Well, perhaps the tide is now turning in China as well. But it seems that this is being brought about less by environmental campaigns and TV ads by Yao Ming, and more by Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. In a recent article published on Sina, US shark conservationist Angelo Villagomez claimed that,
the decline in demand for shark fins over the past year was not directly linked to increasing shark protection by Pacific island governments. Instead, it was related to the Chinese leadership’s crackdown on graft and its opposition to extravagance. “It’s not to do with conservation. It’s related to a Chinese government anti-graft crackdown, which has cut back on dinners where shark fin soup was featured on the menu,” Villagomez said.
According to Wang Xue, of the Beijing-based ‘China Zero Shark Fin’ campaign, about 100 million yuan was being spent each year on shark fins in Beijing alone. But in July 2012, shark fin soup was banned at Chinese government banquets. As a result, consumption of shark fins has dropped some 70% since the end of 2012.
While we can all applaud – on behalf of the sharks – Xi Jinping’s crackdown, the culinary dimensions of China’s anti-corruption drives are nothing new. Mao Zedong famously restricted the diets of Party cadres from the earliest days of the revolution. Food has long been one of the most symbolic means by which China’s leaders have differentiated themselves from the ‘masses’, and so food becomes a symbolic means by which to also target those differences. China’s restaurants have always born the brunt of China’s anti-corruption campaigns. But their loss is the Hammerhead’s gain.
In a recent article, the economist Sun Xiaoji berated China’s leaders for their wasteful, luxury consumption. He accused them of barbaric and primitive ‘wild consumption’ (野蛮消费): “this kind of behaviour is often associated with humanity’s most primitive and irrational forms of consciousness. Debauchery, carnival, waste, large-scale ceremonies, etc. these acts are precisely what Western ‘Rational’ thinking has rejected since the Enlightenment.” Sun goes on to claim that when China has a true middle class, which is characterized by ‘rational’ consumption and a ‘sense of shame’, ‘wild consumption’ will decline. Sun’s moralizing view is shared by many of China’s prominent intellectuals, and I point it out here merely to illustrate the fact that Xi Jinping’s crackdown is spurred by a long tradition of elite moralism concerning extravagant consumption in China. In other words, it is not environmental conservation that is driving the shark’s rebound, but a much deeper and longer term historical process.