I recently talked with Terry Townshend for a podcast looking at a campaign, being led by Chinese birders, to tear down illegal nets that are widespread across the countryside. Even, because that’s where the birds are, in nature reserves. Terry asked that overseas birders/conservationists (anyone really) leave a comment at http://www.chinesecurrents.com/baohuniaolei.html to applaud the campaigners, because – as he stressed – the messages would make a difference in China and show that people everywhere wanted to support the campaign. Messages of support would be tweeted via weibo (a sophisticated Chinese version of ‘twitter’ with literally hundreds of millions of users). This could be a fantastic way to encourage China’s birders and citizens to take a stance against illegal mist-netting. It could make a real difference to China’s birds…
I say ‘could’ because I don’t see how a number of the comments can be re-mailed. I don’t want to single anyone out, and I do understand that passions run high when birders (like me) think about Siberian Rubythroats and Dusky Thrushes being trapped and sold as cagebirds or eaten, but writing generalities that disparage all Chinese helps no-one. It’s Chinese birders that are leading this campaign. It’s mainly Chinese birders and Chinese people that are pulling down the nets. If a Chinese website called for comments to help support British birders stop wildlife crime, what would the reaction be if comments were left calling all Brits ‘raptor poisoners’ or saying the equivalent of ‘Stop your cruelty you fox-hunting, egg-thieving British b*stards’? It would cause an online riot.
Yet, time and time again, well-meaning ‘online activists’ stereotype whole people (and that obviously means stereotyping the activists too). I have been involved in Korean conservation for more than a decade. Many petitions calling on Koreans to stop eating dogs are currently circulating. I’m vegetarian, I wouldn’t eat a dog (or a lamb, pig, or chicken) if I was starving, but I also know that neither would many, many Koreans. Korean activists themselves are fighting what is a cultural tradition in their own country. That’s not easy and this sort of activism is new in Korean society. It’s hard for them and they welcome our support. Conversely abuse hurled at Korea and Koreans in general is extremely unhelpful and self-defeating. Barriers go up against generalities like these, not come down. And how can it possibly advance a cause in a strong, economically powerful country to make crude generalities along the lines of ‘Stop eating dogs you primitive morons’ or ‘F… you stop eating pets or I’ll never buy a Samsung phone again’?
The same is true regarding Japan and whaling. Very few Japanese go whaling, few people eat the meat, most Japanese understand it ‘looks bad’ to the outside world. We could – should – support Japanese welfare organisations fighting hard to stop the industry. Instead many – again presumably well-meaning – online activists use racist language, swear, and make ridiculous threats about economic boycotts that will never have any impact (the same goes for threats made against China of course). That simply reinforces the frequently-heard argument that ‘foreigners’ are just racists who don’t understand the country or the people they’re attacking.
Most East Asians are extremely polite and respectful with each other. Activists usually try to change deeply entrenched beliefs and attitudes in what are strongly nationalist and very proud countries through example. It may seem to some people that the changes we want to see are happening very slowly, but how quickly are we in Europe – with our long history of NGOs and democratic activism – sorting out the huge problems of illegal mist-netting in Cyprus, the demolition of raptors on grouse-moors, the slaughter of migrant birds in France and Italy, the abhorrence of foie gras and veal production?
Please, if we’re asked to support something, then let’s support it. Support the people who are taking the risks and taking a stance against traditions they may have grown up with. Support not denigrate, support not take a cheap shot against whole peoples and countries. Support positive change and we might actually help the people doing the work on the front line instead of hindering them.