This article also appears on The Atlantic, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.
Xi Jinping, China’s new Communist Party chief and presumptive next president, is perhaps the only one in the country who can change the national conversation merely by making a comment to an article. But a recent comment about food waste, which has attracted perhaps more attention than real policy changes, could lead China’s focus back to government corruption.
The comment heard ’round the world
On or before Jan 20, Xi read an article titled “Netizens Call Upon Restaurants to Restrict [Food] Waste.” The article appeared in a publication called Reference News, a product of state-run Xinhua News Agency delivered by hand to mid- and high-level government officials, published for their eyes only. The central office of the Central Committee Of the Communist Party Of China (CCCPC) released an announcement to officials on Jan 20, which carried a comment to the article directly from Xi: “These habits of waste must be stopped immediately!”
On January 29, Xi’s comment went public on China Central Television’s widely-watched evening news broadcast, xinwen lianbo. Next day, People’s Daily, a mouthpiece of the CCCPC, devoted half its front page and six articles responding to Xi’s call. The headlines ranged from “Opposing Waste Is a Political Mission” and “‘Tongue Tip’ Regulation Requires All Stakeholders’ Cooperation” to “Restaurants Should Offer Half-Entrees” and ”The High Season For High-End Liquor Is Over.”
The media deluge begins
The rest of China’s mainstream media quickly fell into line. In an article titled “Opposing Waste Is a Profound and Far-Reaching Social Reform,” Global Times opined, “Chinese people’s wastefulness isn’t only shown in banquets, [but also] the desire for big houses and good cars that’s learned from Americans — these are all signals of a culture of waste.”
Internet portals have also been conscripted into the anti-waste campaign. An employee of Sina, a large Chinese Internet company that hosts the vibrant Weibo.com platform, told Tea Leaf Nation on condition of anonymity, “[Waste] is the only thing that’s brought up from early morning till late night [in the office].” Not surprisingly, a campaign called “Clear the Plate” has quickly spread among microblog channels. A search on Sina Weibo conducted February 5 , eight days after Xi’s comment went public, indicated more than 550,000 microblogs on the topic.
The campaign against food waste itself has encountered little resistance in Chinese media. Internet portal Tencent.com, ran a feature on food waste that concluded, “Wasting is shameful. This perhaps is one of the few universal values. The ‘Clear the Plate’ campaign is an opportunity to pursue this universal value.”
Tencent.com made its stand clear in part by posing opposite famous blogger Lian Yue (@连岳), who has argued that Chinese should learn to mind their own business. He wrote, “Sure enough, there are already media encouraging readers to take pictures of banquets (including private banquets) to show waste. [Monitoring] public funds was used by some to invade others’ privacy.” Tencent responded, “People have a right to comment even on private matters. Moral judgments can’t be considered meddling.”
And the real culprit?
But in a highly-charged political atmosphere such as China, even discussion of universal values can lead to unexpected places. Unlike Global Times, which tends to follow the Communist Party line, other news outlets followed instructions to report on the “Clear the Plate” but did so with a twist: they lauded the campaign, but also took the opportunity to critique and investigate the corruption underlying it.
For example, Sina.com pointed out that abuse of public funds is a main cause of food waste. China Youth Daily recommended rewarding those who blow the whistle on abuse of public funds. Journalists from Beijing News reviewed annual meeting banquets among different provinces’ resident offices in Beijing, finding that a “standard dinner table cost RMB8,000 [about US$1,285]“. The known outspoken miroblog account of People’s Daily Online commented, “Power won’t limit itself; only reliable regulations and oversight can put power into a cage.”
Phoenix Net tried to extend the discussion on power and corruption. On its history channel, an editor asked, “When waste has became a popular term, people easily blame it on the loss of ancient goodness. Some people may think China didn’t have such waste in old times, especially during Mao’s era. This argument’s [logical conclusion is] that to solve the waste problem, one has to go back to Mao’s time. But is that really true?” Certainly not, the article concluded: “Only when power is caged, can our bites then have real taste.”