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FRUGAL LIVES

When the Supreme Leader speaks, the country listens. The new communist party head and soon-to-be president, Xi Jinping, has spoken; the effects are already visible.

Over the last two months, the party chief has thrice asked party members to curb their fondness for pomp and show. Recently, he proposed “honour to frugality and shame to extravagance” as a universal motto.

Already, some cities have seen a 20 per cent cut in government banquets. The trademark banners, bouquets and red carpets have disappeared from government meets. Now comes a new suggestion from Beijing — stop wasting food. A survey conducted by Beijing’s Agricultural University last year revealed that the amount of food wasted by Chinese diners in restaurants could feed 200 million people. A photo feature by Xinhua, the official news agency, showed plates heaped with food being thrown into the bin after a banquet in Guangzhou. The last picture of the feature was that of an old villager, who said he could afford to eat meat only 10 times a year.

Wasting food is unavoidable when you eat out in China. A normal dinner out means a variety of dishes being ordered: soup, meats of different kinds, vegetables, dumplings, and a number of small side dishes. Most of these come in huge servings. Soup, for instance, is enough to feed at least six persons. A couple who go out have to either restrict themselves to ordering just two of the many delicious items on the menu, or be saddled with the guilt of leaving half the dishes uneaten.

Simple taste

“Dabao” or pack up is a common practice when the group consists of close friends or a family. But at formal dinners, it is rare for the host to ask for the leftovers to be packed. This is specially true when government officials are being entertained, though occasionally after lunch they themselves ask for the food to be packed to share with their colleagues in their offices.

One suggestion in the just-started “eat your dish” campaign is to criminalize wastage of food by diners in restaurants. The proposal comes from the country’s foremost agriculture scientist. Recalling that his team had worked for years to double rice production on the country’s limited arable land to feed the huge population, he regretted that today, people think nothing of throwing the precious grain away. Middle-aged Chinese recall a time when food was scarce; their parents forbade them from leaving a single grain of rice on their plates, and didn’t hesitate to eat corn that had fallen on the floor, after washing it.

While criminalization may be difficult to implement, other practical suggestions have already come into force. As many as 749 restaurants in Beijing, including some of the most famous chains, have started serving half-portions, using smaller serving plates, offering discounts and gifts to customers who pack up their leftovers, and putting up “take away your leftovers” posters on the walls. A typical sight outside any big restaurant is a line of pretty girls welcoming you when you enter. In one such restaurant, these girls now stand with small plates that spell out the message: “Clean your plate; finish your meal.”

Is this a temporary phase? It may not be. The new leader has a record of frugality. The habits formed during the years he was banished to the countryside after his father, an old comrade of Mao, fell from grace seem to have stayed with him. His first visit after taking over as party chief was to Shenzhen. The city, notorious for traffic jams, was amazed to see traffic move smoothly even as the all-powerful communist party general-secretary and chairman of the military passed by in a car with transparent windows and only one pilot car in his entourage.