Our Burning Planet


A sea change in China’s attitude towards wildlife exploitation may just save the planet

A sea change in China’s attitude towards wildlife exploitation may just save the planet
Six out of every 10 infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic (spread from animals) and seven out of 10 of emerging or re-emerging infections are vector-borne or zoonotic. (Photo: Still from Eye of the Pangolin)

In a global environmental leadership void created by US President Donald Trump, China could emerge as an unlikely saviour.

In the summer of 1966, Chairman Mao Zedong, China’s Communist Party leader, swam across the Yangtze River in Wuhan, Hubei’s provincial capital. In tow? Hundreds of other swimmers, his bodyguards and an armada of waterborne installations celebrating, among others, the hale-and-hearty 72-year-old’s virile image.

TIME Magazine would dub the swim one of the cult figure’s “greatest acts of political theatre”. It was the machismo roar that led millions of his followers through the blowing winds and beating waves of the hyper-violent Cultural Revolution. It also set a *putative world record with a catchy ring: 15km in 65 minutes.

Last week, Wuhan provided the first act to another possible revolution when China announced that buying and selling wild animals for food was now thoroughly banned.

A Wuhan wildlife “wet” market — so named for its thrills and spills of animal slaughter, often live — had forced Beijing to make the call. Authorities had traced the deadly Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak to unsanitary conditions at the market — a cog in a multibillion-dollar trade before a temporary ban was slapped on the industry in January.

‘Most monumental announcement’ since ivory ban

Declared by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature, the ban may be tighter, but it is not yet clear if it is permanent.

Nonetheless, conservationists have praised it as a potential turning point in a decades-long activist campaign to choke an industry that not only holds non-human life to ransom. Threatening to quarantine much of the human planet, the outbreak has taken 2,800-plus human lives in China and sickened 87,000-plus people globally.

The ban’s new rules include forbidding the consumption of all terrestrial animals, wild and captive; and making hunting, transporting and trading wildlife a criminal offence. They also seek to refine which animals can be used for science, medicine and display; and recognise the need to support producers affected by the ban.

Offenders may be fined up to 50,000 yuan (around $7,000) for eating wildlife; and “people running wildlife businesses” may have to cough up as much as 200,000 yuan. Licences would be revoked, official state news agency Xinhua noted.

“China’s statements indicate a sea change in the government’s attitude towards wildlife exploitation since the 2002-03 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic. This is reflected in changed public values,” WildAid CEO Peter Knights told Daily Maverick. Knights has had some success lobbying the Chinese government after his organisation joined forces with basketball icon Yao Ming to raise awareness of the destructive shark-fin trade. The consumption of shark-fin soup has fallen by more than 80% in recent years.

“This is China’s most monumental announcement since it banned ivory in 2017,” Humane Society International said in a statement. The “decision has the potential to affect even more animals, because of the sheer volume and number involved in the wildlife trade”.

The welfare organisation hailed the move as China’s “most decisive action yet”. It “elevates the ban from administrative action to the level of national law”.

TRAFFIC, the wildlife-trade monitoring network, praised “China’s firm and targeted measures”.

A boiling point in the political pressure cooker

The urgency for a comprehensive ban had piled on Beijing in early February when Chinese scientists announced the makings of a perfect storm: the pangolin, said to be among the world’s most trafficked and endangered mammals, might be an intermediate carrier of Covid-19.

On the same day, Daily Maverick broke the news that the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas had isolated the critically endangered Malayan (Sunda) pangolin (Manis javanica) as a possible vector. 

Both teams — who worked independently for separate institutions — cautioned the findings were preliminary and still due for peer review. The initial Chinese findings, which have since been revealed to focus on an aspect of the virus rather than the whole genome as initially stated, have been challenged by some scientists.

Even so, the two announcements represented the publication of similar research by independent teams at virtually the same time, helping to catapult the species’ plight into an international talking point. The debate provoked fears that ne’er-do-wells may retaliate and kill pangolins. However, it also prompted calls to harness the charismatic scaly animals as a flagship to end the trade for good.

Formally declaring the ban’s stricter measures, Xinhua illustrated its report with an image of a Sunda pangolin. The decision aimed “to safeguard ecological safety” — although it is likely that pangolin scales will still be consumed under medicinal regulations. Campaigners are not happy about this.

An update to the state news report changed the wording from “ecological safety” to “ecological security” — this may be taken as a signal that the Standing Committee is eager to show the ban is not just a conservation decision, but a security decision, too. As a 2019 climate report by the US Department of Defence shows, there is military recognition at the highest levels of government that fundamental threats to ecological security endanger human safety in the most existential sense of the word.

These are all contributing factors that show Beijing may enforce a permanent ban of a trade that has repeatedly enabled a petri dish for outbreaks with cumulative costs of which are running into billions of dollars.

Or, in the case of Covid-19, potentially $1-trillion.

Bird flu. Swine flu. Ebola. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome. SARS. Each of these zoonotics cuts a forensic trail to people who interacted with sick or dead animals at some point.

“This crisis has done more for conservation than all western NGOs have achieved in decades of being in China and spending billions,” said Karl Ammann, an investigative journalist and activist whom a 1999 New York Times article names as the “chief nemesis of the bushmeat trade, and persona non grata to governments whose indifference he exposes”. In the 1990s and 2000s, Ammann blew the lid off the consumption of primate bushmeat, the source of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) that mutated into human HIV.

As long as this ban is permanent, simple to understand and gets the full weight of the Standing Committee’s authority, China could even find itself in a favourable position: besides the European Union, it would be the most influential superpower with a multilateral conservation approach at a time that geopolitics, and long-term collective interest, demand just this.

In fact, US President Donald Trump’s controversial attempts to create a policy environment that puts industry above sustainability may hand Chinese President Xi Jinping the opportunity to define himself in opposition to a dearth of US environmental leadership. This, despite vocal opposition on domestic soil to Trump’s policies by US civil society, the private sector and majority of lawmakers.

Usurping US dominance

Such a potential axis shift may have seemed a bridge too far in the pre-Covid-19 era — one in which former US president Barack Obama’s pro-environment, multilateral policies provided a useful counterpoint to criminals riding roughshod over China’s wildlife laws — and who continue to fan out across dwindling wilderness.

Indeed, there is no small irony to suggesting that the country which plunged the world into what may yet become a global shutdown could also lead a multilateral effort to revamp geopolitics.

There is also the country’s troubling human-rights record, which should presumably ring loudly in every person’s amygdala.

Yet, multilateral diplomacy could prove to be China’s metier as the Anthropocene clock reveals its biggest reckoning: that natural disaster does not respect sovereign borders.

“It’s antiquated to say China could not take a global environmental leadership role. The US looks at the next election. China looks 50 years ahead. Not many governments do that,” said Knights. 

“When you work on that timeline, you have to start taking global developments like climate change seriously — and much of the rest of the world is now looking for ‘long-view’ leadership. China, as the world’s superpower, is stepping into that void.”

Dr Peter J Li, associate professor of East Asian politics at the University of Houston-Downtown, Texas, echoed these views. He is also a China policy specialist with Humane Society International.

“President Xi has an opportunity to act in favour of global environmental protection. It is never too late for China to act. Xi can plan long-term development,” said Li. 

“Trump’s concentration is the next election. I don’t see environment and wildlife inside and outside the US as a concern for Trump.”

Trump’s strategy missteps range from the ecology to cutting back on the US State Department, added Knights.

The US officially leaves the UN Paris Climate Accord in November. By forfeiting the US seat at the world’s biggest climate round table, Trump, for better or worse, gives the world’s next-biggest single economy more clout to broker an exceedingly potent chapter in geopolitics — climate negotiations.

