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The Clean Plate Club

October 08, 2020

Many ardent followers of "Emperor" Xi Jinping, President of China, believe that he is the second coming of Chairman Mao Tse Tung and seize on every word from him as the "Red Guards" religiously followed Mao Tse Tungs' Little Red Book. When it comes to the concept of "clean plates" in China, they have always implied poverty. During the days of Mao's insane "Great Leap Forward" that destroyed the infrastructure of China and resulted in some 45 million deaths, in large part to starvation, plates gathered dust rather than food. Even before China's economy exploded, it was customary to over-order at most any significant dining experience. It was a clear demonstration of the wealth of the host.  
During our days in North Korea, our people were always the hosts and ordered vast quantities of food at the banquets held for the military and government officers. In that case, the left- over food went home with the North Koreans to feed their starving families and friends. I must admit when we hosted Chinese dinners for visiting mainlanders to Thailand, we did the same though our Thai staff would scoop it up to take home. In China, that would be in bad taste so entire platters of food were left behind to fatten up the pigs down on the farm.  
Once a group of us returned to Beijing following a couple of weeks on the steppe plains of Mongolia. As the Mongolian view of diet is described by themselves as "animals eat vegetables, we eat animals," we were starved for tons of vegetables and all of the Peking duck we could find. The Holiday Inn Lido kitchen was about to close so we ordered massive quantities of food. There was no surprise that little remained when we crawled up to our rooms afterwards. Moreover, as shown below, the Chinese go about their meals in a very serious manner.  
The New York Times recently published an article entitled Xi Declares War on Food Waste, And China Races to Tighten Its Belt. The desired image for "Emperor" Xi is that he is a fighter of excess and gluttony, but this push for gastronomic discipline is directed toward the public with a sense of urgency. The overriding issue is one of food security that is a very serious issue in a country of 1.4 billion people in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.  
The People's Daily newspaper published Xi's directive that his flock should "cultivate thrifty habits and foster a social environment where waste is shameful and thriftiness is applaudable." The overall concern is that now is the time for self-reliance in a time of tensions with the United States and other economic partners. The overriding fear is import disruptions resulting from global geopolitical turmoil, the pandemic and trade tensions with the U.S., as well as some of China's worst floods this year, could reduce food supplies.  
Restaurants in China have introduced scales so customers can be weighed upon entry and exit following their dining experience. They have also designated waiter supervisors as shown below to have responsibility for supervising efforts to avoid food waste. The Chinese custom of ordering extra dishes and leaving food behind are ways to exhibit generosity in front of relatives, clients, business partners and important guests. Nonetheless, it is estimated that the 17 to 18 million tons of food being discarded annually could feed 30 to 50 million people for a year. You will also notice that China has opened their restaurants based on social distancing and masks.  
"Emperor" Xi is shown below shaking hands with the presumptive leader of the Free World. We can only speculate on the level of food waste or diets between the two of them. Chinese food consumption may be wasteful, but it is most likely the diets there are healthier than the fast food culture of the west.  
To go back in time, the image below is one of Nixon with Mao Tse Tung during Nixon's 1972 visit to China which initiated the U.S./China rapprochement period. It would appear that Chairman Mao did not waste much food as compared to the trim Richard Nixon. We seem to have had a "waistline" reversal with China over the past 48 years though their respective political alliances have not changed.  
The food waste debate in China is sharply divided by age groups. Those who survived Mao's "Great Leap Forward" abhor any food waste whatsoever. However, the younger generation feel entitled to order as much food as they want and find the whole concept extremely boring. Nonetheless, it is apparent that China eventually addressed the pandemic that began there and, as a result, have resumed a more normal way of life without the massive loss of lives that the western world continues to experience.  
Therefore, China has a food waste debate though their restaurants are open. Clearly the wearing of masks and contact tracing enabled China to emerge from the pandemic. On the other hand, in the west, wearing masks to mitigate the impact of the pandemic has become a political and social issue. Health care, science and diet are often ignored by different societies though that can come at a high price.

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