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XI'AN - Twenty-six restaurants across China have responded to calls from netizens to offer "suspended meals" to people in need of a free meal.
The concept of "suspended meals" was inspired by "suspended coffee", a goodwill initiative born in the working-class cafes of Naples that is gaining popularity in Europe. It is a tradition in which someone pays in advance for an extra cup of coffee or two, which can be consumed by a needy coffee-drinker later in the day.
The suspended meals initiative was initially advocated in China by Chen Li, a senior police officer in northwest China's Shaanxi Province, on China's Twitter-like microblogging service Sina Weibo last Friday.
His post met with instant popularity, with other Sina Weibo users reposting it more than 10,000 times. The official microblog account he set up for the movement gained 1,593 followers over the past week.
MORE SUSPENDED, LESS CONSUMED
Gao Wenqi, a 49-year-old Taiwanese restauranteur, owns Yushang Wenhua Kitchen in Xi'an, the provincial capital of Shaanxi. After he saw the post, his restaurant became the first to participate in the suspended lunch initiative.
The Taiwanese restaurant sells suspended lunches for 10 yuan (1.6 US dollars) that include rice, Taiwanese-style stewed minced pork, side dishes and soup.
"I'm surprised that so many customers took an active part in it," said Gao, whose restaurant sold over 60 suspended lunches in the first three days.
Xu Xianwen, a 67-year-old disabled man who lives on minimum government subsidies, visited the restaurant after reading about the initiative in a local newspaper.
"I just came to see whether free lunches really exist," said Xu.
After he ate one, Xu paid for two lunches for other recipients. "There are other people needier than me."
Xu told Xinhua that he would try to convince his neighbors to visit to the restaurant to offer a helping hand.
Led by Gao, 25 other restaurants in Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Zhengzhou, Lanzhou, Suzhou and other cities around China have joined in, as well.
However, restaurants are selling more suspended lunches than are being consumed.
"I'm very surprised that few people in need came for lunch," said Gao.
Fewer than 10 meals have been offered to the elderly at Gao's restaurant.
"Though it has been a hot topic on the web, needy people with no access to the Internet hardly know the news," said a waitress in the restaurant.
Hoping to raise awareness, Gao plans to recruit volunteers to advertise the offer in nearby neighborhoods.
BOOMING GRASSROOTS CHARITY
"I hope the idea of 'suspending' can apply not only to meals but also every aspect of daily life, like clothing, books, backpacks and so on," said Chen Li.
"In this way, people can offer love and care to those in need, while recipients can get decent help," Chen added.
Like restaurants selling suspended meals, advocates of grassroots charity are building up across the country.
Since 2009, He Zhuoyuan, the owner of a Cantonese restaurant in Xi'an, has been selling 1-yuan meals to local people who are over 80 years old and have no family.
Following in He's footsteps, many other restaurants, barbershops, pharmacies and other businesses decided to offer needy seniors services for just 1 yuan.
Earlier this year in east China's Zhejiang province, several students from Wenzhou University called on local college students to help migrant workers buy rail tickets, enabling many migrant workers to make it home during the Spring Festival travel rush.
While the grassroots suspended lunch initiative is gaining wide approval, it is also prompting doubt and concern.
Customers at restaurants offering suspended meals and web users have raised questions like whether the restaurant owners take advantage of the scheme to get some free publicity or if they pocket the money. There has also been concern about whether the meals are reaching the proper people or if frauds are grabbing them, instead.
"If I buy suspended meals, I want to know if they will really go into the hands of the disadvantaged," said Zhang Wen, a frequent patron of Gao's restaurant.
Microblogger "Xianzaocheng" said restaurants need to carry out monitoring measures to make sure no one takes advantage of the gesture.
To eliminate doubt, Gao keeps a purchase record.
Meanwhile, volunteers registered the microblog account "daiyongkuaican," which translates to "suspended meals" in Chinese, and set up an official website (www.daiyongkuaican.org) to track and publish participants' information in an effort to create transparency.
"It would be better if these restaurants teamed up to nail down rules," said Jia Xijin, an associate professor with the School of Public Policy and Management of Tsinghua University.
"After all, charity must be bound not only by moral ties but also legal ones," said Jia.