Bear battle in China

In the latest animal welfare row, traditional medicine lobbyists and anti-cruelty campaigners have been trading bitter blows over the treatment of bears. Zhang Ke reports.

China’s long-running and vicious debate over the extraction of bile from live bears has escalated to new levels following a press conference in Beijing that sought to discredit groups campaigning against the practice. Combined with a renewed attempt by a Fujianese bear-bile products manufacturer to go public, the event has given new impetus to the war of words between those who advocate the use of bear bile in traditional Chinese medicine and animal-welfare activists.

On February 16, the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine gathered together more than 100 journalists for a speech by the body’s head, Fang Shuting. Fang told the assembled crowd that previous reports about the practice of drawing bile from live bears had greatly exaggerated the animals’ suffering and certain organisations had used gory photos to mislead the public and malign the bear-farming industry. The philosophy of the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine was, he said, scientific conservation, rational use and sustainable development.

Since early 2011, when campaigners brought the methods used to draw bear bile for Chinese medicine to public attention, condemnation of the industry has been fierce. Last year’s failed bid by south Chinese pharmaceuticals firm Guizhentang to list on Hong Kong’s alternative stock market, the Growth Enterprise Market, also stirred concerns. Members of the public and animal-welfare organisations voiced strong opposition to the attempted flotation, while tens of thousands joined the debate online.

Late last year, the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine released a statement in defence of the bear bile industry. Its focus of attack was Hong Kong-based charity Animals Asia Foundation and its main message that the campaign against the extraction of bear bile had been motivated by self-interest. This month, Animals Asia Foundation responded with an open letter to the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine refuting the accusations. And so the war of words got under way.

Extracts from Fang Shuting’s speech at last Thursday’s press conference have been widely quoted on the internet: “The process of collecting bile is like turning on a tap: easy, natural and painless. After it’s over, the bears just go and play happily outside. I don’t think there’s anything abnormal about it! It could even be quite comfortable!” Many internet users expressed their amazement at these comments.

An earlier public statement from the association said: “The farming of rare animals to make Chinese traditional medicines dispensed with outdated technologies such as iron vests and tube drainage 10 years ago.
In fact, bear farms that do not conform to standards are prohibited by the government. Moreover, the Chinese traditional medicine industry and its practitioners oppose them.”

Guizhentang is one of China’s largest manufacturers of bear-bile products and the biggest owner of captive black bears in southern China.
Reports early last year that it was planning an initial public offering provoked fierce opposition. Jia Baolan, a member of the National Committee of parliamentary body the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (NPCCC), submitted a proposal calling for a national ban on extracting bile from living bears. Under intense public pressure, the listing was shelved.

But Guizhentang didn’t abandon its IPO plans.

The firm has been carrying out a quiet public relations campaign on its website, publishing articles that defend the use of bear bile. Posts have included statements such as: “Animal-derived drugs have become a strategic reserve for the development of China’s traditional medicine; they are clinically irreplaceable,” and “A combination of pens and free-range methods has resolved issues around black bear captivity. Bear bile components can be effectively used in 123 kinds of Chinese patent medicines.” Another said: “Nowadays, China’s bear farming industry meets scientific standards, but it has been maliciously discredited and vilified.”

In a public statement, the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine backed the firm’s stance, emphasising the economic power of the industry. It said that China has 68 licensed black-bear farms and this figure is steadily rising. Close to 20,000 captive bears provide bile to 183 traditional Chinese medicine companies, which use it to produce 153 different products. Bear farming is a mainstay of the Chinese medicine industry and products using bear bile include big names like Pian Zi Huang and Bear Bile Heart Tonic Pills. Such brands have a competitive edge in the global pharmaceutical industry, it said.

The statement also directly attacked Animals Asia Foundation: “This organisation, financially backed by western interest groups and founded by a British woman, has, under the pretext of animal protection, long been engaged in a propaganda exercise against China’s black-bear farms and renowned Chinese traditional medicine enterprises.”

The charity’s goals, the statement said, are to “coerce China into banning bear farms, restrict the use of bear bile as an ingredient in medicines, weaken the competitiveness of the Chinese medicine industry and help western interest groups corner the Chinese market in liver- and bile-based drugs.”

It went on: “Once China’s bear farming industry has been defeated, then Animals Asia Foundation’s next target will be musk. One by one, farms raising animals for medicines and the companies that make those medicines will be viciously attacked and undermined. Some 153 different drugs containing bear bile will disappear and with them 183 pharmaceutical companies with an annual market value of more than 10 billion yuan [US$1.6 billion]. Tens of thousands of workers will lose their jobs.”  

