Hong Kong (CNN)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.
In authoritarian China, eating freely is a cherished activity. Now a food waste campaign wants to control meals, too
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)."
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.