SEOUL — On the surface, China's campaign to encourage mealtime thrift has been a cheerful affair, with soldiers, factory workers and schoolchildren shown polishing their plates clean of food.

But behind the drive is a harsh reality. China does not have enough fresh food to go around — and neither does much of the world.

The pandemic and extreme weather have disrupted agricultural supply chains, leaving food prices sharply higher in countries as diverse as Yemen, Sudan, Mexico and South Korea. The United Nations warned in June that the world is on the brink of its worst food crisis in 50 years.

“It’s scary and it’s overwhelming,” Arif Husain, chief economist of the United Nations World Food Program, said in an interview. “I don’t think we have seen anything like this ever.”

In China, the two foods in the tightest spots are pork and corn, with the nation’s pigs hit hard by African swine fever and much of the year’s corn crop ruined by floods. But fresh foods of all stripes are in short supply, too, due to the coronavirus pandemic and flooding — from eggs, to seafood, to leafy green vegetables.

Beijing has declared it is not in a food crisis and says it has enough reserve wheat to help feed its people for a year. Still, China’s leadership has watched uneasily as pork prices soared 135 percent in February and floods washed away vegetable crops.

And for China’s leadership, there is a worrisome legacy. The country has a long history of food shortages sparking political unrest.

The risks for Beijing extend overseas. China is dependent on the United States this year to bridge its corn shortfall, a position it has sought to avoid for years by stockpiling grain. Beijing’s developing-world allies are facing their worst food insecurity in decades.

'Clean Plate' push

Beijing’s solution has been a sunny “Clean Plate Campaign” launched in August, with the aim of curbing food use without prompting public alarm. Like the American Victory Gardens of World War II, the campaign is as much about trying to unite the country around a patriotic mission in a time of hardship as it is about securing the food supply.

Restaurants across the nation are dishing out “half-servings” in line with the drive. Some, such as the upscale Peking duck chain Quanjude, have instructed servers to nag diners not to waste. Other restaurants are fining people for leaving too much on their plates.

At one elementary school in southern China, students must send teachers short videos of their dinner each night to verify they are cleaning their plates, according to the state-run People’s Daily. A number of university canteens are giving away fruit and other small gifts to students who finish their lunches.

Even billionaire Jack Ma, founder of the online retail giant Alibaba, has been filmed trying to save food. A recent viral video shows him asking for his unfinished crab and lobster to be boxed up to go.

“Pack it up, pack it up, pack it up!” he says in the video. “I will eat it on the plane.”

Government officials are, of course, forbidden from holding lavish banquets during this period.

As these restrictions took effect, China’s overall inflation on food costs eased to an annualized 8.8    percent    in    August    from 10.2 percent in July, though vegetable inflation ticked back up to double digits with continued heavy rains and flooding. These higher prices are still affordable for China’s growing middle class, but they are being felt keenly by those on lower rungs of the economic ladder.

Memories of famine

For Chinese leader Xi Jinping, the food thrift campaign is not solely a practical measure, but also a reflection of Xi’s fundamental “hatred of materialism and wastefulness,” said Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor specializing in Chinese politics at American University.

Torigian cited Xi’s sister, who wrote that their father had been a stickler at conserving food at meals, even though he was a senior official.

“We were terrified of his strict rules on thriftiness,” she wrote. “For example, when eating, he never allowed us to drop a single piece of rice or bit of food. If you weren’t careful and you dropped a bit of food, he would immediately pick it up and eat it.”

Food security is one of the oldest concerns of the Chinese Communist Party. Millions starved to death in the famine of the late 1950s to early 1960s during Mao Zedong’s rule. Many who survived remember eating tree bark or grass to get through.

Early leaders identified food shortages and economic downturns as possible triggers for public uprisings. The Communist Party’s most severe political crisis to date, the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, took place in a period of runaway inflation and economic malaise that bred popular discontent.

Over the past couple decades, the implicit bargain offered by Chinese leaders has been unprecedented economic advancement and opportunities in exchange for political quiescence. That means the ability for regular folk to eat meat regularly instead of as a luxury, as well as having a range of nutritious foods within reach.

When Xi assumed office in 2012, one of his flagship policies was to eradicate extreme poverty from China by this year. Local officials across the nation have worked to meet this target for years until the pandemic threw a wrench in these plans.

One of China’s rare private food banks, the Shanghai Green Food Bank, reported in recent weeks that growing numbers of the city’s migrant workers are having trouble making ends meet and are requiring food assistance. 

Husain, the World Food Program economist, said an estimated 270 million people globally are suffering acute hunger this year, twice last year’s count. This number doesn’t even include China, the United States and European nations traditionally considered food secure, where the World Food Program doesn’t track such data.

“No region has been spared,” he said. “Literally the whole world is affected.”