For years, animal rights activists in China have lobbied policymakers, organized education drives and staged protests to persuade the government and the public to support banning the eating of dogs and cats. They scored few concrete wins.
The coronavirus, which spread from a food market in China, changed everything.
After the national government suspended the sale of wildlife in February, the southern Chinese cities of Shenzhen and Zhuhai became the first in the country to ban the consumption of cats and dogs. Last month, the Ministry of Agriculture, in a major step, removed dogs from its list of approved domesticated livestock, referring to dogs for the first time as “companion animals.”
Even in the southern Chinese city of Yulin, a dog meat festival that has long courted controversy opened on Sunday to less fanfare than in past years, as fears of the virus kept revelers away.
“We have been working on this issue for years, but the government kept passing the buck,” said Cynthia Zhang, a Guangzhou-based animal welfare activist. “So we are using the epidemic as an opportunity to try to push through as much legislation as possible.”
It is long-fought validation for a loose but fast-growing network of local animal welfare activists.
While China’s practice of eating dog meat has received global attention from celebrities including British comedian Ricky Gervais and American reality television star Lisa Vanderpump, an often overlooked group of animal activists and pet lovers has been the on-the-ground force for change in communities and cities across the country. They have succeeded despite growing pushback from nationalistic critics who say that eating dog meat is a Chinese tradition, no different than the American love of turkey.
The animal activists have managed to carve out a space for their work in a country where advocacy and dissent have rapidly shriveled under China’s leader Xi Jinping. While human rights lawyers and women’s rights activists are regularly targeted by the Communist Party, animal protection is seen as a relatively fringe issue and less menacing to the party — giving activists more room to maneuver.
But their efforts have received tacit backing from the fast-growing number of pet owners in China, drawn mostly from the country’s booming middle class. One recent survey conducted by local animal associations found that there were 55 million pet dogs in China last year, up 8% from the year before. As their legions have grown, so too has support for banning dog meat consumption.
“The younger generation of Chinese is more international, they have more universal values,” said Qin Xiaona, founder of Beijing’s Capital Animal Welfare Association. “The officials are getting younger, too.”
One activist, Qi Qi, 37, started pressing the issue in 2014 when she answered a call for help on social media from volunteers who had intercepted a truck with hundreds of dogs on the outskirts of Beijing. Over two days, Qi helped care for the dogs as the volunteers negotiated with police and the driver to hand over the animals. Qi went on to participate in about 20 truck rescues, though not all were as successful.
Recently, Qi and her husband have shifted their focus to raising awareness. The couple recently opened a cafe in a trendy Beijing shopping mall where they host talks about animal protection and donate a portion of their proceeds to local trap-neuter-release efforts. Earlier this month, when a truck full of dogs was intercepted in northeastern China, Qi stood with a group of volunteers outside the Ministry of Agriculture every day for a week to urge officials to intervene by putting pressure on local authorities to release the dogs.
“We don’t say it’s to protect dogs, but rather to enforce the law and safeguard public health,” said Qi. “In China, if you say you are doing this because you are a dog lover, a lot of people will be turned off, so we try to circle around it.”
Zhang, the Guangzhou-based activist, said that for years, she and a group of volunteers had taken a more combative stance, staging protests at local government offices and going head-to-head with dog meat vendors.
“The space for doing our work has shrunk,” Zhang said. She noted that authorities had shut down several active animal protection group discussions on the popular social messaging app WeChat after some members had criticized the government.
“There is still room to get our message out there,” she said. “As long as you don’t criticize the government.”
In 2015, Zhang said she and her colleagues were able to convince one delegate, a vegetarian, to propose a bill to ban the slaughter and consumption of cats and dogs at the annual gathering of China’s top lawmaking body. The proposal sparked a national conversation, and more lawmakers began to show interest.
But it wasn’t until the unexpected emergence of the coronavirus — and the renewed scrutiny over the wildlife trade in China — that some of the policies long under discussion gained traction.
“China has been in a civil war between animal lovers and people who support dog meat consumption, and the animal lovers are gaining the upper hand,” said Peter J. Li, a China policy adviser with Humane Society International. “The Chinese government sees this.”
Persuading the public can still be an uphill battle.
The practice of eating dog meat is limited to a few areas of China and most people do not eat it regularly. Instead, defenders often subscribe to a belief that “while I may not eat dog meat, I support your right to do so.”
Xu Zhe, 22, a recent college graduate from the northeastern city of Dalian, said he eats dog meat once a year during the Chinese New Year and had no qualms about it even though he grew up with a dog at home.
“I have a deep connection with my dog, but not with the dog I’m eating,” Xu said.
The recent rise of nationalism in China has further fueled defenders of the practice. Some say that banning dog meat is a rejection of a long-standing Chinese tradition.
The environment, though, is improving, even in the home of the Yulin Lychee and Dog Meat Festival.
While activists say many locals still eat dog meat, local officials, facing domestic and international pressure, have distanced themselves from the festival in recent years. Activists on the ground said that the atmosphere was noticeably quieter compared with past years, with far fewer visitors.
Most of the dog meat stalls and vendors had moved to the outskirts of the city. A recent government crackdown had also made it difficult for traders to transport dogs from outside the province.
There have been longer-term changes in the city as well. In recent years, the city has seen an influx of younger, middle-class Chinese who are less defensive than the older generation about the local dog meat-eating tradition. Grooming shops and pet clinics have begun to pop up alongside new wine bars and steak restaurants.
“People’s lives have improved,” said Tang Laixi, who opened a two-story pet-themed restaurant and grooming business in Yulin in 2017. Since last year, Tang said he had noticed an increase in the number of pet dogs — particularly poodles, golden retrievers and Border collies — in the city.
“Having a pet keeps you in a good mood,” he said.
Amy Qin. c.2020 The New York Times Company