In Partnership With Humane Society International
Warning: Distressing Content
What comes to mind when you think of China?
A great wall? A history of innovation amid political upheaval? Shanghai’s skyscraper-studded global financial centre? Beautiful blossom trees and tranquil gardens in the rainy season? When I think of China, my mind’s eye evokes the mouth-watering food.
Dàzhǔ gānsī, a fragrant tofu noodle soup adored by the Qianlong Emperor, seasoned with a smorgasbord of soybean products and served with Longjing tea or rice wine. Or dumplings. Lots and lots of dumplings.
But – travel and food journalism aside – if you search the phrase ‘Chinese food’ online, you’re as likely to find a stream of articles and news pieces stereotyping and condemning the food cultures in China as you are to spot a Google Ad for your local takeaway bastardising Peking duck for £14.99.
Among the results, you’ll come across some pretty gruesome images of the dog and cat meat trade:
The sickening scenes caught on camera at Yulin Lychee and Dog Meat Festival – the pinnacle of animal cruelty in China – by organisations like Humane Society International, are enough to make your stomach churn.
The brutal slaughter of countless cats and dogs at this dog-eating festival in the Guangxi province is enough to make the stomachs churn of the majority of Chinese people too.
Qin from the Capital Animal Welfare Association (CAWA), HSI’s Beijing-based partner group, told UNILAD dog-eating is ‘a bad habit among a small number of people’ dubbed ‘thugs and low-lives’.
Sean, a 34-year-old Chinese animal rights activist who works with HSI on the ground, describes his ‘anger and frustration’ at the cruelty.
The self-titled ‘dog lover’ explained why he does what he does, day in, day out:
We are called ‘dog lovers’; a negative term in China meaning ‘people who love dogs over people’. We don’t. We simply believe that dogs suffer at the hands of people and they deserve to be treated with respect and compassion.
Anyway, promoting kindness to animals is also at the same time helping people because being kind brings out the best in people too and makes for a better stable society.
Despite what he describes as a nationwide general trend of ‘indifference to the dog and cat meat trade’, due in the most part to blissful ignorance regarding the criminality and brutality of these trades, Sean isn’t alone is his beliefs.
Qin cited a 2016 CAWA survey which found 70 per cent of Chinese people had never eaten dog.
Of those who had, they explained, most claimed it was not by choice, but because the meat had been served to them on a social occasion.
Likewise, Sean said he knows several people who’ve eaten dog meat entirely by accident, not realising what it was they were being served.
These folks aside, Sean added, most people in China remain unaware and unaffected by the animal cruelty ‘because they don’t buy it, they don’t eat it and they don’t come into contact with it’.
And yet, when the summer solstice rolls around every year, 15,000 dogs and cats are butchered at Yulin Lychee Dog Meat Festival in the name of ‘cultural tradition’.
Sean – who has rescued an estimated 20,000 dogs and several thousand cats from slaughter over the years, since a chance encounter with a truck carrying 460 pets bound for Northeast China’s dog meat market – knows this to be a lie.
It’s not a tradition. It’s a tradition for almost everybody to eat Moon Cakes in China. But, there’s no such tradition of eating dog meat. So, dog meat eating is not acceptable.
Certain news reports on respected outlets such as the BBC would have you believe the Chinese tradition of eating dog meat dates back around five hundred years and is believed to ward off the heat of summer.
Hence, the traders say, Yulin takes place on the Summer Solstice each year.
But Dr Peter Li, Associate Professor at the University of Houston-Downtown and HSI’s China Policy expert, took UNILAD on a trip to yesteryear to outline the complicated relationship between man and beast, fostered by the ruling powers in China.
Since the early years of Chinese civilisation dog meat has been a relative rarity at dinnertime.
Sean told UNILAD the Chinese diet was traditionally plant-based with meats and dairy products only eaten rarely, going as far to say ‘Chinese culture promotes vegetarianism’.
By the end of the Han Dynasty more than 2,000 years ago, dog meat had lost popularity altogether, and was henceforth referred to as ‘dirty meat’ due to its criminal acquirement.
In fact, twice in history Chinese emperors tried to outlaw dog meat consumption, and eating dogs was considered not to be a decent and socially acceptable practice.
Meanwhile, during the Tang and Song dynasties more than 1000 years later, pets had become popular among Chinese communities and many kept dogs to stand guard over their land.
But in the last century, Mao’s China (1949-1976) banned dogs, who they saw as a ‘symbol of decadence and extravagance’, bludgeoning many to death because of the regime’s inability to feed the people, let alone pets, Dr Li explained.
The knock-on effect has been generational, he said:
That meant that an entire generation of Chinese emerged who were – through no fault of their own – denied the bond between people and companion animals that’s so vital for fostering compassion.
It’s led to a certain indifference to animal suffering or a lack of understanding of it by some.
Although the socio-political situation in modern China has not historically fostered kindness or compassion to animals, urbanisation, rising living standards, and rapid growth in pet ownership has turned the tides against animal cruelty.
