Why Are Chinese Tourists So Abusive Toward Wildlife?

A lack of education -- and government oversight -- makes it easy. But environmental consciousness is growing.

Divers swim above a bed of dead corals off Malaysia's Tioman island in the South China Sea. (Reuters)

Just a few short months after China begin allowing civilian tourism to the more remote reaches of the South China Sea, controversy has already emerged. A recent article in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post discusses Chinese online outrage toward a group of tourists who posted pictures on an online marine life forum boasting of their trip to the previously pristine Paracel Islands (called the Xisha Islands in Chinese). Many in and outside of China have continued to debate why Chinese tourists are bad with environmental issues.

The images from the Paracel Islands that gave rise to the original controversy are no longer available, but pictures of similar trips to the Paracels by other groups of tourists can be found on the website Mafengwo, a tourism blogging platform. Users posted pictures of themselves camping on several islands, fishing, hunting, manhandling, and eating various forms of exotic marine life, many of which were endangered species. Tourists gleefully steamed buckets of freshly caught lobsters, crabs, and other crustaceans, captured plastic bags full of sea urchins "to supplement dinner," cooked and ate giant clams (an endangered species), and blissfully plucked out entire pieces of living colorful coral to take home.

These actions are not only bad practice; in many cases, they're illegal. China is a signatory of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which prohibits the hunting and fishing of endangered species.

Tales of Chinese tourists' bad behavior have been all over international and Chinese media recently. There was the notorious case of a Chinese boy who defaced a millennia old Egyptian artifact, or the Chinese tourists that got into a fight in the middle of a wedding photo shoot at a scenic lilac field in the French countryside, or just a general disregard for common civility. International media have claimed that the notorious "Ugly American," a "stereotypically brutish, ethnocentric, bumbling traveler abroad," has been replaced by the "Ugly Chinese" tourist. The situation became so bad that in May, China's government issued a national convention calling for more "civilized" behavior of Chinese traveling overseas.

What makes the Paracels tourists' case different, perhaps even damaging to national interests, is that Chinese tourists are misbehaving in a once-pristine ecological environment that China claims as it own. The Paracels comprise a disputed chain of islands on the western side of the South China Sea claimed by both Vietnam and China. The UN Convention Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) -- to which China is a signatory -- contains multiple provisions detailing the obligation that states have to protect their marine environments.

So why have the Chinese risen so rapidly to join the ranks of the world's most boorish tourists? In their defense, they are not the only tourists in the world considered to be rude. Despite all the recent media spotlight on Chinese misbehavior, Americans still rank as the world's worst tourists, according to a recent opinion poll.

And Chinese have gained wealth so quickly that they have become thrust into global tourist culture without the time to create guideposts that other nationalities might enjoy. For instance, there is no Chinese equivalent of Lonely Planet, encouraging young Chinese to go explore the world and respect the cultures and communities they enter. In many countries, Chinese are still viewed with suspicion during visa review processes. Chinese tourists always seem to travel in huge packs because joining a tour group makes getting a visa easier. Finally, tourism sites across the world have learned to accommodate the language needs of the English speaking world, but Chinese tourists are rarely fluent in English or the language of the country they're visiting, leaving many opportunities for miscommunication and misunderstanding.

In particular, the development of environmental conscience and practical know-how is a long institutional process that takes decades. In the 1950s, middle-class Americans dumped their trash on the ground after picnics. In recent decades, collecting one's trash before leaving has become the norm there. Now, a similar shift is happening among middle class Chinese. There are stories like that of Chinese millionaire Wenyue Bing (翁岳兵), a scuba diving enthusiast who has taken on great personal expense to develop Chinese training programs for responsible tourism in the South China Sea.

As norms change, economic incentives remain arguably the most powerful drivers. For example, Beijing residents are already prodigious recyclers, hoarding and collecting every little bit of plastic, electric wire, paper, and other recyclable trash to sell at the end of the month.

Education and enforcement will also be required. Many mainstream Chinese do not lack an environmental consciousness, but they often do not know how to put it into practice while on tour. One of the posters on tourist site Mafengwo bragged about eating an endangered giant clam at the Paracels, but also snapped pictures of a baby sea turtle, declaring: "We must take care of them!" The user clearly understood and respected the concept of endangered species, but was likely unaware that the clam she ate was also endangered.

This demonstrates the final component in the unsustainable development of tourism in the South China Sea: institutional oversight. Without it, even the most environmentally conscious Chinese citizens can do nothing to counter the bad behavior of their compatriots. As one Weibo user put it while bemoaning tourists in the Paracels: "To flaunt your ignorance so unwittingly ... I lack the energy for anger, and can muster only worry and heartache."

But it's fair to ask who was setting the rules of the road for tourists to the Paracels. Why weren't there better-trained instructors who taught tourists the golden rule of diving -- look but do not touch? Many tour groups are run by local fishermen-turned-businessmen who used to fish in the Paracels as a part of their normal livelihoods. These local fishermen likely do not know that giant clams are endangered and that coral die if touched by human hands; at any rate, they lack an economic or legal incentive to care.

Unfortunately, much of the policies implemented by local and national level governments to address "bad" behavior are directed into "civilizing" campaigns, encouraging citizens to be "little name cards" for the Chinese nation. But these campaigns have the same apparent effect as parental lectures; heard but not heeded. Resources would be more effectively devoted to improving institutional oversight and governance at home. If a country's leaders do not show serious desire to protect the environment, why should its people?

This post first appeared at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.