What makes people overturn police cars in authoritarian China?

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. Seen any good PSAs lately? I know, the TV public service announcement seems to be relegated to late night TV these days. Or worse - a thing of the past. Perhaps you remember this classic: "This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?" Werman: A PSA like that can be a powerful tool to raise public awareness about an important social issue. That's what China is hoping for with the campaign called "Clean Your Plate." We've reported on it before and The World's Matthew Bell is here with an update. Matthew, what's happening? Matthew Bell: Well, the "Clean Your Plate" campaign is partly about cracking down on corrupt government officials that have been extravagant meals, wasting a lot of food. This is about that high level government campaign. But it's also about cutting down on the amount of trash, solid waste that's being produced in China. As much as 70% of that solid waste is food that gets thrown away. Adam Minter is the author of a book called "Junkyard Planet." He's also the columnist in Shanghai with the Bloomberg View. He's done a lot of reporting on this issue, on recycling, on waste disposal in China. I connected with him on Skype and asked him about the scope of the solid waste problem in China. Adam Minter: The volume of solid waste that it's currently generating exceeds that of the United States, which is remarkable when you think about it because China, for all of the wealth that it's generated, is still a developing country, while the US is a developed country. It's important to note, on a per-capita basis, the US still wastes far more than China does. But when you think about the fact that China is actually throwing away more solid waste than the US and a very significant percentage, if not a majority percentage, is food waste. It's remarkable and it's remarkably disturbing, especially for a developing country. Bell: The problem is getting worse. China is on track to produce twice the amount of solid waste as the US by the year 2030. Another thing that Minter pointed out to me is that China is a decent-sized country territory-wise but it suffers from a lack of arable land. A lot of its land is contaminated by pollution, so expanding landfills is the last thing that the Chinese government wants to do. Werman: It strikes me that just a public awareness campaign to clean off your plate isn't going to deal with that problem. Bell: Exactly, so in addition to that, the Chinese government over the past several years has invested in new incinerators. That's something that governments in Europe and especially Japan have done successfully to reduce the amount of solid waste that's going into landfills. But these things appear to be adding to China's infamous air pollution. I asked Adam Minter about this. Here's what he had to say. Minter: The problem is even if China imports very good incinerator technology, its current regulations don't require emissions from these incinerators to be equivalent to those that, say your upper Japan, operates its incinerators on, so they burn dirty. Bell: This issue bubbled up over the past week in the city of Honjo, which is down outside, about an hour train ride from Shanghai, where a new incinerator was going to be built and a protest developed. It went on for several days, things got violent. I think it's just an indication that in China the public is more and more aware of these environmental issues and sometimes they're willing to go out and protest if they have a bad feeling about the way the government is dealing with it. Werman: It does sound like reduction, cleaning off your plate is still part of the solution. Any indication that that campaign is having an effect? Bell: I think it would be part of the solution, especially long-term, when you just look at more than half of that solid waste going into landfills is food. Bring it back down to individual behavior and that would make a big difference. I have to say, when I was last in China, in restaurants, I did see people getting up from the table and leaving food on their plates. I asked Adam Minter about this who's been living in China for several years. He said "to be honest, I'd like to tell you something different but I'm pretty skeptical about the effectiveness of the 'Clean Your Plate' campaign." Werman: The World's Matthew Bell, thank you. Bell: Thanks Marco.