My angst over China’s role in the endangered wildlife trade

China must turn its back on the trade in endangered wildlife like tigers, elephants, chimpanzees and sharks, says IFAW's Grace Gabriel
The recent meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) seriously challenged my mental tolerance.

To be honest, I had long expected the international community to blame China for the runaway trade in ivory, which has been disastrous for Africa’s elephants. But what I really didn’t expect was that the criticisms levied at China were far, far more vehement than this: tigers, rhinoceros, chimpanzees, Saiga antelopes, sharks, tortoises,  pangolins… any endangered species you can think of, all trade in that their survival was linked to demand from Chinese people.

In environmental circles, “Eaten by China” has long been a more famous saying than “Made in China”. At this conference, “China” was one of the most frequently used keywords. Of course, this wasn’t being used in a good way. At the conference venue, in every delegate’s proposal on a species was an appeal to China to lower its consumption of endangered species: a documentary playing on the sidelines of the conference said that the two Chinese characters for “ivory” have become a word that every African vendor now knows how to say.

A visit by a Chinese group to a country can surprisingly raise the local price of ivory. According to statistics from Kenya’s wildlife protection bureau, every year 95% of those who are caught smuggling ivory out of Nairobi Airport are Chinese people.

I am left speechless by this kind of Chinese cultural “export” to the world. As a Chinese person myself, I have very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I feel ashamed for China becoming a target of criticism from all sides. But on the other hand, I am eagerly hoping that threats to species’ survival can be solved as soon as possible.  

In the middle of this mixture of shame and impatience is indignation. Even though the facts are clear and the evidence is ample, facing censure from the international community, still we have officials disregarding China’s international role and image, turning a blind eye to wildlife in crisis, and finding all sorts of pretexts to shirk their responsibilities.

No matter what corner of the world you are in, as a Chinese person you will always be happy for every little bit of progress that China makes, and you feel more confident because your nation is powerful. For all Chinese people, “China” no longer simply means a certain special kind of political landscape and 960 square kilometres of mainland territory. “China” is a kind of relationship that anyone whose “roots and lifeblood” come from here or whose “leaves and branches” grew here cannot cut themselves away from. 
In New York’s famous Time’s Square, we saw China’s national image advertisement broadcast over and over again. It was unprecedentedly imposing. Of course the cost to broadcast this kind of ad at the centre of the world would be considerable. But, can money can really buy an image upgrade? Can it buy other people’s approval of China?

As the world’s second-biggest economy, China certainly doesn’t lack political, economic, military and diplomatic hard power, but rather in knowing how to assimilate with the rest of the world and make other people genuinely respect and revere this civilized country’s values from their hearts. How China handles wildlife comes down to a question of its values. On the one hand, China is spending money on advertising, to buy respect, to buy approval, while on the other hand, it is spending money on buying wildlife, to buy abuse, and to buy insults.

What we need to note in particular is that this kind of large-scale trade and consumption of wildlife has never been part of Chinese “traditions” or “culture”.  It is the disastrous and abnormal consequences of today’s highly-industrialized chain of wildlife poaching, smuggling, transportation, and trade. Those engaged in the business and buyers have never been the public at large but rather a minority of people! Ivory collectors, those who drink tiger bone wine, eaters of shark’s fin soup, wearers of tortoiseshell, those who hang up polar bear’s heads, not a single one of them is a regular consumer from the general public. It is a handful of Chinese people with their extravagant requirements that have brought such disgrace and blame, but it is the country that must foot the bill.
Rejecting the consumption of wildlife is firstly a government matter. China must frankly and honestly face this issue, accept its responsibility bravely, not become deceitful, not pass the buck, firmly enforce existing laws, and strictly carry out laws and regulations, before it can properly establish a minimum standard of environmental ethics for society as a whole. A value system where profit is sought from using wild animal skins, bones and flesh, must be fundamentally transformed from within existing regulatory policies and legislation.

Using wild animals to satisfy a minority of people’s demands offers short-term and small gains. It infringes on the majority of people’s ecological benefits, it forfeits the nation’s interests and ruins its image, so that it loses its righteousness. There should be ample deliberation of this during government decision-making; it’s also not hard to weigh up the pros and cons.

Rejecting the consumption of wildlife is also every a matter for every Chinese person, to  control one’s desires, action must be taken now. Our 5,000 years of civilisation is brimming with knowledge and ethics on how to coexist with nature, and not about digging our own grave, and jeopardising our future with our arrogance and stupidity. 
Grace Gabriel is Asia Regional Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)