U.S. diplomat wrestles with whether China’s commitments on ivory have made a difference

Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield and USAID Associate Administrator Eric Postel answered questions in a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on wildlife trafficking. The witnesses’ comments on working with China on ivory issues highlight the uncertainty about whether agreements like the joint commitment on ivory announced in September produce results.

Brownfield portrays Chinese efforts as a work in progress, and says a draft law on wildlife trafficking in China doesn’t go as far as he would have hoped.

[BROWNFIELD:] Second, China, and thank you for waiting until well into this hearing before we move into the issue which I would call the 800-pound gorilla who’s actually not in the room, but that is very much at play here.

Working with the Chinese on this issue, something that I have been doing now for nearly four years, is a slow process. We work with them through their law enforcement organizations and institutions. My own summary would be in four years we have moved from something that they are not willing to talk about at all to something that they are willing to acknowledge is an issue, and that they have taken some ownership of.

FORTENBERRY: What about this? I’m sorry, the time’s running out. What about this agreement? What level of agreement was reached? Would you explain that?

BROWNFIELD: In September of last year during President Xi’s visit, President Obama and President Xi agreed that they would take steps to eliminate the commercial trafficking in ivory. Important because China today is overwhelmingly the largest market for ivory in the world. And as Mr. Postel has pointed out, we are not blameless in this regard as well.

Two months later at something called the U.S.-China Joint Liaison Group on Law Enforcement, which I co-chair, we got the Chinese — this is their Ministry of Public Security and their customs service, to agree that we would form a working group to develop details on how we would work to make this happen.

Now, with many countries in the world you would say this sounds laughably little to have accomplished. With China it is I would say a step in the right direction.

Also in the course of last year for the first time they did a public ivory crush, where they in public, before the media with hundreds of people watching, did destroy beyond possibility of reuse, a substantial amount of ivory.

Does that stop the problem? No. Is it symbolic and therefore has at least some potential impact on their own officials and their own criminal elements? Yes.

I would describe the Chinese issue as a work in progress. It is moving in the right direction. It is by no means moving as fast as we wish it would. And we still have a lot of work to do before we’re both going to be in a position to say we’re satisfied with where are with…

A questioner returns to the issue of what concretely has been done…

POSTEL: I’ll start. And thank you for the question.

We have seen work going on there, both on the official side as well as by civil society. And I think both are equally important.

One thing that can’t be attributed strictly to the crush, but there seems to be some evidence that progress is being made because the price of ivory and the illegal market in China has fallen 50 percent in the last 18 months. And some of that is just getting consumers to understand that you know they don’t — a lot of Chinese don’t even know where the ivory comes from.

That’s why there’s so many on the civilian side, so many efforts, whether it’s Chinese actresses tweeting a picture of a butchered elephant so people understand. I don’t know if you’ll be able to see it, but this is a picture of Yao Ming in the Bangkok airport in Mandarin, sponsored by us as part of a whole campaign, where the point is to tell the tourists you know that this is not a good thing to be done.

So the government is pledging some things. And of course there’s ivory, but also the government pledged in other areas. They banned sharkskin soup from all their official government banquets. And there’s a whole range of species with whom on which we have to work with them.

So there are concrete steps. But as the ambassador said, it is — it’s a grind. It’s slow.

But fortunately sometimes they’re wanting to follow what we’re doing. So they were very pleased to brag about their crush having seen — having matched our crush. And so sometimes our actions are another goad for them.

BROWNFIELD: Congresswoman, you asked specifically what have they done since the September announcement by the two presidents. I would offer three things.

First, the crush that we’ve talked about. They — in their defense, they did it publicly and it is something that they have never done before.

Second, two months later they did agree to establishing with us a bilateral working group among law enforcement officials to work this issue and provide — put more flesh on the commitment that they made at the presidential level.

And third, they have not yet promulgated, but released for circulation and consideration, a new wildlife trafficking law. It has been reviewed by many people of the entire conservation community.

I will not speak for everyone. But I would describe the law as I have read it and understood it so far is it moves in the right direction in some ways, in the wrong direction in some ways. And it unquestionably does not go as far as we wish it would go.

LOWEY: Just one last comment because I’ve seen many working groups being established. Anything specific coming out of it? Or are they going to take a year to study it again?

BROWNFIELD: It’s joint, congresswoman. So my guess is we’ll be able to push it to a certain extent. The question will be how far are they willing to go?

What I will commit to you is we will push them as far as we can push them. And we will see how far they are willing to go to comply with their own president’s commitments on this issue.