Veganism in China: Changing Diets and What This Means for Brands
With China currently the world’s largest market for pork, beef and poultry, accounting for approximately half of the world’s pork consumption, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that China in many ways is the home of the plant-based diet.
Dating back as far as the 5th century BC, traditional Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist diets follow a strict vegan diet in stark contrast to contemporary eating habits. There has been a dramatic cultural shift in the Chinese staple diet over the past 40 years. Meat was priced as a luxury up until the Reform and Opening era at the end of the 1970s, but as the economy grew so did the demand for meat and it became a sign of prosperity. As Chinese consumers start to look towards a greener future, however, vegetarian and veganism have seen somewhat of a revival over the past few years.
Why the sudden change?
The Pew Research Centre writes that there are approximately 245 million Buddhists in China and growing, spreading from major cities to rural provinces such as Gansu, but the spread veganism in China is not necessarily a religious movement so much as a lifestyle change. A Sixth Tone report has found that veganism is becoming marketed as a “healthy, eco-friendly, and trendy lifestyle”. And according to Wang Yahong from the University of Glasgow, the plant-based diet in China is showing popularity amongst Chinese youth and the middle class as a “new kind” of vegetarianism, successfully blending the traditional and contemporary. She describes it as ‘a hybrid of the traditional Buddhist idea and the imported Western vegetarian ideas. They reinforce each other and find support in each other. It makes their argument more powerful, more strong’.
The Chinese vegan and vegetarian population is concentrated in larger cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and more than ever now there is a competitive niche market for meat-free establishments. In 2016 Shanghai hosted its first ever Vegan Fiesta which had 2,500 attendees, and the number of vegetarian restaurants in Shanghai has more than doubled from 49 in 2012 to well over 100 today. Keith Guo from PETA Asia wrote that Shanghai, Taipei and Hong Kong were on PETA’s list of the Top 10 Vegan-Friendly Cities in Asia in 2016.
Health issues such as high blood pressure and obesity linked to high meat consumption and poor lifestyle choices have become pervasive issues in China’s big cities, prompting government action. Blueprints for the ‘Healthy China 2030’ campaign have been released with the aim of making China ‘healthy again’, and government issued dietary guideline from 2016 urged the public to eat less meat. Environmental rights group WildAid created a ‘Shu Shi’ initiative and collaborated with Chinese celebrities to run a campaign in Beijing to promote vegetarianism. Additionally, Chinese students from a number of universities have formed vegan and vegetarian societies, motivated by animal rights protection, health consciousness and growing environmental concern.
Stories that have surfaced from China’s food industry have also prompted concerns about food safety in China and driven many to give up meat. Such scandals include pigs pumped full of clenbuterol (an asthma drug), diseased pigs dumped in the Huangpu River in Shanghai in 2013, and the infamous melamine tainted milk powder incident which led to mass food poisoning and several deaths.
So, what does this mean for brands?
The vegan and vegetarian demographic in China is a small sector so there is a lot of room to get creative. This year a quarter of a million people have signed up for Veganuary across 193 countries, so it’s a big opportunity for niche healthcare, food and lifestyle brands to create their own campaigns. Celebrities including Beyonce and Jay-Z are avid supporters of veganism and have urged fans to go vegan — doing the same with popular Chinese KOLs and celebrities could be a successful move to get consumers to go green.
It is estimated that the vegan and vegetarian population in China will increase by 17% between 2015 and 2020. Vegetarianism, let alone veganism is hardly part of the mainstream in China, but people are jumping on board the eco-friendly trend and departing from the customary belief that meat is necessary for a healthy diet.
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