Fighting bear-bile farms with law, not words

By Ni Tao
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, February 28, 2012
Adjust font size:

Nobody knows better than Guizhentang how bitter bile can taste.

The Chinese pharmaceutical company is in hot water these days as it is applying to be listed on Chinese bourses. Its initial public offering bid is now in danger of falling apart amid public opprobrium of the company's bear bile business.

A staff member extracts bile from a live bear at a bear farm of Guizhentang Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., which makes medicine by using bile extracted from live bears, in Hui'an, southeast China's Fujian Province, Feb. 22, 2012. [Wei Peiquan/Xinhua]

A staff member extracts bile from a live bear at a bear farm of Guizhentang Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., which makes medicine by using bile extracted from live bears, in Hui'an, southeast China's Fujian Province, Feb. 22, 2012. [Wei Peiquan/Xinhua] 

The cruelty of bear bile extraction is now well known thanks to a series of documentaries chronicling the appalling situation of captive moon bears on bear farms. Their bile is an expensive ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.

To scuttle the float, more than 70 celebrities have signed a letter to the Chinese Securities Regulatory Commission, which will review Guizhentang's prospectus. Their initiative has gained currency as they are joined by tens of thousands who oppose the IPO and call for a boycott of Guizhentang's products.

In order to quell public fury and save the IPO bid, the firm treated journalists to a damage-control tour of a bear farm on Tuesday, during which it was supposedly proven to them that bile extraction is "painless," as the animal remained quiet and still throughout the procedure.

Many were suspicious that the firm had pulled the wool over the reporters' eyes. An internal notice leaked online suggests that Guizhentang deliberately showcased docile and obedient bears and hid feisty ones from view, though their roars and cage rattling could be heard in another room.

The attempt at crisis management backfired badly when some experts hired to shill for Guizhentang bluntly asked reporters at a press briefing how they knew bile extraction hurt, as they are not bears. One expert even said the pain was about as intense as that caused by breast feeding or piercing ear lobes for earring holes - thus, negligible.

Having written about bear farming two years ago, I'm not surprised that this controversial trade would one day be roundly condemned. But the sudden outburst of enthusiasm for animal welfare has struck me as a little over the top and to some extent hypocritical.

Selective concerns

I do appreciate what Jill Robinson and her colleagues at Animal Asia are doing to save the bile bears, for their actions match their words. But the credibility of some self-styled animal rights advocates is dubious. They act in ways totally in conflict with their stated belief. Grandiose talk of safeguarding animal rights is not the luxury of people who tuck into shark's fin soup and wear fur.

Easily susceptible to sentimental and sensational stories about animal abuse, we are selective in showing our concerns. Most people don't lose sleep over the suffering of less adorable creatures like sharks and their own sins in perpetuating the sea scavengers' decimation. But truth be told, sawing off a shark's fins or skinning a raccoon for its pelt is no less bloody than milking bears for bile.

To me the only morally consistent way to campaign for animal rights is to stop consuming animal products altogether. Admittedly, that is a tall order.

Currently, society has tried to make Guizhentang withdraw its IPO bid by exerting moral pressure. That's a wrong strategy. The attack on the firm, and the industry in general, will be more relevant if it is carried out with a legal weapon, rather than by wielding a moral baton.

One major reason a legal battle is preferable to mere condemnation is that it helps us see why Guizhentang, and its flacks, dare face down public opinion.

The company's founder, Qiu Shuhua, thundered last year that "whoever opposes the bear trade is opposing the state" when its IPO application was rejected, due also to opposition from animal rights activists.

Qiu was so arrogant probably because she figured she could count on the backing of state authorities, at least for now.

Guizhentang was authorized to farm bears by a 1997 Forestry Ministry regulation. But the state law on protection of wildlife, which has higher authority than ministerial regulations, stipulates that animals can only be "properly utilized."

Guizhentang's practice of producing bear bile more into pricey tonics than drugs doesn't fit the definition of proper utilization. In other words, its business should've been banned, said lawyer He Hairen.

So why hasn't it? We may find the answer in a report published by the Oriental Morning Post on Thursday.

In fact pharmacists have spent years developing the alternative to bear bile, one that is as effective but much cheaper.

30-year delay

A medical research institute in Shenyang, Liaoning Province, has successfully developed such "artificial bear bile," with the same active ingredient as bile from live bears. That alternative is mature enough for clinical trials. But for 30 years the project has failed to secure the paperwork necessary for the drug to be manufactured, the report said.

If the production were approved, it would almost certainly knock bear farms like Guizhentang out of business, the report cited one expert as saying.

What Guizhentang and similar companies did to stop this from happening is anyone's guess. But a strong hint is that they have kept some very capable lobbyists at their beck and call.

And unless animal rights activists see this, they will waste a lot of energy denouncing "inhumane" businesses, while still not knowing how the grotesque extraction of bear bile can be allowed in the first place, in a country of laws.


Print E-mail Bookmark and Share

Go to Forum >>0 Comment(s)

No comments.

Add your comments...

  • User Name Required
  • Your Comment
  • Racist, abusive and off-topic comments may be removed by the moderator.
Send your storiesGet more from