Persuading the Chinese to give up shark’s fin soup
Oct 1st 2011 | from the print edition
IS THE tide turning against shark’s fin soup? Conservationists certainly hope so. On September 22nd in Shanghai WildAid, a charity, launched a campaign to persuade Chinese people to give up eating the delicacy. Celebrity support for the bid was provided by Yao Ming, a Chinese basketball star, and Sir Richard Branson, a British business star. In California, meanwhile, a ban on the sale, trade and possession of sharks’ fins has been passed by the state senate, and awaits only the governor’s signature to become law.
The booming Chinese appetite for shark’s fin soup is known to be the driving force behind the depletion of shark species worldwide. Matt Rand, director of Global Shark Conservation at the Pew Environment Group, says that more than 30% of shark species are at risk of extinction. Marine ecosystems depend on the presence of high-level predators to keep other species in check, he says. Yet many Chinese accuse the campaigners of double standards. Why should shark’s fin, an important part of certain Chinese feasts, be banned, they ask? Why not ban bluefin tuna, which is also critically endangered, but more widely eaten by Westerners?
Lacking any inherent flavour, shark’s fin is treasured in China for its strandy, gelatinous “mouth feel”, its centuries-old status as a prized dish and its astronomical price. Serving it honours both host and guest. Most Westerners, unschooled in its pleasures, consider it a pointless delicacy. Juliet Eilperin, an American author, sums up the general Western viewpoint in “Demon Fish”, a book about sharks. A frond of fin, she says, is “a translucent, tasteless bit of noodle” and shark’s fin soup “one of the greatest scams of all time”. Eating it, Ms Eilperin suggests, is even more reprehensible than eating other morally objectionable foods such as delicious foie gras, because there is “no gastronomic pay-off”.
Celebrity endorsements and well-meaning Californians aside, the question now is whether wealthy Chinese in Asia can be persuaded to stop eating shark’s fin. Sceptics abound. Being lectured by Westerners on cultural or moral issues gets right up the noses of most Chinese. But if disapproval of the consumption of shark’s fin encourages the Chinese to see it as luo hou (backward), one of the most dreaded of all Chinese epithets, they might want to renounce the stuff anyway.
This has already happened with spitting in the streets, which many Chinese now regard as a backward habit. Eating dogs, too, is increasingly viewed as barbaric (a 600-year old dog-eating festival in eastern China was cancelled in September after public uproar). If the new Chinese elite can be persuaded that deliberately eating endangered species ill befits their aspirations to cosmopolitanism, there might be some hope for the sharks. Other threatened creatures that find their way, legally and illegally, into Chinese cooking pots could also be spared.
Already, farms are springing up outside Chinese cities to cater to more sophisticated Chinese consumers seeking out “green foods” such as free-range meat and poultry, or organically grown vegetables. Ethical and environmental concerns will surely follow. There are precedents for the disappearance of classic Chinese dishes on conservation grounds. Bear’s paw, for example, is no longer eaten openly. Instead, you may be offered imitation bear’s paw made from mutton pushed into a paw-shaped mould. Imitation shark’s fin is already available should anybody want it. And when the social cachet of a fabulously expensive delicacy is required, these days a bottle of Château Lafite might do.
Chasing the dragon
Oct 3rd 2011, 15:26 by The Economist online
How the Asian superpowers compare on various measures of development
IN THE recent Singapore Grand Prix, a car belonging to the Force India team reached the finish line just 111 seconds after the leader. Today’s chart uses a stopwatch to compare India’s progress in development against another pace-setter, China. The chart shows the number of years that have elapsed since China passed the development milestones that India has now reached. India’s income per head, for example, was about $3,200 in 2009 (holding purchasing power constant across time and between countries). China reached that level of development nine years ago. The lag in social progress is much longer. A child’s odds of surviving past their fifth birthday are as bad in India today as they were in China in the 1970s. Moreover, the chart does not necessarily imply that India in nine years’ time will be as rich as China is today. That is because China grew faster in the last nine years than India is likely to grow over the next nine. We stopped the clock at $3200 per head. But China did not stop racing ahead.