The move also hands China more power at the intersection of the world’s most influential — if flawed, critics say — environmental treaties: the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. These treaties are not formally connected, but species trade diplomacy is more important on a heating planet that may well simplify ecosystems.

Trump’s Paris departure, Knights pointed out, is “a real step back from all sorts of international engagement”.

Or, as an observer who did not want to be named lamented: “Yoh. Trump. He seems to be consciously and actively planning to trash the planet. You think he’s an alien who wants to get rid of unwanted life forms — us?”

China may be the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, but the European Commission’s vice-president, the Dutch socialist Frans Timmermans, told Daily Maverick during a visit to Cape Town this week that he was optimistically cautious about China’s potential to capitalise on shifting geopolitics.

“Even before Trump, China was decisive on reaching an agreement in Paris. It has built a reputation that it deserves as global leader,” said Timmermans, who heads up the European Union’s Green Deal. However, he was concerned the Covid-19 outbreak would hamper China’s ability to meet its Paris commitments. They are “sitting on the fence a bit”.

“It is clear there is a strong willingness of Chinese leadership to be part of those who go ahead … [It’s about] looking at the numbers and seeing whether they can afford it at this stage — given other international developments.”

‘No nationalist rhetoric will scare off a virus’

On the ballooning US debt bill — despite bullish claims of domestic economic growth — Timmermans was much starker.

“Look at the debt Trump is building up. That’s coming back at some point — if we reduce international relations to transactional relations between sovereign nations, we misunderstand the complete and integrated nature of today’s world,” he warned.

“There is no national border that is going to stop coronavirus. There is no level of nationalism in your rhetoric that is going to scare off a virus. This is not some foreigner’s fault. This is what happens in an integrated world and this is something we will have to face within the collective responsibility — and I think the climate crisis is the most important.”

Online watchdog Climate Action Tracker says China’s commitments are “highly insufficient”. However, the watchdog adds, as “the world’s largest consumer of coal and the largest developer of renewable energy — the choice [China] makes, domestically and abroad, between the technology of the past versus the renewable future will have a lasting effect on the world’s ability to limit warming to 1.5˚C”.

China’s charm offensive

Right now, a teensy viral villain is playing Russian roulette with one of the brightest feathers in Xi’s cap: lifting all 1.4-billion Chinese out of poverty.

That target is still within the central government’s reach, China’s South Africa Ambassador Lin Songtian insisted at a recent press conference. A forceful personality with a mischievous grin, the ambassador had been on a spirited tour throughout South Africa, hammering home a single maxim:

“Keep calm — China’s Communist Party has everything under control.”

Watching poverty alleviation disintegrate just beyond their fingertips may be too much for Beijing to bear. This is yet another contributing factor that plays into the possibility of a more sustained dusting down of criminal activity.

Said Ammann, who has spent decades documenting the dark side of trade in Asia’s backstreets:

“In China, face loss is worse than share prices declining by 50%.” 

At a junket in Bishopscourt, that Cape Town bastion of leafy privilege, there was hardly a crack in the veneer of the Chinese embassy’s well-oiled staff complement. If they felt under siege, this showed only in their eagerness to impress.

A driveway attendant gesticulated the press corps’ vehicles into an awkward line of double-parking. (Daily Maverick declined, later avoiding an international incident between journalists rushing out to be the first to file.)

Another staff member stood to attention in tie and suit with an open umbrella, providing shelter against a freak summer storm. Inside, a flotilla of media officers glided up to journalists, producing business cards and offering quotable insights, always polite.

While Daily Maverick interviewed the ambassador, they hovered nearby, afterwards admitting on the sly: “Our boss keeps us on our toes.” (That is public-relations talk for the challenges of “managing” an ambassador who does not always stick to the script).

“Pangolin is one of the endangered species, right? They are not allowed in the market like rhino horn is not allowed. The ivory product is not allowed. But unfortunately some snake … I mean how do people eat the bat!” the ambassador said, and laughed in italics at these apparent non-sequiturs. He shrugged, seemingly at a loss for words.“I don’t know.”

