SHANGHAI — Is China at a fork in the road?
Beijing this week slapped a 5% tax on disposable chopsticks, dealing what many Chinese say was a powerful gut punch. In cafes here Thursday, people dropped their chopsticks and had a lot to say against the new tax. Some said it could end a 5,000-year-old tradition. The tax will be imposed on chopstick manufacturers, which say they will make consumers pay higher prices.
"I think it's ridiculous," Gordon Wu, an advertising executive, said during lunch at a central Shanghai restaurant, where he had just snapped apart two 8-inch splints of shaved wood to eat a bowl of braised pork over rice.
The tax won't drain many pocketbooks here: A penny buys bunches of chopsticks. That's why the government thinks it's a good way to save the nation's vanishing forests -- one chopstick at a time. China carves up about 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks a year. That means certain death for about 25 million full-grown poplar and birch trees.
And that's why environmentalists love the tax. "How many trees will we cut just for chopsticks?" asks Liang Congjie, who carries his reusable wooden chopsticks with him so that he doesn't have to use disposable ones.
Other Asian nations have whittled away at the problem. South Korea ordered many restaurants to stop using disposable chopsticks. They switched to metal ones. Japan now imports the wooden variety from ... China.
Over the years, the Chinese have vigorously defended attacks on chopsticks -- like when Western researchers claimed the wooden utensils caused arthritis. But state-owned media, which blamed runaway chopstick production on China's growing wealth, recently suggested that the Chinese dispose of chopsticks altogether and eat with their fingers.
In fact, the government also went after those born with silver spoons in their mouths, levying even heftier taxes on buyers of yachts and of bigger sticks -- golf clubs.
All this was food for thought on Chinese Internet chat rooms. One person asked: "What's next? Will I have to pay a tax for toothpicks?"