The Long March of Chairman Meow

The Long March of Chairman Meow
AP Photo / Itsuo Inouye
Why you need to know

China's animal protection laws have come a long way in the past 30 years.

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In the summer of 2017, I wrote for CNN International that China was mired in a “civil war” over dogs. Two camps of people who have opposing views on the role of dogs have clashed since the final years of the 90s. Animal lovers and their supporters believe that China has long passed the days when people had to eat anything edible for survival.

To them, dogs are not food but companions. Nor is dog meat a traditional food. Twice in the country’s dynastic past, Chinese emperors tried to outlaw dog meat consumption. Yet dog meat traders and their supporters believe that dogs are like livestock animals. Consumption of dog meat is no different from consumption of beef, pork and fish. They see dog meat consumption as a right, a “human right.” If Westerners can devour beef, foie gras, horse meat, seal meat, whale and dolphin meat, what moral right do they and their Chinese lackeys have to criticize dog meat consumption?

Animals and China’s 'civil war'

China’s “civil war” is not focused on dogs only. The “war” splits Chinese society on a host of other animal related issues. Wildlife conservation in China has since the early 80s faced an unprecedented challenge. Tibetan antelopes were poached to the brink of extinction in the 90s. Asiatic black bears are farmed for bile extraction from an open wound cut in their stomachs. Tigers are cage farmed with the intention of utilizing their bones and body parts for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

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Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
Veterinary surgeon Gail Cochrane of the Animals Asia Foundation removes the gall bladder of a sedated Asiatic black bear at the 'Moon Bear Rescue Centre' in Chengdu in China's Sichuan Province in 2002. The gall bladder is removed to avoid infection and save the bear. Though it is illegal to hunt Asiatic black bears in the wild in China, the animals are still trapped or killed by poachers for their gall bladders and other body parts, which are used for traditional medicines.

Zoos, wildlife parks and aquariums have multiplied since the mid-1990s. Animal performance and other cruel practices like live feeding have turned China’s captive wildlife institutions into dangerous terrain for both human and non-human animals. Encouraged by a Chinese government that is obsessed with economic growth and poverty reduction, businesses exploiting animals have managed continue expanding their operations. China today has the world’s biggest livestock industry, producing more than 80 million tons of meat a year. It also dominates the world’s fur animal farming, wildlife farming, and the dog/cat meat trade. It was against this backdrop that animal activists joined together to launch a movement that is gathering pace and strength.

Giving voice to the voiceless

Two ground-breaking organisations were established in the 1990s. In 1992, China Small Animal Protection Association (CSAPA) was founded by Lu Di, the legendary Korean War veteran, a retired Beijing University professor and special assistant to Chairman Mao. From day one of its founding, CSAPA aimed to confront cruelty, spread compassion for nonhuman animals and encourage policy change.

The Friends of Nature (FON), registered in 1994, is a nationally-registered environmental organization. Immediately following its registration, FON was on the front line on the Tibetan Plateau, fighting ruthless poachers. Following their footsteps, animal protection organizations, societies, volunteer groups, rescue and sheltering operations have set up across the entire country. These groups, individually or in collaboration with each other, have achieved much that at one point would not have seemed achievable in a country under one-Party rule.

Achievements

Some of the achievements have far reaching significance. Poaching of Tibetan antelopes has been effectively checked on the Tibetan Plateau. Awareness of wildlife protection in general has increased as indicated by the construction of special passages for migratory animals when roads are being built. Mass dog culls, a government response to reported dog biting incidents, are suspended. The authorities have since 2007 increased efforts on the registration, vaccination and sterilization of household pets. Promoting responsible pet ownership is also part of the government’s proactive effort. Cruelty to captive wildlife animals is now a target of the animal protection movement in China.

Under pressure from Chinese activists and international animal protection groups such as the Animals Asia Foundation and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Chinese authorities shut down the most abusive bear farms, promulgated regulations, and agreed to stop issuing new farming licenses. In 2010, as a result of strong criticism from Chinese activists, particularly groups like the China Zoo Watch, the Chinese government issued a directive for zoos to stop animal performances and other abusive practices. The accomplishment that has received worldwide recognition is the Chinese government’s decision to end the domestic ivory trade by the end of 2017. This accomplishment could not have been achieved without the joint efforts of the various Chinese and international actors.

