger impact on Chinese society that you realize.