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Aiming the Internet @ Conservation

The battle to save the world’s sharks isn’t just happening in the world’s oceans — increasingly, it’s being done by surfers of the virtual variety in China. 

Long an essential part of any Chinese celebration, the rising popularity of shark fin soup has been a major factor in global shark decline. The dish faces increased scrutiny around the world, and a growing group of Chinese shark fin activists — like The Nature Conservancy’s Jim Zhang — are getting online and using social media to make waves. 

In a country where environmental protection is urgent, the Internet has the power to cohere conservationists into a powerful movement. 

“Through my participation in social media, I’m meeting and interacting with more and more people who are interested in improving China’s environment,” says Zhang, the Conservancy’s North Asia regional director. “I’m happy that I can help contribute to this new trend and that the Conservancy is at the forefront of the cyber conservation movement in China.”

Building a Following

China’s web population is growing fast. By the end of 2010, the number of Chinese citizens on the Internet had boomed to more than 450 million, and about 303 million of those people (a number equivalent to the U.S. population) surfed the web on mobile phones. 

Online content is increasingly being generated by average citizens. Over 90 percent of China’s “netizens” participate in social media sites. By the end of 2010, over 65 million microblog accounts had been registered, and it’s estimated that there will be 460 million such accounts by the end of 2013.

Zhang, a former tech entrepreneur, is in touch with a fair number of those users through his Twitter-like accounts on Chinese websites Sina and Tencent; Zhang’s accounts have, respectively, around 540,000 and 223,000 followers. His thoughts on the environment — which extend from calls to boycott fur products to words of warning on a natural gas pipeline that would pass through a nature reserve — are getting a warm reception and helping shape China’s environmental awareness. 

"The Power of Microblogs"

That awareness, like China’s web population, is steadily expanding. A 2008 Pew Research Center study found that 80 percent of China’s population wants environmental protection prioritized ahead of economic growth. That desire is manifesting itself in various ways, and one is the grassroots campaign against shark fin soup.

Zhang has been particularly vigorous in boycotting the dish, which has become a commonplace status symbol among China’s ascendant middle and upper classes. Earlier this year, he published a Sina post that read, in part, “Please [don’t] eat shark-fins; if we keep eating it, the sharks will go extinct!” He then forwarded the post to Karen Mok and Li Bingbing, two prominent Chinese entertainers with millions of online followers.

The message circulated, and nearly 30,000 web users participated in a poll, started by Zhang, on a potential shark fin ban. Roughly 98 percent of the respondents voted for the ban; as a result, a petition to halt the importation of shark fins was successfully lodged with China’s legislature, which is now considering the measure. 

The resulting online uproar also helped Zhang make a case to ban shark fin soup from the prestigious Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Beijing clubhouse, where the city’s movers and shakers rub elbows. Chen Dong, a former leader of the Climate Group in China, sent Zhang a message. “I never thought we would see results like this in just one day,” it read. “That’s the power of microblogs.”

Friending the Future

Jack Ma, one of China’s most successful businesspeople and the founder of alibaba.com, has also been a vocal opponent of shark finning. In 2007, he publicly forswore the dish, and his commitment to conservation has carried over into his tech business: a portion of the Alibaba Group’s annual revenue is now set aside for environmental protection. 

Ma is the first Chinese citizen to join the Conservancy’s global board of directors. He also sits on the China program’s board of trustees, which is occupied by a number of other important tech figures. These include Ding Lei — the founder and CEO of the NetEase Internet portal and a longtime proponent of food safety — as well as Ma Huateng, the CEO of Tencent. These individuals are using their means to further the Conservancy’s mission: Tencent, for example, has been working with China program staff to create an online monitoring webpage for new nature reserves. 

The Conservancy has been making progress elsewhere on the digital front. In February, we unveiled a brand new Mandarin website. The website helps a new audience of Internet users read up on the latest Conservancy projects and watch videos and slideshows featuring the work we’re doing in China and around the world. 

“The growing Internet community is changing China,” says Zhang. “It gives us an important new opportunity to influence the next generation of leaders and establish a meaningful, widespread conservation movement here.”

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