China's ivory bans: Enhancing soft power through wildlife conservation

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10 Scopus citations


China has been a major market for elephant ivory for centuries. However, the Chinese government recently enacted bans on imports and exports of ivory (2015) and on the domestic ivory trade (2017). These bans appear to have come in response to intensive influence campaigns and public shaming from domestic and foreign activists, who cited declining elephant populations and highlighted China's role. However, this shaming-narrative is at odds with conventional wisdom regarding Chinese policy-making: China typically resists international pressures and its authoritarian government is thought to be largely insulated from domestic efforts by civil society groups. This article reconciles Beijing's ivory policy with these conventional beliefs about policy-making in China. I argue that the Chinese government saw unique benefits to banning the ivory trade, under growing international scrutiny, as doing so enhanced Chinese soft power while having very little impact on its sovereignty or development. Non-government organizations (NGOs) operating both inside and outside of China played a role as well: NGOs in China helped to shift Chinese public opinion towards favouring the bans, while those operating abroad led public relations efforts to publicize Chinese demand for ivory to foreign audiences. Efforts by the latter group of NGOs intensified pressure on the Chinese government to rein in the ivory market, while increasing the soft power benefits that banning ivory would bring to Beijing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1389-1402
Number of pages14
JournalInternational Affairs
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 1 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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