Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects croplands in Jilin in July, a northeastern province known as the granary of China. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing has urged its people to travel, spend and dine out more to buoy up the economy tanked by Covid-19, a call well heeded by the growing middle class as they unleash pent-up demand. 

Bargain-haunting hordes are swamping eateries and shops nationwide to take advantage of the plethora of discounts on offer, with diners sitting down together to groaning tables to relax and carouse to shake off the social-distancing blues of the past few months. 

Beijing appears not to be in the least worried about the large aggregations of people and the risk of cross-infections, having swiftly fought off any re-emergence of the highly contagious coronavirus in recent months. The call to get consumers out and about to spend is against the backdrop that most provinces and municipalities continue their months-long streak of no new local infections since at least April. 

Then there comes food for thought. There has been a new top-down drive to accord priority to food, not about fortifying the people to fight the virus, but about if all Chinese can continue to have bowlfuls of food and finish them off. 

Earlier this week Chinese President Xi Jinping sounded the alarm about a looming food shortage. The top leader’s call to stop piling more food on to your plate than you can consume has come as a dampener for the many people still on a post-pandemic eating and drinking binge. 

Xi said Chinese people’s sin of lavish dining and profligate spending was none too savory, and that people tend to order more dishes than needed and ended up tossing heaps of leftovers into landfill.

The leader, who spent six years working the fields in a country village as a teenager, said even though farmers would expect another bumper harvest this year, no one could take it for granted the challenges of putting food on the table, especially amid a world-engulfing pandemic, according to a Xinhua report. 

Groaning tables with heaps of leftovers are a usual sight at restaurants in China. Photo: Weibo

The Chinese State Council has reputedly set up a working group to educate and discipline caters and diners to fight food waste. A new statute on food security and food management is being drafted as the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, lays the legal groundwork to name, shame and even fine and jail squanderers. 

Xi’s latest directive to come down hard on food waste and launch a nationwide food wise campaign has everything to do with the debilitating impact of Covid-19 on global agriculture and food trade. 

China’s Commerce Ministry said in June that Brazil, Canada, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Russia and other key producers of wheat, soybean and rice had all cut their exports, including to China, to first replenish their own stocks. China is the world’s largest food importer. 

Hu Xingdou, an economist with the Beijing Institute of Technology, has questioned in his column, given Beijing’s souring ties with the West and its depleting foreign exchange reserve as a result of a trade war with the United States, how Beijing would be able to buy enough food to feed the 1.3 billion people if domestic production could not be improved. 

Hu said China’s food self-sufficiency rate should be increased from the current 80% to at least 90%. 

With a food sufficiency rate of 80% and a population of 1.3 billion, China is the world’s largest importer of food and agricultural products. Photo: Xinhua

Liu Xiaobo, an influential financial columnist on WeChat and Weibo, also told Asia Times that even though rice was the staple food for most Chinese, China still imported close to 100 million tonnes of soybean to produce cooking oil and feedstuffs amid the nation’s stronger appetite for beef, chicken, pork and lamb.

Worse still, almost two months of deluge along the Yangtze River since May has drenched a large swath of croplands in southern agrarian provinces such as Hunan, Anhui and Jiangxi. 

China’s National Food and Strategic Reserves Administration revealed on its Weibo account this week that Anhui turned over 5.92 million tonnes of wheat as of August, 2.22 million tonnes less than the level a year ago, and nationwide, the overall decrease in wheat production was more than 9 million tonnes. 

Zhou Xuewen, the Undersecretary for Emergency Management and chief of the State Flood Control and Drought Relief Office, said in July that “not a single grain was reaped” from about 11.4 million hectares of farmlands in southern China due to the devastating Yangtze flooding. 

Yet Zhou stirred controversy as netizens found unpalatable his notion that downpours and flooding could bring more water and help irrigate farmlands and in turn ratchet up output.

In the same month, Xi inspected Jilin, a northeastern province whose wheat, rise and fresh produce feed the entire country. Xi reminded Jilin cadres and the Minister of Agriculture when visiting a massive wheat warehousing facility there that historically a famine would usually follow a plague and “higher stakes” had been attached to this year’s food production and security.

Xi, who worked in the fields as a teenager, attaches great importance to agriculture and food security. Photos: Xinhua

Observers say when agricultural production is disrupted in southern China, Xi’s trip to Jilin is a sign that Beijing is pinning more hope on Jilin and Heilongjiang, the granary of the nation, to make up for the alarming shortfall. 

As the National Day golden week holiday in October and other traditional festivals fast approaching, dinner gatherings that usually see huge spreads of food are being curtailed. 

Wuhan, the original breeding ground of the respiratory disease, was among the first key urban centers to impose restrictions on the number of dishes people can order, known as “N minus one,” meaning for example no more than nine dishes for ten diners. Smaller dishes and half servings of greens and snacks at discounted prices are also available to cater to smaller groups of two to three guests. 

The 10 million-plus residents in the central megacity finally feel safe to venture outside to devour the city’s delicacies and comfort food, after months of a city-wide lockdown and phased reopening. Wuhan is sustaining a three-month run of zero cases and the local government is encouraging people to dine out to help the city spend its way out of an economic recession. But amid the bonanza, the new “N minus one” rule may bite into the takings of many caterers in the city. 

Additional coupons and cash rebates are also rolled out in more cities to reward diners at high-traffic restaurants who lap up all the dishes they order. 

Several upmarket hotels in cities such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Ningbo owned by American hospitality group Marriott have also trimmed the amount of food at their buffet restaurants and taken some dishes off their menus. With fewer food options, the set price of a buffet dinner at a Sheraton hotel in eastern China’s Ningbo has been lowered to just 150 yuan (US$22) per person. 

A joint report published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources and World Wildlife Fund China in 2018 estimated that the nation’s increasingly affluent urbanites on average wasted almost 100 grams of food per meal when they dined out, of which 11.7% of the food would never be consumed. In 2015, about 18 million tonnes of food was wasted during warehousing, transportation, processing and consumption in the country, enough to feed 30 million people for a year, according to the report.