He underlined, frequently, that most “educated” Chinese — including his “own boy” studying in the US — disassociated themselves from the wildlife trade and its “old traditions”.

In January an online poll by the Peking University Centre for Nature Society found that 97% of some 100,000 participants were against eating wild animals. Nearly 80% rejected using wildlife products. Knights said the poll was “probably biased to more educated people, but, you know, that’s a large proportion of the Chinese population now.”

By contrast, 14 million people worked in wildlife and trade consumption before the ban, some media have suggested.

“A minority is still a minority; the majority have changed,” Lin said when Daily Maverick pointed out a minority in China could mean tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people.

“The dog is a member of the family. It’s the baby,” he continued. “Do something against the dog, people give you strange eyes.”

This embassy scene was hardly the tableau of an evil empire plotting to overthrow the planet with biological warfare, as some unsubstantiated conspiracy rumours have suggested.

Lin was upbeat about the prospects of a permanent ban.“It’s possible,” he said. “Of course.” 

A single spark, a prairie fire

If authorities’ recent crackdown is a harbinger, the results of a permanent ban could be impressive, even if more trade goes underground amid deeply held cultural preferences and newer fads, which criminals are good at inventing. (This is what Ammann warns about in his 2018 investigation on the rhino-horn trade.)

Some 5-10% of what was going on legally will carry on underground. People do things illicitly for reasons ranging from avoiding taxes to health regulations,” added Knights. 

“But a main argument for a blanket ban is that it’s easy for everybody to understand. Anyone can enforce it. The key is public education. Keeping the law simple and clear.”

So far, Chinese authorities say they have closed down some 20,000 wildlife farms; 2,550-plus people have been “punished” for wildlife crimes, reported state news. Online, “750,000 pieces of information about wildlife trade were removed or blocked”, while “17,000 online stores or accounts were closed”. Secret codes would be “screened out”.

Knights hoped China would also play a role to help “countries around the world. It’s no good simply banning the trade in China. The same risks are very much out there in Asia as well as Africa.”

Current revisions also create the platform for lawmakers to revisit critical omissions in anti-cruelty legislation. Updates would go further to prevent the conditions that tolerate unsanitary practices, Li suggested.

China does NOT have an anti-cruelty law,” he stressed. One reason is “strong opposition from the country’s business interests for fear such a law would slow economic growth”.

Legislative details of how the full ban will express itself in real terms are likely to emerge in the coming days and weeks.

A single spark can start a prairie fire, one that renews rather than destroys.

“This coronavirus and the global public health crisis have created a situation that vilifies all Chinese in the eyes of some people outside the country,” said Li. “Most embarrassing to the government is that the country’s wildlife policy has been controlled by business interests.”

He wryly suggested China could present its “soft power” to the world: “A more powerful soft power than presenting panda bears.”

For his part, Ammann had little time for ban fanfare. He had predicted the government would prohibit the trade just before it announced the ban.

“Yes, they will outlaw the wet markets,” he quipped. “They are happy for trade to go even more underground than it has always been.”

But even a cynic like Ammann can still dream.

“We will be in a border enclave on the Laos side soon and will see if anything has changed. I doubt it.”

Then he typed in the rough, unpunctuated hand of someone with too much to do.

“But let’s face it what is happening now is what is needed if the planet is meant to have a chance.” DM

*Mao’s historical swim may be comparable — in distance only — to the 18km stretch between Cape Town’s Clifton Beach and Robben Island, conquered in a record of just under four hours in 1987. Event reports would thank a powerful current for aiding Mao’s remarkable performance. He was, by all accounts, an accomplished swimmer. However, international endurance swimmer Ryan Stramrood noted that a 72-year-old is not likely to cross the Yangtze at a rate faster than 5.8km/h, even when it is in full flow. 

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