Operation Empty Plate: China's food waste campaigner

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Xu Zhijun
Image caption,
Xu Zhijun's campaign has gained the ultimate endorsement from President-to-be Xi Jinping

Ordering 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 the same.

Mr Xu was the first person to promote an anti-waste campaign on weibo, although for months Operation Empty Plate received little attention.

Image caption,
President-to-be Xi Jinping is said to be a supporter of the campaign

"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!"

'Model behaviour'

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 lavish banquets.

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 21.

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 leadership".

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.

Online activism

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.

Image caption,
Xu Zhijun's campaign has gained wide support online

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 Jinping's era.

"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."