The view that western groups are simply stirring trouble appears have spread widely in the industry.
An insider who asked not to be named said: “Originally, Guizhentang had the idea that, after it listed on the stock market, it would further improve protection for black bears by integrating resources. It even envisaged establishing a wildlife protection fund. It is because they [animal rights groups] are afraid access to capital will make Chinese companies stronger through that they blocked Guizhentang’s attempt to list on the stock market.”

Animals Asia Foundation expressed shock at these “unacceptable” statements. Zhang Xiaohai, the charity’s China director, said: “Although we have never once dropped our stance that the bear farming industry must be phased out, we have always respected the traditions of Chinese medicine. This statement attacking Animals Asia Foundation is totally baseless, unjustifiable and irresponsible. We reserve the right to respond.”

On the evening of February 8, Animals Asia Foundation posted a counterattack on its microblog. The statement from the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine, it said, “contains many distortions of the facts about Animals Asia Foundation. We are angry. These statements have harmed both Animals Asia Foundation and its work. We are currently seeking legal advice on this issue. We will take this matter up with the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine and demand that they offer an apology and withdraw these erroneous statements.”

Meanwhile, Guizhentang’s listing has once again risen as a possibility – as well as a point of resistance. On February 1, the GEM Issuing Supervision Department of the China Security Regulatory Commission published a list of companies applying for an IPO. Guizhentang’s name was there, in 28th position.

According to the list, Wanlian Securities Company is acting as Guizhentang’s sponsor for the GEM listing, Ascenda Certified Public Accountants is its accountant and Grandall Law Firm (Shanghai) its lawyer. The GEM Issuing Supervision Department said it is currently “considering feedback and suggestions” on these listing applications.

Early in the morning of February 3, Animals Asia Foundation sent out a message: “We are closely following the progress of these events which are tightly bound up with the fate of the black bear.” Zhang Dan, founder of China Animal Protection Media Salon, also said she felt “extremely shocked” that Guizhentang was attempting to list on the market again.

Meanwhile, Chinese internet users expressed overwhelming opposition to the flotation.
By the evening of February 8, some 10,000 netizens had forwarded messages about the issue on Sina Weibo alone. And almost 5,200 people had voted in Sina’s online survey “What do you think of Guizhentang’s listing?” Of the respondents, 82.4% said they would not buy healthcare products containing bear bile and 17.6% said they would buy these products; 85.3% said they opposed Guizhentang seeking financing via a stock market listing, while 14.7% saying they supported it.

Guizhentang has said that it plans to use the money raised from the IPO to establish a bear-breeding base with a total area of 3,000 mu (two square kilometres) and to increase its number of black bears from the current 400 to 1,200.

Zhang Quanling, a well-known female presenter for China Central Television wrote on her Sina microblog: “If Guizhentang, which extracts bile from live bears, is listed publicly, the number of tortured bears will increase from 400 to 1,200. Guizhentang says that its tubeless bile-extraction methods don’t cause the bears pain. But, heavens, can it really be painless to be confined in such a narrow space every day? Is it really painless having an open wound that never heals? We have long been able to artificially make the active ingredient in bear bile or to replace it with herbal medicines, such as rhubarb. Why do we have to hurt the bears?”

This Weibo post was forwarded 38,089 times and as many as 7,710 people commented on it.

Another microblogger using the name “Southern Barbarian” said: “Businesses should have a conscience. I believe that anyone who has witnessed the drawing of bile from live bears will oppose this horrific industry. It is OK to raise animals for slaughter, but it is not OK to maltreat them. By maltreating animals we blur the basic distinction between right and wrong.”

“We can’t expect every company to be imbued with a sense of morality, but we have to take the initiative and uphold a minimum level of ethical standards for the market,” wrote a market analyst. “If these kinds of companies all go public, then that’s encouraging the mistreatment of animals, human greed, and moral depravity.”

Meanwhile, activists have been busy coordinating a response. On February 7, one animal rights worker reported that volunteers had been bombarding the office of those with the final say on Guizhentang’s flotation: “Over the last few days, volunteers from home and abroad have been sending letters and leaving messages through the China Securities Regulatory Commission’s official channels, vehemently opposing Guizhentang’s listing.”

Jiang Kexue, associate professor in social research at Tsinghua University Institute of science and technology, said: “GEM was originally meant to encourage innovation and the development of advanced technology. If this kind of valuable market resource is to be used to encourage backward, barbaric and cruel industries, then it won’t benefit Chinese economic development at all and investors will also face a sizeable investment risk.”

The China Securities Regulatory Commission is understood to be soliciting comments on Guizhentang’s listing application and there are many variables that will determine whether or not the attempt succeeds. But, as one animal rights activist told me, if Guizhentang manages to list on the stock market, then a ban on the extraction of bile from live bears will become a more distant possibility.

Zhang Ke is a reporter at
First Financial Daily.

Translated by Dinah Gardner

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