Editorial: Animal Welfare and the Dignity of the Chinese People

China Development Brief, No. 53 (Spring 2012)

中文 English


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.

但随着人类文明的演进,随着人类对人与自然关系认识的深化,随着生产力发展赋予人类更多的选择,很多过去被认为“合理”存在的行为,已逐渐被质疑和抛弃。 处于生态链顶端的人类,越来越清醒地认识到,自己并非大自然的肆意主宰,需要约束自己对大自然的无休止的索取行为。这既是出于人类自身可持续发展的长远生 存利益的需要,也是人类作为动物,能够发乎恻隐之心,对自然界其他物种感同身受并试图平等对待生命尊严的价值升华。
近期,归真堂谋求上市,试图大规模扩展活熊取胆产业,引发了强烈的公众质疑,成为令人瞩目的公共事件。在动物保护组织、媒体、投资人以及社会知名人士以及 部分医学界人士地倡议推动下,公众(网民)通过各种渠道高度关注和广泛参与这一讨论。这些讨论包括,是否应当将人类福利建立在动物的痛苦之上?具体到熊胆 上,是否为满足人类医疗目的的必需品?即便是必需品,是否应该遵循减少、替代和优化的原则?市面上很多熊胆制品是保健品,属于应予克制的奢侈消费等等。
质疑之声未去,两会议案再起波澜。在刚刚结束的两会上,以中医界为主的30余名全国政协委员联名提案,要求“正确对待‘养熊取胆’,保护中医药资源的合理 利用”,使归真堂事件再次进入公众视野。由于话题触及中医药的研发和制造的局部产业利益,归真堂事件中动物福利、权利这样一个本源性的核心议题,在争论中 甚至被活熊取胆的支持方可笑地标签化为国家利益和民族利益问题。这些,都不过是混淆视听的“烟幕弹”。
归真堂事件是一起标志性事件,表明中国公众和消费者开始有意识去集体反思,探寻人的权利、需求与动物的权利、需求之间如何达成平衡的问题,将原本适用于人 类自身的人道主义,适度扩及原先作为资源对象的动物身上。经历了多年的酝酿之后,动物福利的理念进入中国,表明中国人在经历了经济、政治和社会的剧烈转型 变化之后,开启了对极端人类中心主义价值的反思历程。
围绕活熊取胆的激烈争论,从一个侧面折射出人类社会接受动物福利思想和文明演进过程的漫长曲折,也引人反思文化多样性的问题。实际上,活熊取胆使传统中医药文化正在遭遇尴尬的正当性问题。文化无优劣之分,文化的多样性应予尊重,同时也不能被放大为极端的规则。很早以前,非洲一些部落之间相互征战,食用战败 者的人肉被视为英勇合理的行为,现在早已成为历史。打猎也曾是辉煌的人类文明,现在也已沦落为被主流摈弃的小众行为。无形中,人类始终有一条最基本的文明 和价值底线,随着生产力发展、社会进步和人类的自我反思而逐步抬升。归真堂事件,正是文明底线抬升、中国公民在动物福利和伦理意识提升后必然出现的结果。

Translated by Li Kening

Reviewed by Holly Zheng

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