News Analysis: In Banning Ivory Trade, China Saw Benefits for Itself, Too

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BEIJING — China’s vow to shut down its commercial ivory trade by the end of this year was welcomed by environmentalists as a turning point in the fight against poachers. Activists cheered the government’s pledge for swift action, and the state-run news media called it a “monumental win for elephants.”

But in making the decision, announced on Friday, to bring the world’s largest ivory market to a halt, the Chinese government also saw benefits for itself.

The ban reinforced President Xi Jinping’s campaign against corrupt officials, who have been known to use ivory products as bribes.

It galvanized support among African allies, which have long pressed Beijing to help curb poaching, as China looks to expand its influence on the continent.

And the decision allowed China to burnish its image as a global guardian of the environment, at a time when advocates have raised doubts about the ability of the United States to lead on environmental issues.

Peter Knights, the executive director of WildAid, which lobbied heavily on the ivory issue, said Chinese leaders had come to realize that taking action on environmental matters like climate change and illegal wildlife trade was essential to cementing China’s place as a global superpower.

“With power comes responsibility,” said Mr. Knights, whose organization has spent $3 million over the last four years on an advertising campaign in China against the ivory trade. “They know it’s not worth damaging China’s international image to be involved in this business.”

For years, Chinese leaders resisted taking strong action to curb ivory sales, convinced that conservationists were overstating the country’s role in fueling a trade that has, by some estimates, killed more than 100,000 elephants over the last decade. Ivory carving is considered a fine art and cultural tradition in China, and sales on the mainland have thrived for decades.

But attitudes among top leaders shifted over the last several years, advocates said, as a wave of bad publicity revealed the nefarious activities of Chinese smugglers and as evidence mounted that China’s economic boom had led to a surge in demand for ivory. (The stockpile of legal ivory in China is estimated at about $150 million, according to advocates.)

Environmental activists in China, many of them affiliated with American organizations, including WildAid, led a concerted effort to raise awareness about the issue, investing in subway ads and television documentaries. Celebrities like Yao Ming, the basketball player, spoke out, urging the government to ban sales of commercial ivory.

Still, there were doubts among Chinese officials about the need for more forceful action, and some argued that the problem was not booming sales of ivory in China but lax enforcement in Africa.

“Their position was, ‘It’s not our problem, it’s the African countries’ problem, and we’re doing everything we can,’ ” said Susan Lieberman, the vice president for international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.

But it became increasingly clear to Chinese officials that smugglers were bringing ivory into the country illegally and marketing it as a legal product. Ivory had become a status symbol among the rapidly growing middle class, used in products like necklaces and table lamps. Wealthy businessmen and officials were purchasing elaborate carvings as luxurious gifts or, in some cases, bribes.

In 2014, the Chinese ambassador to Tanzania, in an unusually public rebuke, denounced Chinese citizens in the country for “bad habits” and said officials worried constantly about people being arrested on suspicion of smuggling.

As China forged closer ties with African nations, its role in enabling the ivory trade provoked resentment, with some officials accusing Beijing of contributing to violence and terrorism in the region. It did not help that in 2014, reports emerged that members of Mr. Xi’s entourage had, on a presidential visit to Tanzania the year before, bought thousands of pounds of poached tusks to take home.

“China became quite aware that even in their ‘legal market’ there was tremendous laundering through an illegal system,” Ms. Lieberman said. “They didn’t want to be the ones to blame.”

Chinese leaders seemed eager for a change. Officials burned stockpiles of ivory on the mainland before phalanxes of news cameras, and they began discussing the possibility of imposing a ban on ivory imports.

At the same time, the United States was pressing China to join forces to combat poaching, and in 2015, President Obama and President Xi announced that they had agreed to shut down the markets in their respective countries.

For Mr. Xi, who has pushed the idea of creating an “ecological civilization” in China in response to severe air, water and soil pollution, the idea of closing the domestic market brought several advantages.

It dovetailed with the president’s vigorous nationwide campaign against corrupt officials, who have traded exotic wildlife in money-laundering and graft schemes. It also allowed China a chance to show compassion toward allies in Africa, a continent whose oil, gas and copper reserves it is increasingly dependent on.

“It’s a good image-enhancing exercise,” said Martyn Davies, a managing director for Deloitte in Johannesburg who specializes in emerging markets. “People are looking for a visible clampdown in China and results in terms of arrests and prosecutions.”

China’s eagerness to act, analysts say, also reflected a desire by the government to raise its profile on environmental issues. China has already emerged as a global power broker on climate change. Now, advocates say, it might look to other concerns, such as illegal wildlife trade.

Lin Li, a Chinese environmentalist who leads the Beijing offices of the conservation group WWF, said China seemed more willing to tackle international matters under Mr. Xi.

“The top leaders are really looking to be environmental leaders,” she said. “They want to mobilize the masses, not just within China.”

Now China will be judged on how effectively it can carry out the ivory ban. Enforcement is a constant challenge in China’s legal system, and analysts said there was likely be some resistance, given the influence of the ivory industry.

Gao Yufang, a researcher at Yale University who has studied the ivory market in the country, said that while the ban represented progress, China would need to follow through with a holistic plan of action.

“The ivory trade is a great opportunity for China to show its commitment to its global responsibilities,” he wrote in an email. “It is necessary that we keep an eye on it to make sure China keeps its promise.”

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