胡泳 | Operation Empty Plate
March 2013 Last updated at 22:17 ET
Operation Empty Plate: China's food waste
By Celia Hatton
BBC News, Beijing
Xu Zhijun's campaign has gained the ultimate endorsement from
President-to-be Xi Jinping
lunch at a restaurant is a challenge for Xu Zhijun. As the creator of
“Operation Empty Plate”, an online anti-food-waste campaign, Mr Xu
avoids ordering too much.
As a child, he toiled in the rice paddies near his tiny village
in China's eastern Jiangsu province. “My parents and my grandparents
educated me to cherish food,” Mr Xu explains.
After moving to Beijing to work at an agricultural newspaper, Mr
Xu was shocked to see piles of half-finished dishes left on restaurant tables.
After learning that the food wasted by Chinese university students could feed
10 million people a year, Mr Xu reached his boiling point.
In April 2012, he posted a photo on weibo, the Chinese version
of Twitter, showing his empty plate at the end of a meal. He urged others to do
Mr Xu was the first person to promote an anti-waste campaign on
weibo, although for months Operation Empty Plate received little attention.
“I assumed it would fade out like other weibo
campaigns,” he explains.
That is, until Mr Xu received the
ultimate endorsement: from the Communist Party's new leader, Xi Jinping.
On a tour of China's Hebei province in December, Mr Xi ate a
simple meal featuring four dishes and one bowl of soup; a paltry number of
courses by Chinese government standards. China's blogosphere took note;
Operation Empty Plate's followers began to climb.
One month later, Mr Xi reportedly commented on an article
mentioning Mr Xu's “empty plate” campaign, remarking: “These
wasteful habits must stop immediately!”
That comment was trumpeted by China's
state-run media. Within a few days, “Operation Empty Plate” received
front page mentions in the party's main newspaper, The People's Daily, and
appeared as the top story on China's flagship 1900 television newscast.
Operation Empty Plate's call to stop food wastage was quickly
tied to Mr Xi's efforts to battle corruption and party officials' penchants for
leaders understand that they have to win the hearts of the people”
Joseph ChengCity University of Hong Kong
Of course, this is not the first time that China's propaganda
machine has looked to its own people for inspiration.
Chinese leaders have a history of highlighting model behaviour
among ordinary citizens, explains Joseph Cheng, professor of political science
at the City University of Hong Kong.
During the Mao era, a young People's Liberation Army soldier,
Lei Feng, was martyred as a model Communist following his death at the age of
However, it is rare for an internet movement to receive
high-level government backing. More often, the Chinese government has censored
the content on Chinese internet forums.
This time, Xi Jinping chose to support Operation Empty Plate
because it was a non-controversial message certain to receive popular support.
Today's leaders, Joseph Cheng explains, “understand that
they have to win the hearts of the people, especially when establishing one's
Another campaign that started on weibo, promoting an attempt to
find children who had been trafficked in China, also received a thumbs-up from
the government. China's Ministry of Public Security asked citizens to call the
police if they spotted child beggars on the streets.
At the moment, the government ignores
campaigns that do not match its agenda, explains Hu Yong, a Beijing academic
who studies Chinese social media.
“For example,” Prof Hu says, “many people are
demanding that officials make their assets public. The government always
ignores this appeal.”
As internet users become bolder and more vocal in launching
campaigns, Prof Hu says, Beijing will face pressure to respond to the demands
of its people.
More than 400 million people in China have weibo accounts and
another one billion Chinese citizens are connected by mobile phones.
Over the next few years, most Chinese people will upgrade to
data-rich smart phones, making it even more difficult for government censors to
control the ways in which information will be shared among the population.
Chinese citizens are now responsible for 30,000 to 50,000
so-called “mass incidents” every year, according to Chen Jinping,
outgoing deputy of the Party's Committee of Political and Legislative Affairs.
At a press conference this week, Mr Chen admitted the popularity
of mobile phones and Chinese internet forums gave unhappy citizens an outlet to
vent their anger.
For now, China's party leader was able to satisfy one formerly
unhappy citizen. Over the last few bites of a filling lunch, Xu Zhijun predicts
that more internet users will get the government's attention during Xi
“I hear that Xi is even going to get his own weibo
account,” Mr Xu smiles. “It's a good thing for him to communicate with
us ordinary people.”