Xi makes a political gamble by telling Chinese to clean their plates

File photo | China’s Xi Jinping | Yorgos Karahalis | Bloomberg

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Beijing: Xi Jinping wants 1.4 billion diners to clean their plates. But the Chinese president’s campaign against food waste risks touching a third rail in a country where meals are a cornerstone of private life.

This week, Xi rolled out a new push to curb the “shocking and distressing” problem of discarded leftovers, as he seeks to fortify a fragile food supply strained by floods, epidemics, locusts and trade wars. He cited a Tang Dynasty poem imploring people to “know that each grain on your plate comes from the labor of peasants.”

The response to the “Clean Plates Campaign” has been swift, even by the standards of China’s vast state-directed media apparatus, with editorials, exposes and even catering associations joining in. The national legislature is also fast-tracking legislation around it, suggesting the government will make sure Xi’s order is strictly enforced.

While official Chinese sources have avoided laying blame, local food prices climbed about 10% year on year in July — led by an 86% surge in the cost of pork. The coronavirus, locust swarms and severe floods across much of China’s key farming areas are all putting pressure on supplies. At the same time, worsening security disputes with key import sources such as the U.S. and Australia have raised new questions about the nation’s long-term food security.

The bid to extend Communist Party oversight over eating habits, however, risks alienating the public. The ruling party has kept largely out of China’s dining rooms since the days of Mao Zedong, who had instituted a rationing system to control people’s intake of key staples as part of the planned economy.

“For ordinary Chinese, what to put on dinner table is their biggest politics,” said Chen Daoyin, a political commentator who was an associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law before relocating to Chile. “Xi has always aspired to becoming a paternal leader of the Chinese people. With this campaign he’s attempting to intervene in and discipline people’s everyday life.”

Frugality has been a tried-and-tested theme for Xi, highlighting his connection to ordinary people by cracking down on extravagance. Xi’s “Eight Regulations,” which among other things required more modest food consumption by party members, were an offshoot of an anti-corruption campaign launched early in his tenure. A similar “empty your plates” push in 2013 sought to stop food waste from increasing.

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