China Development Brief, No. 53 (Spring 2012)
In the history of mankind, anthropocentrism has always been a dominant value system. These values treat the interests of human beings as the origin of values and the basis for ethical evaluation. In this system, the values of, and ethical relationships between, humans and nature, must comply with human needs. Humans can make “reasonable” demands on all of nature’s species by using them as resources.
Despite having developed the wonderful notions of “harmony between humankind and nature” and “learning from nature” and having tried to apply them in cultural practice, the Chinese, who have long survived under difficult conditions, have mainly adopted a way of living dominated by anthropocentrism and utilitarianism.
Yet as humans evolve and deepen their understanding of their relationship with nature, and as the development of productive forces provide humans with more choices, much of what constituted “reasonable” behavior in the past has been questioned and abandoned. Humans, who are at the top of the food chain, have realized with growing clarity that they are not nature’s tyrant and should limit their endless demands on it. This change, which requires empathizing with other species and trying to treat other lives equally, is both a necessity for our long-term sustainable development and a moral improvement.
Recently, the pharmaceutical company Guizhentang (归真堂) sought to go public, attempting to expand their business of extracting gallbladder and bile from live bears. This action attracted strong public criticism. Led by animal protection organizations, media, investors, social celebrities and some medical professionals, public netizens joined the discussion of this issue through various channels. These topics included whether human welfare should come at the cost of the pain of animals. Some questioned whether bear bile is a necessity for human medical treatment. Even if it is deemed to be a necessity, they ask whether we should reduce the practice, find alternative substitutes or improve on it. Others pointed out that because bear bile appears on the market in many dietary supplements, which are luxury goods, they should be subject to restriction.
Shortly afterwards, more noise arose following sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). As the sessions came to a close, about 30 members of the CPPCC, most of whom came from traditional Chinese medical circles, jointly submitted a proposal, requesting people to “appropriately assess the practice of ‘raising bears and extracting their bile’, and to protect the reasonable utilization of traditional Chinese medical resources”. Their request brought the Guizhentang incident back into public view. Because this issue touches on the interests of those engaged in researching and manufacturing traditional Chinese medicines, supporters of the extraction of bear bile even went so far as to say that it went against the interests of the state and nation. However, all these arguments were simply a smoke screen intended to obscure the facts from the public.
The Guizhentang incident is a symbolic event, showing that the Chinese public and consumers have started to consciously engage in collective retrospection, to explore the balance between human rights and needs and animal rights and needs and to apply humanitarianism to animals which were originally thought of only as resources. Over the years, the notion of animal welfare has finally taken root in China, indicating that the Chinese have begun reflecting on the value of extreme anthropocentrism after an intense period of economic, political and social transformation.
The various advocates, especially animal protection and environmental organizations, have found an effective method of advocacy. Through discussions in public forums, all sorts of opinions and misconceptions were exposed, clarified and addressed. In this way, they led a campaign of public education, which was far more effective in influencing and changing people’s thoughts and behaviors than superficial lecturing on paper. The notion of animal welfare, which was previously only accepted in a small circle, is thus becoming a mainstream way of thinking.
This debate about bear bile reflects on one hand the long and complicated journey of human civilization’s evolution in which human society has accepted the notion of animal welfare. On the other hand, it forces us to consider the issue of cultural diversity by exposing the legitimacy issue facing traditional Chinese medicine culture. There is no superior or inferior culture. Cultural diversity should be respected, but not be taken as an absolute rule. A long time ago, tribes in Africa fought against each other and it was considered proper and heroic that people on the winning side ate people on the losing side. This has long become history. Hunting used to be a glorious part of human civilization and now is no longer part of mainstream culture. There has always been an intangible base line for human civilization and values, which gradually rises with the development of productive forces, social progress and human self-reflection. The Guizhentang incident is just the natural result of the elevation of the base line for civilization and the raising of Chinese people’s awareness of animal welfare and ethical values.
China is integrating into the world. To be a poised and confident contributor to world civilization, China needs to keep up with the times, think out of the box and open-mindedly evaluate all sorts of issues including the Guizhentang incident. It needs to gradually accept the more progressive international value consensus, abandon the backward parts of its own culture, and contribute its true cultural essence to the world, thereby realizing the value of the Chinese people.