BEIJING is trying to make the trash can a symbol of impending hunger every bit as dire as the locust cloud or drought-seared earth. As part of a campaign planned for all of China, state propagandists are urging Beijing residents to stop wasting food.
Beijing officials recently set up scores of booths across the capital, where more than 1,000 activists stumped for ``food conservation'' beneath large posters of a little girl with wide eyes and upraised arms grasping for a steamed bun.
In an onslaught of pamphlets and shrill appeals, the activists deplored the prodigality that enables peasants in West Beijing to daily root out 880 pounds of rice, wheat buns, and other food from a dump and feed it to their pigs. Some families from this ``raking army'' have become rich by selling the rotting victuals to their neighbors, they said. Leaders try old methods
China would sooner compel citizens to be thrifty by freeing controls on prices: allowing market forces rather than bureaucrats to determine the price of food, say economists.
But prices would rocket with such measures and trigger unrest, say Chinese officials. So, as with other economic problems, China's embattled, conservative leaders are relying on heavy-handed socialist measures to combat hunger.
Widespread famine no longer ravages China, but at least 40 million Chinese living mostly in remote rural areas don't have enough to eat, the government says. Wealthier Chinese, meanwhile, annually discard 22 million tons of grain, according to the Beijing Grain Bureau. By the measure of China's per capita grain supply, the spurned leftovers could feed not only all of the country's hungry but 14 million more people besides.
``The masses of peasants say they work very hard in the fields and if grain is wasted it is a great shame,'' says Liang Wei at the grain bureau.
The ``clean your bowl'' campaign is part of the intense effort by Beijing to ensure China doesn't propagate itself into a famine: For several years, the country's population has grown much faster than its grain supply.
China's leadership has logged two consecutive record harvests by raising the price it pays peasants for grain and strictly enforcing grain quotas. The leadership has also tried to improve the collection and storage of wheat, rice, and corn, spending $42 million this year on new grain silos.
One in five sacks of the country's grain never reaches peoples' chopsticks but is scattered during winnowing and transport or eaten by rats. Much of it rots in shoddy silos, say international aid officials.
Beijing now wants urban Chinese to do their part and make sure grain goes down their gullets instead of their trash chutes.
``Our children should not only cherish every single grain, but also mobilize their fathers, mothers, older brothers, and older sisters, relatives, and friends to use grain sparingly,'' Premier Li Peng said in a recent letter hailing the enactment of a ``Cherish Food Day.''
The campaign illustrates how conservative Communist Party elders, who long have argued that grain is ``the key link'' in the economy, have regained control of the propaganda apparatus since the Tiananmen massacre in June 1989, Western diplomats say.
The effort bears the signature of veteran ideologue Hu Qiaomu, who dubbed it ``Where our food comes from'' in a scrawl of his own calligraphy across the top of propaganda posters.
China's leaders say the tons of discarded food show that the virtue of thrift has faded during the past decade of comparative prosperity. The country's extravagant eaters are too young to recall past famines, says Mr. Liang, assistant director of the Beijing Grain Bureau.
``With the improvement in the living standards of the people, there has been a decline in efforts to cultivate the spirit of plain living and hard work,'' says Liang.
But peoples' profligacy has as much to do with their pocketbooks as their principles. Beijing could better discourage urban Chinese from tossing away food by making them pay more for grain and other foods, say Western and Chinese economists.
For decades, the state has followed the ancient truism that full bellies mean public contentment and sold grain to city dwellers at a fixed price rather than at a high market price.
China spends $8.47 billion annually buying grain from peasants at a price several times higher than it charges city consumers for the grain, according to the grain bureau.
Beijing fears it would weaken its hold on power by throwing off the burdensome subsidies and freeing prices. A higher price could spark widespread turmoil, say Chinese officials.
Rather than rely on market forces to reduce the waste of food, Beijing has decided to resort to the Maoist device of blanket propaganda. Tang Dynasty invoked
Adding a dash of antiquity, the campaign has even enlisted the classics in an attempt to stir up the ancient, popular obsession with forestalling famine. ``Every grain in the bowl is the fruit of hard work,'' said street-side activists in Beijing, paraphrasing the poem ``Have Pity on The Peasants'' by Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD) poet Li Shen.
The campaign has especially criticized students who toss away the dry crust from the top of cafeteria rice pots. But the prime knaves at the collective dining table are students at a Beijing high school who routinely use steamed buns as dish rags, wiping off their rice bowls with the buns before lunch, and then throwing them away.