A clash of cultures between rural and urban communities in China must be resolved as part of the quest to end canine cruelty, Peter Li writes.
Yulin is a small city in southwest China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. It is arguably one of the most well-known cities in the country. The city’s notoriety was earned by the local dog meat traders when they launched the Dog Meat Festival in 2010. You only need to do an image search of Yulin on Google to experience the city’s notoriety. To many foreigners, Yulin represents Chinese inhumanity to dogs, humans’ best friend. In the eyes of Chinese animal lovers, Yulin is a national embarrassment.
China’s animal lovers strongly believe that slaughtering companion animals for food, particularly stolen pet dogs, must be punished. To those people, the city’s dog meat traders are heartless butchers who are yet to be swept into the trashcan of history.
Dog meat consumption is not part of the mainstream Chinese food culture. In ancient China, dog meat was considered “dirty” because it came from theft. Ancient Chinese kept dogs as pets, hunting buddies and guards. China today has some 130 million dogs. Most are urban pets and rural guard dogs. Since China does not have dog farms, most dogs slaughtered for food are believed to be stolen pets and guard dogs.
In 2014 China reportedly consumed 970,000 tons of dog meat,[i] suggesting that this is the food choice of a very small number of people. In contrast, China in the same year consumed 80 million tons of pork, beef, mutton and broiler.
There is nothing cultural about dog eating in Yulin either. Eating dog meat was traditionally believed by the locals to cause facial deformities. Nationally, 70 per cent of mainland Chinese have never eaten dog meat according to a recent nation-wide survey. Like consumption of snakes, pangolins, maggots, and bear paws, the eating of dog meat has been challenged on ethical and public health grounds.
Dogs have made China a divided country. In the pre-reform era (1949-1976), people did not enjoy the political conditions and financial means to keep dogs. Politically, pet keeping was rejected as a bourgeois lifestyle, like the wearing of make-up, jewelry, and high-heeled shoes. Economically, Mao’s socialist experiment created an impoverished society. The imposition of a Stalinist food rationing system removed the material conditions for pet ownership. Economic growth, political relaxation, and rising purchasing power in the last three decades have brought about earth-shattering changes. Pet owners and animal lovers in general have emerged as one of the most vocal interest groups. What makes this community-action oriented is the participation of young activists who are much less tolerant of animal abuse. They intercept dog trucks, storm slaughterhouses, rescue abused animals, and lobby for policy change for animal protection.
The conflict over Yulin is symptomatic of a clash of cultures inside China. Urbanisation is sweeping across the country. Urban cultural values, which see dogs as companions, clash head-on with the rural perceptions of dogs as a tool or a source of income. To the urban animal lovers, dog thefts, long-distance dog transport, and cruel slaughter are both an animal cruelty problem and a violation of the rights of the dog owners, consumers, and youth who may be exposed to the resulting bloody scenes.
The dog meat traders and their supporters, however, see criticism directed at dog meat consumption and their livelihood as an urban assault on rural lifestyles and the dignity of rural people. “By condemning dog meat consumption, the animal lovers are launching a war on the rural people,” a young IT worker in Guangdong told me.
Indeed, dog meat traders are mostly rural folk with limited education and skills. China, since the start of Communist rule in 1949, has carried out an urban-centered development policy. This policy not only prohibited rural migration to the city during Mao’s years but also denied rural residents a host of benefits provided to urban residents. Rural cultural and educational facilities, if available, were rudimentary and sub-standard. Farmers call themselves “second-class citizens” in their own country.
In the reform era, rural migrant workers have flooded the developed coastal regions. Indeed, China’s growth miracle could not have been achieved without the sacrifice of these rural workers. Yet, they are still fighting for equal treatment in employment and education for their children. “Eating of dog meat is a problem habit,” said the Guangdong IT worker. “If they had received enough education, they would have long deserted the profession that their own children are ashamed of,” he added.
An end to the conflict over Yulin is attainable. China has a criminal code that can penalise dog theft; it has food safety laws that prohibit the processing and sale of animal products from diseased or dead animals; and the country has a national policy that requires health certificates for each dog transported over provincial boundaries. China does not need new laws to deal with the criminal acts involved in the dog meat trade. What it needs to do is to enforce the existing laws and regulations.
However, dogs are not the only animal problem China has. Animal cruelty is a comprehensive challenge in the country. It is time that the Chinese national legislature start animal protection law-making, an act that is 194 years behind other industrialised nations.
All in all, animal suffering is a human problem. But to many of China’s rural people having compassion for nonhuman animals is not achievable if injustice and discrimination exist in the society. Clamping down on the Yulin dog meat festival will only go part of the way to meeting the challenges, and these efforts should be combined with an end to urban-biased policies and a push to give rural people equal rights.
[i] The dog consumption data was an estimated amount according to an industry report on China’s dog meat trade. An Analytical Report on the Development and Investment of China’s Dog Meat Industry: 2014-2019 (publisher: ASKCI.com, 2015), a purchased copy.