Consumers are finally losing their appetite for a Chinese delicacy that once carried great status, says Paul French
How things change. Just a few years ago, in 2011, Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball superstar and WildAid Ambassador, appeared in adverts screened in China calling on his fellow countrymen to stop eating shark fin soup. Yao himself had quit eating shark fin, a staple of upscale Chinese banquets and a major status symbol, back in 2006.
But despite his massive popularity and position as a representative of China globally, Yao was heavily criticised by many of China’s newly wealthy middle class who were just reaching a point where they could afford shark fin.
Online polls and comments showed that many people, despite awareness of the ecological and environmental problems of the shark fin trade, wanted to try the delicacy.
Like a BMW, a Louis Vuitton bag or a bottle of malt whisky, shark fin was one of the new signifiers of having “made it” in China.
Now, several unrelated factors in today’s China have created a perfect storm to drive down shark fin consumption. Chinese media report that shark fin sales have declined by as much as 80% over the past year, while prices have dropped by nearly 40%. Good news for sharks, of which an estimated 100m were being killed each year to provide fins for diners across Asia, according to WildAid.
A major reason for the decline in shark fin consumption is the ongoing crackdown on corruption by the administration of Xi Jinping. In 2012 Beijing announced that the shark fin trade would be phased out over three years, but, as pressure has built to crack down on officials squandering public money on high profile banquets, the total ban has been brought forward and came into effect at the start of 2014.
This has further depressed sales and largely forced them underground (where shark fin is still widely available). But already the fall in ostentatious banqueting had pummelled demand for shark along with other environmentally problematic delicacies such as bird’s nest and the abalone shellfish.
Campaign with teeth
The decline is also due to changing consumer attitudes and the success of campaigns seeking to persuade people to drop shark fin. WildAid’s message of “When the selling stops, the killing stops too” seems now to be penetrating consumers’ consciousness where before it met resistance.
A wide array of Chinese celebrities have joined the chorus and found a more willing audience than Yao Ming did previously.
Celebrities are still good ambassadors for changing attitudes in China, but it’s also true that trends away from shark fin for environmental reasons in influencing markets such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, where NGOs such as WWF-Hong Kong have long campaigned against the trade, have also helped shift opinion on the mainland.
Shark fins brought into Hong Kong have dropped by 34% since 2012, in part due to the success of the WWF-Hong Kong’s Say NO to Shark Fin campaign. A major part of this success, now being slowly replicated on the mainland, was that more than 200 Hong Kong catering businesses and restaurants participated in a no shark fin pledge and many have introduced alternative, shark-free menus.
Hong Kong is particularly crucial to reducing shark fin consumption as half of all fins traded globally pass through the city.
However, other traders in less environmentally aware markets, or less regulated markets, have continued to trade shark fins. Vietnam is now the largest importer of fins, surpassing China.
Of course there are two other factors in the demise of shark fin, alongside politics and campaigning. Firstly, there have been repeated fake shark fin scandals, with shark fin soup turning out to be mostly a mix of gelatin and mung beans in China. Consumers have not been amused and trust in the dish has collapsed.
Secondly, Chinese consumers are now feeling more confident in their tastes and less susceptible to being told what is good and what isn’t. Quite simply, many diners (including your own correspondent who has sat through many traditional banquets judiciously avoiding shark fin soup) have asked themselves what all the fuss and expense is about.
Status-giving it may be, a sign of material wealth it may be, but at the bottom of the bowl you’re left asking yourself why you paid so much for something that tastes of nothing.
Based in Shanghai and the UK, Paul French is an independent China analyst and writer.China column chinese consumers sharks WildAid