The annual hunt and slaughter of hundreds of dolphins in the Japanese village of Taiji has begun, and China's growing ranks of animal lovers aren't happy about it.
Taking their cue from the Oscar-winning 2009 documentary, “The Cove,” a blood-soaked account of the massacre, Chinese have taken to posting images, video and — if they're news editors — stories and editorials about the event. “Japan Stages Bloody 'Dolphin Bay' Hunt: Several Hundred Trapped Dolphins Face Massacre,” reads one representative headline, as posted to a video site run by People's Daily, the official, self-described mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.
Enthusiasm for this story owes much to rising levels of anti-Japanese sentiment in China, of course, and a concerted effort by the Chinese government to scrape off some of the shine from Japan's global image. Footage of Japanese fishermen slaughtering the aquatic equivalent of Bambi helps the regime's cause immensely.
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to ascribe Chinese outrage over the Taiji slaughter to politics alone. In recent years there's been a noticeable shift in Chinese attitudes — at least in newspapers, on microblogs and, at the official level, in Beijing — toward the protection of endangered, or just plain cute, species.
State-controlled Chinese news media outlets, for instance, have heavily covered recent Chinese and international crackdowns on the poaching of elephants and the sale of their tusks in Hong Kong and China — the latter the world's largest market for illicit ivory. Most notable was the intensive news media coverage of the Jan. 6 destruction — using what looked like wood chippers — of more than six tons of confiscated ivory in Dongguan, China. The spectacle was held publicly in order to “demonstrate the country's determination to discourage illegal ivory trade, protect wildlife and raise public awareness,” wrote Xinhua, the state newswire, in a photo essay capturing the event.
No doubt the intended audience was international as well as domestic. The slaughter and poaching of favored animals — endangered or not (and the elephants certainly are) — is a sure way to be labeled “inhumane” by developed Western countries, animal activists and pet owners. China knows this sting better than most, in part due to its devastating trade in shark fins for human consumption, an affinity for meats that others prefer as cute pets, and the extensive use of endangered species (and non-endangered species) in the practice of traditional Chinese medicine.
Significantly, Chinese attitudes toward these affronts to non-Chinese sensibilities are changing rapidly, aided by China's transformation from an agrarian culture which views animals in utilitarian terms, to one in which a burgeoning middle class embraces pet ownership and transforms the most expensive dogs into status symbols. (Between 2001 and 2007, Beijingers expanded the city's pet dog population from 100,000 to 1.5 million.) Exposes of animal cruelty are popular topics in Chinese newspapers, excitedly driving comments and microblog posts.
Though Chinese attitudes toward acts as different as finning sharks and extracting ivory from elephants naturally vary, the overall tenor of online discussion tends — predictably — toward outrage. Take, for example, a Jan. 6 tweet to Sina Weibo by the official account of the Southern Metropolitan Daily, an independent-minded newspaper in Guangzhou, a city renowned (or notorious) for its live exotic animal markets. The paper posted graphic images of ivory-driven elephant slaughter in Africa and wrote:
“Ivory constitutes one-third of a skull, and to keep it intact most poachers will cut it off entirely! Even if the elephant is pregnant the poachers won't let it slip by! Human greed has claimed the lives of 1 million elephants. Save the elephants, say no to ivory!”
The tweet has been forwarded (or retweeted, in Twitter terms) more than 56,000 times — a remarkably strong show of support, especially at a time when Sina Weibo is losing cachet and users.
Has growing Chinese public outrage had any impact on the trade in species, endangered or no? Last year, public outrage at bear bile extraction forced a company that specialized in the practice to withdraw its initial public offering, while growing public awareness of the negative consequences of shark finning (combined with a crackdown on shark fin-loving corrupt Chinese officials) does appear to have contributed to a decline in the reprehensible practice.
Nevertheless, old habits and mindsets are difficult to change. Earlier this week, two intrepid Hong Kong investigators uncovered a mainland China slaughterhouse devoted to the illegal harvesting of endangered whale sharks in settings as horrific as anything documented in “The Cove.” Based on the Chinese-language website maintained by the slaughterhouse, it seems obvious that the market for its brutally acquired fins was, in fact, Chinese.
Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is the author of “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamMinter.