A mainland pharmaceutical company has tried - with little success - to convince the public that the process of extracting bile from Asiatic black bears is not animal cruelty.
Gui Zhen Tang Pharmaceutical, a Fujian company, uses the bile in traditional Chinese medicine. Bile from the gall bladder is used in more than 30 products to treat many ailments such as eye problems and inflammation. The company plans to launch an initial public offering (IPO) on the ChiNext stock exchange in Shenzhen. It is part of an effort to raise money to expand its bear farm, from 470 animals to 1,200.
But animal rights activists have opposed the plan. They say the company engages in a cruel and inhumane practice. Bile is extracted through holes cut into the stomach walls and gall bladders of live Asiatic black bears.
In response, the company invited 70 journalists to visit its bear farm last month.
But the public relations campaign backfired on Gui Zhen Tang, and more questions were raised about how it extracts bile. Reporters were given only a few minutes to observe the process. No Hong Kong or foreign media reporters were invited, and animal rights activists were barred.
After the tour of the bear farm, one journalist asked a Gui Zhen Tang worker: 'How can you be sure the extraction is painless for a bear?'
The worker responded: 'You are not a bear. How could you know it would be painful?'
The process of extracting bile from the gall bladders of Asiatic black bears is not a pretty sight, and it is far from a pleasant experience for the creatures, according to animal rights activists.
They also say Gui Zhen Tang Pharmaceutical is willing to ignore animal rights in the name of profits.
The Chinese medicine industry defends the practice.
Mainlanders are now waking up to the animal rights cause. Many are prepared to support their beliefs by opposing bear bile farms and Gui Zhen Tang's planned initial public offering (IPO) in a mainland stock exchange.
Last month, the Beijing Loving Animals Foundation and 72 celebrities, including movie stars and writers, sent an open letter to the China Securities Regulatory Commission. The letter urged the commission to deny the company's listing.
China SOS Help, another non-government animal rights organisation, announced it had collected as much as 120 million yuan (HK$148 million) in donations. It plans to use the money to buy Gui Zhen Tang shares and veto its bear-bile business, if an IPO were to succeed.
Internet company Alibaba added bear bile to its list of banned products on Taobao.com, the mainland's biggest e-commerce platform. Shark's fin is also on the banned list.
An increasing number of internet users are also expressing strong opposition to the proposed listing. A poll on the QQ.com website found that more than 93 per cent of more than 50,000 respondents opposed Gui Zhen Tang's IPO, and only 3 per cent supported it.
People have even dressed up in bear suits to protest outside some of about 200 mainland outlets that sell the company's products. They are also protesting at local government offices.
Profit versus morals
Bear-gall production is a highly profitable business on the mainland. Bile powder can sell for as much as 4,000 yuan a kilogram. For thousands of years, it has been regarded as the most effective medicine for disorders of the liver and bile duct.
Animal rights activists criticise the company for not abolishing the cruel process of extracting bile. They say it is outrageous that the company wants to expand production.
As a result of fierce opposition, the company has launched a public relations campaign to try to convince the public that extracting bear from bile is not cruel to the animals.
On its website, Gui Zhen Tang says it can collect bear bile in five to eight seconds 'without causing the bears pain'.
However, Animals Asia Foundation (AAF), a Hong Kong-based charity that rescues bears from bile farms, said the industry forced bears to live with open wounds. It says most bears die from liver cancer and many suffer from severe mental stress. AAF has said that other drugs can be used as a substitute for bear bile.
In 2007, Jiang Qi, former deputy president of Shenyang Pharmaceutical University, led a research team that used substitute ingredients to produce medicines that had the same properties as drugs containing bear bile.
But the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine, a supporter of Gui Zhen Tang, insisted that bear bile was irreplaceable in Chinese medicine. It went on to accuse Western groups, such as AAF, of using animal protection as an excuse to damage the Chinese medicine industry's competitiveness - to the benefit of Western pharmaceutical companies.
The association said hundreds of thousands of employees in the pharmaceutical sector would lose their jobs. It added that the traditional Chinese medicine market, worth 10 billion yuan a year, would die out if bear-bile farming was banned.
John Gong, associate professor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, thinks bear bile has medical benefits, but it is at a very high cost.
'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. Is it absolutely necessary to keep an army of bears in such despicable conditions?' he asks.
Voices: What people are saying
'The bile extracted from sick black bears is very likely to carry a cancer cell, which could trigger health risks when ingested by humans.'
Xu San, Animals Asia Foundation, a rescue group in Hong Kong
'It is not necessary to use bear bile in medicine because the effective ingredients are found in herbs and can even be produced synthetically.'
Jiang Qi, former deputy president of Shenyang Pharmaceutical University
Bile farms are like 'a kindergarten for bears' and anyone opposing the IPO is 'acting against the country'.
Qiu Shuhua, general manager of Gui Zhen Tang Pharmaceutical
Saving the bears
When activist Jill Robinson visited a bear-bile farm on the mainland in 1993, she described the cages as 'a torture chamber' for the animals.
'They can't move, they can't stand up, they can't turn around, they can just about put their paws out of the cage to feed themselves,' said the head of Animals Asia Foundation (AAF).
Robinson founded the Hong Kong-based organisation in 1998 to bring an end to what she saw as horrific conditions for thousands of Asiatic black bears.
In July 2000, AAF signed an agreement with Beijing to co-operate on a major rescue of 500 bears in Sichuan province with the long-term goal of ending bear farming.
Robinson also got permission from the government to set up a rescue centre for bears in Chengdu , Sichuan. Since October 2000, more than 40 bear farms have been closed down and more than 277 bears placed at the rescue centre.
Today, the centre has developed into an education village. Visitors are allowed to see the rescued bears that once lived in terrible conditions. Now they roam as free and happy creatures.
Despite the success of AAF, much more has to be done, Robinson believes. As of 2006, there are 68 registered bear farms on the mainland. They keep about 8,000 black bears for bile extraction. Countless underground bear farms also exist, hidden across the country.
The animal foundation says it needs support from the public to end this inhumane and irresponsible trade.