China Cleans Its Plate

Sept. 3, 2020

What the China and the U.S. can teach each other, about food waste and COVID.

Readers of a certain age might remember being urged by their mothers at dinner to clean their plates because “there are starving children in China.” As a smart-mouthed kid, my reaction to this non-sequitur was to hold up my plate and say “Send them this.”

But hunger in China is, or was, no joke. Up to 45 million Chinese died of starvation during the Great Leap Forward. That was the grimly ironic name for Mao Zedong’s botched initiative, starting in the late 1950s, to modernize the country; his incompetence, and that of the Chinese Communist Party in general, led to history’s worst famine.

I thought of this when I came across a CNN report about how Chinese authorities are at war against food waste. Apparently, lavish, multi-course banquets are customary there for holidays and special occasions; these often feature more food than the guests can eat. The groaning board is one way prosperity is celebrated in a country with a long, sad history of famine (the Great Leap Forward was just the last, and worst). Such galas contribute to food waste estimated by Chinese state-run media at 18 million tons of food a year.

Now, we Americans have nothing to learn about food excess from the Chinese or anyone else. Our super-sized portions of fast food have brought us world renown, and not the good kind. On a per-capita basis, the U.S. wastes nearly twice as much food as China.

What interests me is the reaction of Chinese authorities: They’re setting up an anti-food-waste campaign that encourages people to snitch on, or at least admonish, gluttons. This applies to both ordinary citizens and restaurant owners, some of whom are urging diners to order one, or two, fewer dishes than the total number in their party. (That of course would work only for large dining parties; these are common in China, where eating is seen as more of a social occasion.)

What’s really interesting is that they’re getting pushback. The Chinese are not known for their ready defiance of government edicts, but apparently this food-waste crackdown is too much, at least for some. One restaurant owner exclaimed to CNN, “How can restaurants restrict customers from ordering more food?” Tellingly, though, he was willing to be identified only by his family name, Wang, which is as common as Smith here.

The fact that they’re even trying something like this in China is instructive of the difference between their culture and ours. Remember the pushback Michelle Obama got for trying to make school lunches healthier? I can imagine how a government anti-food-waste initiative would be treated here: “You can have my cheeseburger when you pry it from my cold, dead mouth!”

But before we go celebrating American individualism, it might be worthwhile to look at another statistic: the relative impact of COVID-19 on the two nations. According to the World Health Organization, China, where the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated, has had 90,442 confirmed cases as of Sept. 3, with 4,734 deaths. In the U.S., the respective figures are 6 million and 183,610.

The reasons for this aren’t hard to figure out. China went to hard lockdown as soon as the virus became a threat, with rigorous contact tracing, enforced isolation of sick citizens, uniform mask wearing and all the rest. These measures could be imposed, partly because China (like most of Asia) is far more oriented toward the collective good than the West is, and partly because China is, not to put too fine a point on it, a dictatorship. Contrast that with Americans screaming at state cops and Walmart employees that no one was going to make them wear a mask!

So it’s good that the Chinese are showing a little American-style individualism when it comes to food-waste edicts. But we Americans could do with a little more Chinese-style collectivism when it comes to saving our own lives.