Let's be honest and admit that we Chinese do not have a good reputation among people of the world in terms of our treatment of animals. There is a joke about the Cantonese that they are entrepreneurial people capable of excelling in many professions - but not zookeeper. Our heritage, albeit rich and proud, is unfortunately also riddled with elements of animal abuse that clearly do not live up to the moral standards of modern civilised societies.
One of them is a treatment rooted in traditional Chinese medicine - the extraction of bear bile believed to benefit the liver and eyes. Although the practice of extracting bile from a bear's gall bladder was invented in Korea, it has been perfected in China over the past 10 years.
The bears used to be locked up in small cages for their entire short useful life with steel tubes connected to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week. One can only imagine the pain and suffering they must have gone through. The bears got sick, easily contaminated by bacteria and infected with pus and cancer. Even the bears fortunate enough to have lived beyond their usefulness and then released into the wild often became deranged and died shortly afterwards.
The bear-bile industry now claims the extraction practice has evolved so much that the bears can now live happily. But can one believe this? Representatives of the industry claim the tubeless needle-extraction method takes less than a minute each time and hardly causes any pain.
Regardless, the idea of raising bears to constantly extract an internal body fluid during much of their life span touches upon a sensitive issue of animal rights. What is astonishing is that one company is about to take this cruel practice to an industrial scale.
Guizhentang's entire business model is built on the suffering of bears. It uses bear-bile extract as the special ingredient in its eye-drop products, which have been on the market since it started in 2000 and driven its impressive growth.
The company has now initiated a public listing request. If successful, it will use the capital raised to triple its livestock, from 400 to 1,200 bears. It is already one of the largest producers of bear bile products in mainland China. There are 68 legal bear farms on the mainland, with some 10,000 bears being used.
Guizhentang's initial public offering prospectus claims that industrialised bile extraction gets rid of the need for illegal bear poaching, thus saving bears. But, to me, this argument borders on forcing the public to choose between the lesser of two evils.
Not surprisingly, animal lovers across the country are waging war against the company since the IPO news got out.
The Animals Asia Foundation, based in Hong Kong, is asking the mainland's stock exchanges to forbid the listing, citing cruelty to animals and potential harm to consumers.
Medication that uses bear bile probably does save lives or at least improves people's quality of life. But one has to weigh how critical this industry is to medicine against the pain and suffering imposed on innocent animals. It has been reported that synthetic substitutes are available from Germany and France, albeit at three times the cost. Is it absolutely necessary to keep an army of bears in such despicable conditions?
The industry will quickly put forward arguments of how technologically advanced their production methods have become and how bile extraction saves bears by eliminating the need for poaching. But, even in the absence of animal cruelty laws in China, which are long overdue, they have already lost the moral debate in the court of public opinion.
One only has to look at how the Hollywood movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in which apes were kept for medical experiments, struck a chord with Chinese audiences. If we humans could understand the bear language, we may well find out they have been plotting a revolt for a long time.
John Gong is associate professor at the Beijing-based University of International Business and Economics. johngong@ gmail.com