Don’t Get Too Excited About China’s Ivory Ban

Enforcement of the laudable rule will remain an issue, while ivory demand in countries like Japan and the U.S. is actually rising.

A policeman stands befoe a pile of ivory waiting to be crushed as workers destroy ivory during a public event in Dongguan, south China's Guangdong province on January 6, 2014. China crushed a pile of ivory reportedly weighing over six tonnes on January 6, in a landmark event aimed at shedding its image as a global hub for the illegal trade in African elephant tusks.   CHINA OUT     AFP PHOTO        (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)
A policeman stands befoe a pile of ivory waiting to be crushed as workers destroy ivory during a public event in Dongguan, south China's Guangdong province on January 6, 2014. China crushed a pile of ivory reportedly weighing over six tonnes on January 6, in a landmark event aimed at shedding its image as a global hub for the illegal trade in African elephant tusks. CHINA OUT AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

On New Year’s Eve, Beijing announced it will ban the ivory trade in China, potentially shutting down the world’s biggest ivory market. Why did Beijing decide to curb the ivory trade? Will it put enough muscle behind it to enforce the decision? What impact will the ban have on elephant poaching? — The ChinaFile Editors

Eric Olander, Founder of the China Africa Podcast:

Hooray! The Chinese government finally came to its senses and announced that after 2017 it will no longer be legal to sell or trade ivory. Beijing’s announcement was long overdue and highly anticipated, particularly among Western wildlife conservationists who pegged a Chinese ivory ban as the last best hope to save what’s left of Africa’s rapidly shrinking elephant population.

China is by far the world’s largest market for ivory where, until the end of 2017, five tons of ivory have been permitted to be sold every year. The problem is that demand for ivory in China averages somewhere around 100 tons annually and it’s been impossible to segregate the limited amount of legal ivory from the black market supplies that have flooded the market. With so much ivory circulating in China, according to critics, the demand for ivory products will remain strong, which is why activists have spent years lobbying Chinese officials to eliminate this grey area with a total ban on all ivory sales.

The thinking here is that “when the buying stops, the killing can too” and while that catchy tag line is obviously very compelling in its simplicity, the reality is that China’s announced ban alone will not be enough to stop this bloody trade. Well beyond 2017, China will likely continue to be a lucrative market for what will now be exclusively illegal ivory. Corruption and weak rule of law in China will act as lubricants among the highly organized international crime syndicates who will easily import this illicit precious resource. Even if Chinese authorities are successful in cracking down, neighboring countries like Vietnam will also serve as new gateways for ivory traders to transit their cargo across the border.

Just as a 30-year-old “War on Drugs” in the United States did absolutely nothing to stem the flow of illegal drugs into America’s cities, there is little reason that a similar ban on a valuable product such as ivory will produce a different outcome in China.

Let’s also not forget that although China is far and away the world’s largest ivory market, it is by no means the only one. The ivory trade remains legal in Japan, the U.S. is the world’s second-largest destination for illegal ivory, and demand in emerging markets like VietnamThailand, and other Southeast Asian nations is actually going up. Unfortunately, in so many of these countries, cracking down on illegal wildlife traffickers is not a high political priority, especially since there is evidence that senior government officials themselves are actually complicit in the trade.

Weak governance on environmental and animal conservation issues is not just a problem in Asia but also in Africa, where sophisticated crime syndicates, working in collusion with corrupt officials, are believed to be behind the vast majority of elephant poaching on the continent. The inability, and in some cases unwillingness, of governments in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and elsewhere to do more to root out corruption should become the new priority in the fight to save Africa’s increasingly vulnerable elephant community.

I am personally thrilled that Chinese authorities have finally come to their senses to enact this historic policy to outlaw the sale of ivory. We should all commend President Xi Jinping and the State Council for enacting what is no doubt a controversial and difficult policy change given the significant cultural importance that ivory has had over thousands of years of Chinese history. Our celebrations, though, should be short-lived and expectations should be modest. For even in the short time that it’s taken me to write this post (less than an hour), two more elephants were violently murdered for their tusks. Long after China’s ban takes effect beginning in 2018, the killing will go on and so should the fight to save these beautiful animals.

Peter J. Li, Associate Professor, University of Houston-Downtown:

China’s announcement that it would shut down its domestic ivory trade by the end of 2017 is arguably the greatest New Year’s gift to the world’s conservation community and those who have lobbied Beijing for years for this policy change.

Ivory is no ordinary commodity in China. Like giant pandas, ivory carvings used to be state gifts to foreign governments and the United Nations. Chopsticks made of ivory were used at official catering events honoring distinguished foreign guests. Stunning ivory artworks graced the living rooms of state guesthouses. To the Chinese ivory-carving industry, the skills to create ivory artworks are part of the Chinese culture. China’s decision to phase out the controversial trade goes far beyond conservation. The decision is indicative of a new Chinese attitude towards traditional culture, international public opinion, and an increasingly diversified Chinese society.

China’s domestic ivory trade has drawn much international criticism. For years, the ivory businesses has resorted to a cultural defense of its interests. Questioning ivory carving, in the eyes of these defenders, is tantamount to questioning Chinese culture. Beijing’s December 29 announcement is a resounding break from the cultural position. It takes courage for Beijing to take action on a product and the production skills promoted as “intangible cultural heritage.” However, Chinese culture has long been evolving. It grew stronger by ending human sacrifice, infanticide, foot-binding, and arranged marriage, traditional practices that were once zealously defended by the country’s conservative forces. Culture is not stagnant. Culture of any country can never be a justification for practices that run counter to the common interest of humanity.

As the main destination of transnational trafficking of ivory, China has been the target of global campaigns. Foreign dignitaries, international conservation and animal protection NGOs, and concerned citizens around the world have appealed to the Chinese leaders to act for elephants. Barely 40 years ago, this kind of global pressure would have been condemned as Western cultural aggression and foreign interference. The policy change is a testament to the new receptiveness of the Chinese leadership to international public opinion. As an aspiring superpower, China needs the policy change to project its “soft power” in international politics.

Beijing’s policy change could not have happened without domestic public support. Basketball star Yao Ming has not just told the Chinese ivory collectors the truth of elephant slaughter; his towering prestige and moral messages may have silenced the most agitated defenders of the country’s ivory industry. In the last two decades, China has seen the expansion of an animal protection movement. Animal lovers are among the most vocal of the Chinese interest groups. They conducted public education, lobbied Chinese legislators, submitted petitions, and held press events to call for an end to the ivory trade. They have helped neutralize the remaining opposition to the government’s new policy. The support the government received for the new policy from the autonomous groups should have provoked a review of the role of civil society. Policy-making can no longer be the sole privilege of the Party elites. Civic groups are no threat to the authorities. They can be an important source of support for new policy initiatives.


Eric Olander is the founder of the China Africa Project and co-host of the weekly China in Africa Podcast.
Peter J. Li is an Associate Professor at the University of Houston-Downtown. His research focuses on China’s animal welfare policies and the country’s animal protection movement at a time of rapid social transformation.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola