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Blog List >  A Glimmer of Guanxi 
A Glimmer of Guanxi 
Nov 4 2013 7:34AM Posted by David Ludwig, Ph.D.

I made my first trip to China in the early 1990s. At the time I was along for the ride on a cross-governmental marketing visit. This rather formalized setting necessitated endless lunch and dinner banquets in various venues across the eastern third of the country. Almost every evening, the banquets involved dishes composed (we were assured by our hosts) of organisms that were “very rare. Almost none left. You are lucky to be eating some of the last in the world”. Thus, to my ongoing shame, we ate frogs, fish, snakes, turtles, birds, and mammals nominally harvested from threatened or endangered populations. 

My second trip to China was less formal and menus were more under our control. This time we didn’t eat any rare, threatened or endangered species, although we did see plenty of them in markets. 

Personal wealth is expanding at a great rate in China. And that wealth, bleeding out into world markets, has been hard on organisms that are valued in traditional folkways, for food and especially medicine. Thus great pressure accrues on tigers, rhinoceros, bears, small cats, snakes, and civets whose body parts are used in folk medicine. And fish, snakes, turtles, bats, and other animals are harvested for food. With a large human population and growing purchasing power, poaching and black markets serving China are ongoing problems for a number of species around the world. 

Guanxi is the modern Chinese word reflecting the web of personal and professional relationships embedded in the larger social system. The word conveys much more than can be easily translated by single terms in English. Guanxi encompasses friendships, favors owed and done, interpersonal histories, family ties, and more. From a systems analytic perspective, Guanxi is the process component, the flows and feedbacks among individuals in a personal network. The concept could be applied to ecological systems as a handy term for the dynamics of a network.

Recently, there is a bit of good news about the Guanxi of the network tying Chinese consumers to their food sources. The 20 October 2013 Washington Post has a front page story under the byline of Simon Denyer titled “In China, a Rare Victory for Conservation”. Specifically, the story reports that an unexpected consortium of business interests, NGOs, celebrities, students and journalists has made real headway in reducing demand for dried shark fins made into celebratory banquet soups. 

In recent years, several shark species have been severely depleted by fin collectors who habitually harvest the fins of fish from lines or nets and toss the body back in the water where the animals die a nasty death and go on to feed scavengers and decomposers. Shark fin soup is a traditional delicacy of great antiquity. Its social qualities outweigh its culinary value. I’ve eaten shark fin soup in China, Europe, Canada and the U.S. While it is interesting to unfamiliar westerners, mostly for its fine gelatinous texture, it is in fact rather bland and unexciting. The Post reports that activists, led by a San Francisco based NGO called WildAid, marshaling Yao Ming as an advertising icon and buoyed by businesspeople of conscience, have driven demand for shark fin down by 50 to 70%. Quite unexpectedly (because of the enormous diversity of celebratory mores in China and the depth to which shark fin soup is embedded in celebratory culture), political and business leaders and a substantial chunk of the general populace quickly absorbed the educational messaging and are more than willing to eschew shark fin or consume soups made with vegetable-based substitutes. 

This is a remarkable success story. It is an example of a principle of growing importance for the interaction of people and the environment. As wealth increases, people demand cleaner, more sustainable environments, and have marginal capital to invest in environmental management. 

This “Second Demographic Transition” is an unexpected and welcome outcome of economic and social systems. It means that the most effective and efficient route to sustainability lies in income equality and education. As people have the money to use more resources, they also demand that those resources be provisioned via sustainable means. 

This is in stark contrast to the more common belief that wealth and resource demands cause direct environmental degradation. In practice, it turns out that wealth drives greater investment in environmental management and application of more sustainable alternatives. 

Hopefully, we can build on the shark fin success. It is time for tiger, rhinoceros, bear and other animals to be relieved of the harvest (often illegal under international and nation-specific laws and treaties) for traditional medicine, decorative ivory, and food. 

Building the guanxi in our relations to the ecosystem-at-large is important for the future of the biosphere. Good, sustainable processes mean we’ll leave a better world for our children and their children. The shark fin example shows that we can do it, with creative activism fueled by enlightened information.
Xexe—thank you for checking in to the PeopleSystems weekly weblog. Go forth and establish some guanxi with your environment. We’ll all benefit!

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