Saturday, July 16, 2011

"Agony and Ivory" - a story of fairness and vanity - China and Africa

I’m a pretty big fan of the Vanity Fair monthly publication, as are a lot of people in the world I suppose. I like it because it gives me everything I want in a man – I mean – magazine. It’s good looking and trashy, so I get beautifully shot ad campaigns encouraging me to buy lipstick and profiles of beautiful new starlets to keep me jogging and eating salad. It has humor which often comes in the form of incredible wit, and is occasionally black – without fail this magazine illicits a laugh-out-loud response from me at least thrice. Finally, and this is really what keeps me coming back, is the substance. Unlike a lot of their competitors, VF let an article run for as many pages as it needs to be told. When I read about an issue I come away from it truly knowing the length and breadth of what it’s all about. Their stories continue on for several pages each (sometimes up to 10 and more) instead of filling space between pre-designated quotas.

Well, this is how I feel (which the most important thing in the universe…) so let us continue.

My point is, upon buying are reading the most recent issue of Vanity Fair I have, as per usual, become much more knowledgeable about many different things. One of these in particular, came from their ‘Agony and Ivory’ article and is about the current state of the ivory trade.

Why did this catch my eye? Because as usual, it all comes back to China.

I remember talking with Peng (the father of the girl I tutored) a while ago about China’s international interests and guanxi – relationships. He told me that China and Africa were, essentially, the best of friends because Africa ‘needed’ China, and China was being generous and helping them out. At the time, I asked him what China had to gain from such guanxi, but Peng was at a loss for a response. So was I.

I did a little bit of searching myself back then, and came up with the predictable answer of ‘resources’. In other words – China was cultivating this guanxi in order to cultivate their mining sector. About one third of China’s oil supplies come from the continent. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was formed in 2000, but flirtations between the two began back in Mao’s era and have only grown crazy-stronger over time. It is natural to treat such a relationship with suspicion. The governments of Africa and China share the same veins of corruption and the same long-seated distrust of ‘the west’.

Having been to both areas, I can certainly identify a few similarities amongst the attitudes of the people. From what I have seen, the Africans and Chinese both feel as though they have been cheated by Britain and America and even Europe because, well, historically, they really have been. ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ is the pretext of what we have going on now, and China historically supported the independence movements of several African nations… whilst also sending Chinese workers and development projects to such areas.

Here’s a strange example: In Sudan there is a big long highway that was completed a little before 2007 by the Chinese. Originally, the highway was supposed to be a gift from Osama Bin Laden to say thanks for letting him hide there in asylum after he called for a holy war against America in 1993. However, in 1998 shit went down and Bin Laden moved on to Afghanistan – leaving the 520 mile project incomplete. In swoop the Chinese, completing the highway in record time and adding an adjacent railway track just for the hell of it.

What do you make of that? I’d love to know.

The state of trade between the areas now, is supremely suspicious to the point that it’s not even suspicious – it’s just obviously a whole truckload of illegal bullshit stuff. To begin with? Mass market flooding of Chinese imported products which crush local industry. To continue with? Arms trading from guns to tanks to jets and even military training. To finish with? Interconnected blackmarket deals in drugs and illegal imports such as ivory. Which is where we find ourselves back at the Vanity Fair article.
Photo by Guillaume Bonn from the Vanity Fair website.

Now, where to begin with this. Here’s a question – do you own any ivory? How do you feel about that?
Another question – do your parents own any ivory? Now how do you feel about that?
One last one – have you ever seen an elephant in the wild? How do you feel about that?
Yes/No questions followed by emotive questions are perhaps annoying, but I do believe they illustrate a point here. For example, I answer No/Yes/Yes, which leads me to a highly individual perception of the ivory trading situation. A combination of someone answering Yes to the first and No to the last question would raise a completely different opinion and perspective on the situation.

The emotive questions? Well, I don’t own any ivory because I’ve never bought it. I’m still a student and that stuff is damn expensive. Would I buy it if I could afford it? Well, now there is another question for all of us. Sometimes it’s easy to make the right decisions if you don’t really have choices. I answer yes to the second question because I believe my mother has an ivory bangle somewhere. In my mind I naturally begin to defend this possession for many reasons, which is relatively easy to do – but what I cannot defend is the purchasing of this ivory. I think one of the problems with ivory is the same problem I associate with the purchase of meat – people buy it under the justification that it’s already dead and prepared. The refusal to acknowledge an individual’s place within the supply-and-demand chain of the modern economy is a crime. Lastly, I have seen an elephant in the wild and it makes me feel truly blessed. The description of wild elephants in the VF article put perfectly into words my experiences too. Anyone who has encountered such a creature and still buys ivory has something seriously wrong going on in their brains.

The thing is, the ‘new rich’ in China are some of the biggest purchasers of ivory and almost all of the ivory sourced in Africa actually ends up in China. I do believe, as was suggested in the article, that ivory is simply an extension of the “Chinese will eat anything” thought process - especially if it’s expensive. The whole society is about face, and modern rich Chinese choose which traditions they want to keep and which traditions they want to throw away. Carved ivory statues have traditionally been an immediately recognisable symbol for wealth in China, and the new upper-middle class are famous for seizing every possible opportunity to flaunt their newfound wealth. The same problem is being experienced with luxury cars and the famous shark’s fin situation. Anything that is deemed to show ‘class’ and ‘standing’ in China is being consumed at dangerous rate – ivory is no exception.

Even if you have never been to China or Africa. Even if you don’t own ivory or haven’t seen an elephant. Even if you have never read Vanity Fair before. I cannot recommend this article and this publication enough.

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