NGOs urged to step up presence in China

Published on
October 3, 2011

According to a key campaigner for seafood sustainability in China, international NGOs aren’t engaging enough with China’s government, which he said is keen for help in shaping a more sustainable seafood sector.

Non-profits continue to take a “wrong, aggressive” approach on China, said Steve Trent, whose WildAid group recently ran an Aquaculture Awareness Week in conjunction with China’s Fisheries Protection Bureau and the Ministry of Agriculture. Trent said both bodies are keen for engagement and training but “there’s not enough engagement of government, academia and local NGOs.”

October is a busy month for organizations campaigning for sustainability in China’s seafood consumption — the week-long Chinese National Day is a favorite time for Chinese weddings, during which expensive seafood dishes like shark fin soup and abalone are served to guests.

Trent said Chinese fisheries officials charged with improving sustainability locally are especially keen for help with research and communications from international bodies, including NGOs. He said Chinese officials are looking for analyses of scientific data and cutting-edge communications techniques used by groups like WildAid. The U.S.-based NGO has been given enviable access to state-controlled TV in China as well as key urban locations for video and print advertisements. WildAid spots run on the advertising screens common in office buildings, taxis and airports in Shanghai, the country’s business hub. 

As the country’s domestic seafood consumption rapidly catches up with its export volumes, China has become the focus of groups seeking to improve sustainability of aquaculture here. Yet there are clearly limits to their influence. Though it has been keen for expertise that NGOs offer, China continues to keep local and international campaigning groups on a tight leash by denying their right to register as non-profits (most foreign NGOs operate as business representative offices), thus also depriving the right to fundraise locally.

However, other seafood-focused international bodies taking a collaborative approach to government with Chinese authorities have found that solid relations to government can also lead to financial backing. Han Han, program director-China at Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, said proper communication with local government — “getting people to know us” as well as listening to local needs — is crucial in getting cooperation and even financial support.

The Sustainable Fisheries Partnership has received funding from the provincial government in Hainan, an island province near Vietnam, for a program training local fish farmers in sustainable tilapia production. Clearly keen on the program’s goals to skill farmers in producing fish of higher quality and value, local officials named the project one of its Key International Cooperation Projects in 2010. Demonstration farms and monitoring stations established under the program have also been visited by the China National Technical System of Tilapia Industry, a body under the agriculture ministry.

Just as governments give access to the production side, getting access to China’s vast consumer base is also vital to groups seeking to change consumption patterns. Trent said WildAid’s campaign to discourage shark fin consumption has helped drive the product’s consumption in China to a standstill. The NGO recruitment of one of China’s best known figures, basketball star Yao Ming, has paid off — “high-end” surveys conducted by WildAid have shown that up to 90 percent of targeted Chinese consumers groups have been reached through the campaign.

While he’s encouraged by the interest from government bodies in sustainability, Trent hasn’t seen any regulatory moves to protect species in Asia. Another recruit to the WildAid cause, steel tycoon and Communist Party legislator Ding Liguo has so far been unsuccessful in his efforts to table a ban on shark fin consumption at the annual gathering of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature.

Hotels and restaurants are the next focus for Wildaid’s China campaign. While boutique Shanghai chain Urban Hotel has ended shark fin service, many major hotel chains have been reluctant to pull shark fin from their menus given the money to be made — a bowl of sharks fin soup retails for up to USD 100 and is served as a sign of respect by wealthy families to their guests, particularly in China’s wealthiest southern region. In northerly Beijing, however, Jin Ding Xuan, a popular restaurant chain, has axed shark fin from its menu as part of a greening of its corporate image. 

Trent believes that shark fin consumption is at a standstill. But with 250 million new consumers coming into the urban middle class, the pressure to reduce shark fin consumption is at a critical juncture.

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