China and the world

The Chinese animal protection movement is part of the global effort to make the world a “humane society.” It also makes contribution to the worldwide movement. In 2003 and 2008, Chinese animal protection groups succeeded in getting the Chinese authorities to reject a plan to import Spanish bullfighting to China.

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Photo Credit:Reuters/ 達志影像
Chinese animal protection groups successfully lobbied to prevent bullfighting from being imported to China.

In 2010, when the Canadian government jump started a seal trade offensive aimed at China, Chinese groups responded by urging Canadians to stop supporting the imposition of such cruel products on Chinese consumers. By the end of the 2012, Ottawa admitted that its seal meat export plan had been foiled by animal rights groups in China. Also in 2012, a national campaign led by the Nature University, an environmental NGO in Beijing, and the Capital Animal Welfare Association, was launched to stop the planned staging of a rodeo show at Beijing’s Olympic Stadium.

At about the same time, Chinese groups also succeeded in stopping an investment project for the building of the world’s biggest foie gras processing plant by the side of China’s biggest freshwater lake in Jiangxi. These successful campaigns have served to support animal activists in foreign countries in their effort to stop seal hunting and bullfighting cruelty, and the promotion of rodeo as the “culture of the American West.” These campaigns have also sent a clear message to foreign businesses or individuals that China is not a dumping ground for cruel products or programs from foreign countries.

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Credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias (CHINA)
The shores of Poyang Lake in Jiangxi Province, which animal rights groups prevented from hosting the world's largest foie gras processing plant.
Success factors

Several factors have contributed to the rise of a robust animal protection movement in China. A more relaxed political environment in the reform era has allowed autonomous activities to take place. Although China’s policy making remains a closed process, the authorities have conditionally opened the process to animal activists and experts in the last decade or so. For example, the revised Wildlife Protection Law includes input from animal protectionists and conservation experts.

Rising societal wealth and higher disposable incomes have provided material conditions for animal protection. Chengdu’s Home of Love, a shelter operation, depends on donations to feed and care for the more than 4,000 rescued dogs and some 400 cats. With a per capita income of US$8,000, China has entered the rank of middle income nations.

Urbanization and a changing society are other factors that have contributed to the country’s animal protection movement. Urban dwellers, 54 percent of the Chinese population in 2016 according to the World Bank, are more shielded from traditional practices such as livestock slaughter and the use of animals for human benefit. They are therefore less desensitized and less tolerant of abusive acts to animals. While supporters for animal use come from both rural and urban areas, animal activists are primarily from an urban background. Those who chase and intercept dog trucks on the highways are mostly educated, young and white-collar urbanites.

Finally, China’s animal protection movement has received much assistance from international animal protection and conservation NGOs. The WWF was one of the first international NGOs to set foot on mainland China. The Hong Kong-based Animal Asia Foundation has, besides its flagship “China Bear Rescue,” worked with Chinese local authorities in their effort to modernize their urban animal management policies and practices. The International Fund for Animal Welfare has collaborated with Chinese partners in elephant protection, public education and disaster response. Humane Society International, the global arm of the world’s biggest animal protection group, the Humane Society of the United States, has pursued a comprehensive China program covering issues ranging from wildlife protection, companion animal protection, cruelty-free cosmetics, farm animal welfare, and zoo animal cruelty. The operation of international NGOs in China has offered their Chinese counterparts a mature and professional operating model.

Remaining challenges

Chinese animal protection movement faces many challenges. First, no animal protection campaign can cause social instability. Public protests and demonstrations are risky for Chinese NGOs. Second, Chinese NGOs operate in a less than friendly policy environment. The Chinese government has in place a stringent registration policy that discourages NGO formation. An association has to have a government office that acts in a supervisory role before it can register as an officially recognized group. Finally, the government’s “development first” mindset remains strong. Economic activities receive priority attention and are protected by the Chinese government. Environmental protection, labor rights, and animal welfare are often sidelined if they slow or disrupt economic activities.

In conclusion, China is at a historical crossroads. A truly powerful China has to be “powerful” in its compassion and kindness to the disadvantaged and the voiceless. Chinese animal activists and their efforts in the last two decades have told us that China is on the right track. They are charting a new roadmap for China’s future.

Read next: Taiwan Stray Dog Adoption Languishing as Shelters Overflow

This article was originally published in CPI Analysis. The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article.

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston

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