China's economic expansion over the past three decades has transformed the once-impoverished country, lifting millions of people out of poverty. Newly wealthy Chinese eager to display their prosperity -- and those who aspire to be wealthy -- have fueled an explosion in demand for luxury goods, which
are now available even in third- and fourth-tier cities. Vanity? Perhaps. But high-end cars, clothing and accessories are often genuinely useful in gaining
an edge in business and social relationships.
Unsurprisingly, China's embrace of conspicuous consumption has also manifested itself at the dinner table. At weddings and business dinners, opulent dishes abound. One item, more than any other, has possessed the power to confer face and status upon the host: shark fin soup.
For more than a decade, shark fin soup has served as a de rigueur component of any meal intending to highlight the host's wealth, resulting in the consumption of hundreds of millions of shark fins. According to the Hurun Report, China now has 2.8 million millionaires -- that's in U.S. dollars -- and there are many millions more below them who can afford shark fin soup, which can cost up to $100 per bowl.
The massive increase in China's consumption of pigs, chicken and cattle has had major environmental repercussions both within China and beyond, but shark fin consumption is different in several ways. Sharks cannot be farmed economically, have a much longer reproductive cycle, and many species are predators at the top of the food chain.
U.S.-based conservation organization WildAid estimates that up to 73 million sharks are killed each year for their fins. As a result of years of large-scale fin harvesting, one third of the world's nearly 500 shark species are facing extinction. Unlike farmed animals that are slaughtered for their meat, most of these sharks are killed by a process known as "finning", in which fins are hacked off and the animal is thrown back into the sea to drown or bleed to death. Afterward, the fins are usually transported by ship or plane to the main hub of the global fin trade: Hong Kong.
A stroll along Des Voeux Road West, also known as Dried Seafood Street, is a uniquely Hong Kong experience: Dozens of mom-and-pop stores selling dried fish, scallops, abalone and other desiccated sea creatures line a wide, busy street brimming with cars, buses and old-school trams. Fishy odors, the salty smell of nearby Victoria Harbor, and cigarette smoke hang along the sidewalks as high-rises tower above.
On a sweaty afternoon, I walked into a dozen or so of these dried seafood shops, where shark fins in large jars were on offer for 2,000 to 6,800 Hong Kong dollars ($250-$875) each. In Mandarin, I asked the gray-haired proprietors if they had a moment for a few questions. Without exception, they smiled and said yes. But as I began to explain that I was writing a story about the shark fin trade, a chill crept into their smiles, and they politely but firmly told me to leave.
Given the current state of the shark fin market, the proprietors have good cause to be grumpy. After years of booming business serving locals, mainland Chinese, and overseas Chinese populations, Hong Kong shark fin dealers have been hit by a drastic market downturn. Precise figures are difficult to come by, but government and industry estimates for 2012 showed the market shrinking by between 50 and 70 percent.
What accounts for the drop in demand? Many involved in the shark fin trade, including Hong Kong Shark Fin Trade Merchants Association chairman Ho Siu-chai, blame environmental groups and the media that broadcast their message. Ho even told the South China Morning Post that 'Western' conservation groups were engaged in an anti-Chinese conspiracy. Roughly one third of Hong Kong's shark fin shops had closed down in recent years due to pressure from environmentalists, he added.
It may be tempting for shark fin dealers to blame foreign environmental organizations for their shrinking market, but that would ignore the substantial impact of former NBA star Yao Ming, the first mainland celebrity to speak out against shark fin soup.
In 2006 Yao, then at the peak of his career with the Houston Rockets, made waves outside of China when he announced that he would swear off shark fin soup for life and campaign against it with WildAid. In China, a country where celebrities did not normally endorse environmental causes, Yao's stand against shark fin soup was highly unusual. And at the time, his message went practically unheard, with local media ignoring or burying the story.