A call from Beijing to reduce food waste has sent officials and businesses scrambling to find ways to stop people from ordering too much, and in some extreme cases put meal times under surveillance.
Shanghai officials are asking residents to report food-wasting behaviors. Food industry bosses are urging diners to order at least one fewer dish than the number of people in their group. And one restaurant in southern Hunan province even asked diners to weigh themselves before entering, to help them choose appropriate meals.
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.
But that has also contributed to huge amounts of waste. According to state-run media, between 2013 and 2015 China wasted about 18 million tons of food each year.
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.
But it’s still too much. A report on China’s food waste published by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in 2015, and quoted in state media after Xi’s announcement, said the worst culprit for lost produce in China was the country’s growing catering industry, and that the problem is worst in large cities.
“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.
In recent years, the government has tightened controls on internet usage, censoring political discussion and actively tracking people’s digital footprint. More than 20 million surveillance cameras had been installed in China by 2017, according to state broadcaster CCTV, with facial recognition technology able to track the movements of citizens across the nation. And authorities still regulate which city people can live in with access to health care, and the number of children couples can have.
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.
Earlier this month, state-run media reported that a district government in Harbin city, Heilongjiang province, had set up a “food waste exposure system” for government canteens, installing surveillance cameras near food collection bins into which workers scrape their leftovers.
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.
When a catering association in Liaoning province in northeastern China announced a rule that people should eat N-2 dishes, or two dishes less than the number of people dining, it was met with ridicule online. “I want to know which city will roll out a ‘N-3’ rule next?” a comment on Chinese social media asked.
Online food bloggers who binge eat for their viewers’ enjoyment have also been heavily criticized by state-run media. Major video platforms such as Douyin – China’s version of TikTok – have pledged to monitor food-related livestreams and shut down accounts that broadcast binge eating.
Langweixian, a binge-eating vlogger on Douyin with 40 million followers, had all but six of his 300-plus videos deleted from the platform. Langweixian once ate 10 packets of instant noodles in under nine minutes, according to state media.
“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.
Before Covid-19 hit, the country was already dealing with another epidemic: swine fever. Pork is a staple in many parts of China, making up around 70% of China’s total meat consumption, according to official data for 2018. On average, a person in China eats 20 kilograms of pork each year.
But the widespread outbreak in 2019 devastated the country’s pig farms. Analysis of the official data by CNN Business in November 2019 estimated that the country’s pig population had shrunk by about 40%, or 130 million pigs.
When the coronavirus epidemic hit, it threw the country’s agricultural sector into chaos in the first quarter of the year. Unable to get produce to market, some farmers were left with fields of rotting produce while others lost money and jobs.
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.
Meanwhile, record flooding along the Yangze River this spring has decimated rice and corn crops in central China, forcing Beijing to release tens of millions of tons of food from government storage.
Amid all that, Xi has emphasized the need for China to be be self-sufficient in food production. Last month, while touring Jilin province, Xi spoke to farmers and called for local authorities to prioritize food security.
Chinese state media, however, has been quick to stress the country is not running out of food.
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.
Without more specific guidelines or financial support from Beijing, experts say they don’t expect Xi’s latest crackdown on food waste to last long. They point to a similar campaign in 2013, which saw minimum order amounts briefly banned in restaurants, Beijing officials trial fines on restaurants and businesses with excess food waste, and, in some areas, restaurants encouraged to serve half-portions.
But without a clear roadmap for longterm change, such measures were slowly forgotten.
“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.