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Why I object to Alibaba founder Jack Ma's hunting trip

Chinese NGO founder Feng Yongfeng criticises Alibaba founder Jack Ma for hunting trip, despite fears of losing funding

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Feng Yongfeng believes frank criticism is healthy for the environmental movement (Image by ben matthews

Jack Ma, the mega-rich chairman of e-commerce firm Alibaba, is facing a barrage of criticism from Chinese environmentalists for a hunting trip he took in the UK.

Ma spent £36,000 pounds on the trip two years ago, according to UK media reports. He and 11 friends rented a castle in a Scottish village and went shooting, bagging 17 stags.

Chinese environmental group  Nature University has protested against Ma’s behaviour in an open letter, saying it would encourage China’s rich to go hunting, and undermine efforts to protect wild animals.

Criticising Ma may mean Nature University will not get funding from the Alibaba Foundation. But its founder, Feng Yongfeng, told chinadialogue he has no regrets. He says environmental groups should take a stance to make their views clear: the health of environmental work needs such communication – this is true solidarity.

chinadialogue (CD): Internet users have said that Nature University has chosen an easy target. Rather than take aim at Jack Ma, why not demand the EU, the US, and Africa all ban hunting like China has done?

Feng Yongfeng (FY): In China environmental groups often deal with whatever comes up. You don’t know what is going to happen, but when it does you take a stance and speak out; you intervene. Nature University is good at such interventions and research, and every day we actively respond to events, we do this hundreds of times a year. Jack Ma is just one example of this. He’s neither a soft target nor a hard one. And in environmental protection terms this isn’t a particularly special case, it’s just one of the many we deal with. There’s nothing to get too excited about here.

Of course we’ve looked at hunting in China, although not in a sustained way. The large number of wildlife conservation cases, particularly involving birds, we’ve engaged in over the last two years have proven that China’s wildlife is facing slaughter on a daily basis. There isn’t a single species that isn’t threatened by the Chinese people. We’ll be publishing findings of our investigations in the future.  

CD: Is it a good thing that China’s rich can go to developed nations, such as the UK, to hunt? Many people like to hunt, and China’s rich are still people – they have the right to enjoy legal pastimes, such as hunting. If they go to countries where hunting is well managed, will that reduce the threat to animals in China?

FY: No. It’s still killing animals, no matter where it happens. And worst of all going on foreign hunting trips isn’t going to teach these people to respect nature and protect the environment. Quite the contrary, they’re just getting kicks out of the killing.

CD: Green Beagle has said that there should be no hunting in China. Have you looked at that in detail?

FY: The rate of extinction of species in China is probably higher than anywhere else in the world. And the reasons for that are very simple: natural habitats are being destroyed and fragmented; animals are being slaughtered and eaten; endless permits for wild animal farming are being issued, leading to widespread trapping of animals to supply those farms; and zoos, collectors and animal-lovers are buying up wild animals.

Obviously we can’t investigate everything that happens in China. But we do intervene in cases of harm to animals that we encounter, and we’re in close touch with other groups concerned with animal welfare. We should be very clear about what’s happening to animals in China on a daily basis.

CD: Jack Ma has contributed to protection of the environment in China. Is it fair to criticise him so harshly for a legal hunting trip he made two years ago in the UK? What about solidarity among environmentalists?

FY: Ma’s Alibaba Foundation is currently experimenting with funding Chinese environmental organisations, and we’ve been keeping an eye on that. But Ma puts too much faith in the “advanced world” and has spent huge amounts on getting involved with The Nature Conservancy. I think that’s very naïve. Hopes for environmental protection in China have to lie with grassroots groups. If you don’t give them your full support, but instead spend a lot on learning “advanced skills” which just aren’t applicable, you’re wasting your money.

Environmental groups need to take stances, to have views and judgements on the issues, and express those promptly. If the sector is to be robust we need that kind of interaction. And that’s true solidarity. It’s not our way to keep quiet because we’re worried about funding. Of course being so frank may have its price. There is a possibility that the Alibaba Foundation will not be willing to fund us due to our criticism.

CD: Some say that the strong criticism of sports hunting displays a weakness of Chinese environmental groups -- that they lack rationality and a scientific outlook, relying more on enthusiasm and ideals. What does environmental protection in China really need?

FY: Rationality and science are often illusions. Those who accuse others of being irrational are often no more rational or scientific themselves. Rationality and science are used to beat down other people’s evidence, saying these are ancient ideas unsupported by facts; or that other country’s experiences just aren’t relevant to China; that bold ideas aren’t realistic; or that numerous impossible conditions must first be met.

I think that China’s problems exist here, in China. The solutions, the wisdom needed, are all in China. The only route to environmental protection in China is a constant facing of the reality of environmental issues, of honest intervention and improvements. These last few years we’ve seen, sadly, that too few groups are doing that. They don’t get involved in the real issues, so what use are rationality and science? And anyway, charity and environmental protection can’t rely on rationality and science alone. I think their role in environmental protection accounts for maybe 10% of the whole – the rest is courage, wisdom, hard work and persistence. 

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