SHANGHAI – There was outrage last week when a well-respected, U.K.-based nongovernmental organization issued a report alleging that China’s presidential plane was used twice — in 2009 and 2013 — to smuggle ivory out of Tanzania.
While the charges remain unproven, they raised uncomfortable questions about whether associates of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping may have been flouting China’s international commitments to stem the trafficking of endangered species. China’s Foreign Ministry issued a quick and indignant denial. “China attaches great importance to protecting elephants and other wild animals,” a spokesperson told a press briefing in Beijing. “We have been cooperating with other countries in this area.”
It would be nice to believe this was true. For two decades at least, Chinese consumer demand has been directly linked to the precipitous decline of wildlife populations around the globe.
Unfortunately the problem seems only to be deepening as China’s wealth grows. In just the last two months — never mind the last two decades — several incidents have painted a depressing picture of a Chinese government choosing to ignore or even facilitate the flouting of international rules and regulations on protecting species. Among the low-lights:
In late September, China Tuna Fishing Group, a state-subsidized tuna fishing company that is China’s largest by sales, withdrew its Hong Kong initial public offering after Greenpeace publicly noted that the prospectus claimed China had exceeded international fishing quotas for endangered bigeye tuna between 2009 and 2012. Even worse, the same document baldly stated that the Chinese government had never punished a Chinese company for noncompliance with international quotas, implying that there was no reason to believe it ever would.
In late October, China joined with Russia to scuttle the creation of an Antarctic marine reserve that would have been the largest in the world.
China “challenged almost every conservation mandate that was presented,” according to one delegate to a two-week convention discussing the reserve, which had been in the works for more than three decades.
For the last two weeks, Japan Coast Guard ships have been playing a cat-and-mouse game with Chinese poachers of endangered corals in Japanese waters. The Chinese government, which has in the past accompanied and protected Chinese fishermen in politically sensitive waters, promised on last Wednesday to take action.
As of Saturday at least 30 suspected poaching boats were reportedly still active in Japanese waters.
Anyone who’s paid attention to China’s blueprint for development over the last three decades shouldn’t be surprised that Beijing prioritizes economic interests — fishermen, coral smugglers — over environmental ones. China’s notorious air pollution is, in large part, the result of this kind of thinking.
But unlike smog — which, despite its drift as far away as California, still afflicts China more than other countries — conservation is by definition a global issue. By flouting global conservation efforts — and indeed, its own commitment to agreements such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna — China dramatically reduces biodiversity stocks for the world at large.
The question is what regulators can do about it. China is sensitive to international opinion on the subject, and officials face at least some internal pressure from Chinese conservationists who abhor the illegal-wildlife trade. Public shaming and public education campaigns have changed Chinese consumer behavior to some degree.
Yet, without support of the people who ride on Chinese presidential planes, such campaigns won’t be able to stem the precipitous decline in global wildlife and biodiversity. Changing the attitudes and behavior of those individuals will require time and a willingness among conservation and governmental organizations such as Interpol to name and shame violators. Meanwhile, for China, the choice is simple: Finally live up to its rhetoric about saving the world’s species, or forever be associated with the consequences of ignoring it.
Adam Minter is an American writer based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture, business and junk. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade.”
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