In 2017, China closed around 170 ivory shops and imposed a total ban on producing and selling ivory products, (effective from 1st January 2018). As the One Belt One Road policy unfolds and China is building close partnership with many countries, the Chinese government is all the more eager to project an image of China as a responsible global leader, with the aspiration to actively engage with other global players and contribute to global governance. The question of conservationism has become a key issue for China to implement this aspiration. The questions is also emblematic of the fact that China's presence in global dynamics is not unitary, and decision-makers have come to acknowledge the importance of taking into account the multiplicity of Chinese actors that contribute, directly or indirectly, to forging global dynamics.
Even though the ivory trade is now formally prohibited in China, it was not curbed all together. The influx of Chinese citizens in Africa transformed the continent into the new locus for trading and purchasing ivory. Africa is no longer a mere supplying source, but a place where to directly purchase ivory goods – significantly easier to access and cheaper than in China’s black market. In other words, the transaction phase (and location) was externalized from China to Africa, with merchandize eventually reaching China through custom loopholes all over China’s border.
Although only a relatively small portion of Chinese in Africa are involved in illegal wildlife trade, these criminal activities associated with Chinese citizens have negatively affected not only the image of the Chinese in Africa, but also their daily lives and business activities. An all-out negative sentiment against China translated into a harassing behaviour towards the Chinese (shouted at on streets and other popular venues while being labelled as poachers) as well as constraints on visa applications, business operations and imports/exports. In Namibia, for instance, in early 2017, Chinese shops in Windhoek’s Chinatown were repeatedly raided by local police, sniffing for illegal wildlife products and other restricted materials.
However, the Chinese purchasing ivory do not all act with the same intent. Understanding these differences is the first step to fighting the ivory war. The Chinese in Africa mostly buy ivory items as cheap and rare souvenirs. There is, however, a minority of Chinese citizens in Africa involved in smuggling ivory. They do so through containers, especially those used for transporting illegal timber and mineral exports. The first type of consumer is mostly motivated by the urge to emulate, i.e. possess an item that everyone buys when travelling to Africa. The second type of consumer is motivated by profit. Due to their struggle for business survival and difficulties to abide by all laws and regulations, many Chinese businessmen in Africa operate in grey zones, beyond tax, custom duty, labor or immigration laws. In a context where many business activities happen between legality and illegality, ivory just represents another profitable trading good. The involvement of these Chinese actors in the ivory trade is, however, often far from being part of a larger network of organized crime, as frequently believed.
A communication gap between the Chinese and locals is hindering the Chinese involvement in local sustainable development initiatives, including wildlife conservation. Chinese communities in many African countries share the feeling that "wildlife conservation is far away from their life". Thus, the majority has never participated in any wildlife conservation education activities. This is somehow surprising in a continent well populated by wildlife conservation Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). But it is less surprising considering that such NGOs, in Africa, often have little knowledge about Chinese communities and have, thus, lagged behind in engaging with them. More recently, however, this trend started being reversed with local NGOs paying increasing attention to engaging Chinese communities, and young Chinese in Africa acting as mediators between the Chinese and the locals. For example, young Chinese people would communicate with local conservation organizations and engage more Chinese community members in wildlife conservation volunteering activities, anti-wildlife-trade marches and so on.
Only a few years ago, Chinese communities in Africa believed that "animal matters could not be important matters". However, today, both Chinese communities and authorities have become increasingly aware of the fact that wildlife conservation issues are intertwined with the sustainable development of Chinese businesses on the continent. Hence, paying attention to them became crucial in order to balance the negative perception of Chinese activities in Africa. The ultimate goal consisted in avoiding negative misperceptions and generalizations that could harm Chinese citizens and their businesses on the continent.
These local-level dynamics played a crucial role in leading the Chinese government to upscale global wildlife conservation to top priority, at domestic and international level. Accordingly, the swift and determined domestic ivory ban could be seen on the one hand as a consequence of the Chinese government’s acknowledgement that China’s image in Africa needed to be improved, on the other hand as an aspiration to be considered a responsible global leader.