Yet, at the same time, dog thieves and meat traders who perpetuate the myth of dog meat as acceptable cuisine in modern China for their own commercial gain, have reintroduced dog meat to many parts of China, where before there was no dog meat eating history.
‘Yulin is a perfect example of that’, Dr Li laments.
Qin expanded on that, saying CAWA started to notice the dog meat trade issue in the 1990s before it took off around 2000.
In 2005, cat and dog theft became rampant in Shanghai and Hangzhou to supply Canton’s dog and cat meat market.
Dr Li, who explained the trade is so lucrative as dogs are stolen in their thousands, added:
Dog meat is cheap because it comes from theft. China does not have dog farms.
There was no dog meat tradition in Yulin prior to 2010 when the dog traders invented the idea of a festival and cleverly marketed it as a cultural event. But in truth, it never was.
Now we see a crime-fuelled dog meat trade across China on an industrial scale, with between 10 and 20 million dogs and 4 million cats killed every year.
Sadly, it seems we’ve bought the party line trotted out by the traders at Yulin and beyond.
Sean, who’s on the ground every day tackling what he calls this ‘terrible business’, equates the Western perception that dog and cat meat is intrinsic in Chinese culture to racism.
Such a Western perception is also a sign of losing touch with reality in China. It is a false perception created by the dog meat industry.
What the West thinks it knows aside, Dr Li is proud to tell us how China is seeing a rise in its animal protection movement on a scale he claims ‘overshadows’ those in Korea and Japan in East Asia.
Indeed, men and women like Sean were the first to stop rodeos in China, and protest Canadian efforts to market seal meat to the Chinese.
They’re also putting pressure on the Chinese government to legislate animal protection, all the while standing up to the dog and cat meat trade.
Of his work, which includes animal rescue, market investigations and outreach, Sean said:
It’s both tiring and rewarding, because there’s so much to do for animals in China, but that’s why we must do it. We cannot walk away simply because it’s hard work.
China’s policy environment that allows animal cruelty to happen without consequences…is very challenging.
Sean explains how he encounters difficulties reporting the rare occasions he comes across restaurants selling dog meat in his city, because there’s no regulation on consumption of dog meat.
He said the act isn’t recognised as a crime in China, adding:
A lot of police in some parts of China simply don’t care that much, and because the law doesn’t place any importance or value on animal protection, it goes unchallenged a lot of the time.
That’s why the dog thieves steal dogs in broad daylight. They must be confident they will likely get away with it.
Footage like this surveillance capture shows just how brutal and brazen it can be:
Yet this obvious criminal activity is reflective of an entire culture, in the bigoted minds of some YouTube commenters on the video.
One, judging an entire culture on the actions of the few, wrote:
That’s why the Japanese kicked their ass in ww2 for being dirty dog eaters. Sick ass savages not even worth being called humans.
Boycott anything made in China!!!! Never going to eat Chinese food ever again.
On the other side of the racist coin, organisations like HSI are often accused of cultural imperialism by ‘well-meaning but ill-informed westerners’ who believe they’re standing up for Chinese traditions and being culturally sensitive when they insist Chinese people should be left to eat dogs if they want to.
In fact, Wendy Higgins of HSI says, in doing so, they’re ‘doing China a huge disservice and perpetuating a false racial and cultural stereotype that plays directly into the hands of the dog meat traders’.
It’s a rock and a hard place.
Likewise, the very same government determined to modernise the Western perception of China is ‘pulled in two opposite directions’. On the one hand, criminalising the dog and cat meat trade would cause loss of jobs for the dog meat traders.
Resulting social unrest would be compounded by the government’s unwillingness to provide an alternative livelihood, the likes of which HSI do offer dog farmers in South Korea willing to give up their lifestyle through different agricultural means.
At the same time, the government faces fierce opposition from animal protectionists – both in China and abroad, despite restrictions from the Foreign NGO law – who demand an end to the brutal trade.
Dr Li described the indifference and complacency, stating:
The attitude of the government is that the dog meat trade is a sun-set industry, it is more cost-effective to let it die out naturally by itself than to take proactive measures to end it.
At the same time, there’s no comprehensive anti-animal cruelty law in China, and he believes it’s behind the most progressive countries in animal protection legislation by 196 years, citing the British Martin’s Act of 1822 as his signpost of comparison.
Animal cruelty perpetrated by the tiny minority, and government complacency aside, it’s time for us to stop stereotyping Chinese food culture into a few negative controversies and empower the Chinese animal rights activists on the ground to illicit the change they so desperately want to see.
In the meantime, you can follow UNILAD’s Stop Yulin campaign, which will be running throughout the festival, from 21 to 30 June, to find out more.
Humane Society International and their Chinese animal group partners, VShine and Capital Animal Welfare Association, are petitioning the Yulin authorities to implement and enforce a total ban this year.
Speak out against this cruelty by signing the petition.