In a stunning reversal, the Chinese State Council has announced that shark fin soup will no longer be served at official banquets, approving a proposal introduced at the annual National People’s Congress this past March. All publicly funded banquets will remove the cornerstone dish from their menu, one of the most sought after dishes in Chinese cuisine. The soup will be phased out over a three-year period, but the impact is nevertheless devastating to a country that has made the protection of culinary tradition, as well as language and rituals, part of its cultural heritage.
A skillful combination of yin and yang, an eccentric synthesis of rarity and flavor, shark fin soup is one of the masterpieces of Chinese cuisine, representing the aspirations of the poor and a status symbol of the rich. Flaunted in private dinners, it is served to foreign guests in a show of utmost courtesy. At the interminable banquets during negotiations, shark fin soup is a delicacy valued for its extravagance.
Paying the price for this luxury are 73 million sharks each year, a figure that is growing exponentially along with the increase in Chinese millionaires. Diners are greeted with the sight of dried shark fins in glass jars, a reassuring confirmation of the quality of the restaurant. Both Chinese and international environmentalist organizations have pushed Beijing to block an unrestrained harvest of sharks that could alter the balance of fragile marine ecosystems, although informal surveys have revealed that the consuming public has little regard for these concerns.
Of note is the unmediated relationship between dietary needs and the way they are satisfied in China; no species is protected or made off limits by religion, there are no forbidden flavors. People eat to satisfy hunger (often atavistic) and for pleasure, and that which is good, is good for you, like shark fin soup.
In any case, public opinion has risen against the practice and the government has taken action, yet another example of a developing society that is breaking free from the networks of propaganda and control. Society is asserting itself through new means of communication, and although it seems to concentrate on seemingly marginal subjects, it is no longer possible to keep it quiet. A benevolent analysis highlights the novelty of the open ear of the government, taking a less severe line and paying more attention to social dynamics and the demands of the more cultured urban population. A more cynical view interprets the prohibition as a populist answer to the public demands for more moderation in the behavior of the party and its officials.
China is filled with stories of excess, waste, and nepotism. Along with the increasing divide between income levels, comes the deepening difference between the government and the governed. Beijing has removed a tile, but the overall mosaic of inequality is much bigger. Those who cannot be without shark fin soup will undoubtedly find other ways to procure it; foreigners enamored with its delicacy will instead find the familiar refrain, indisputable this time, that China is no longer what it once was.