The Past, Present, and Future of Animal Welfare in China

China’s animal welfare record is at the global center stage once again due to COVID-19. Sonakshi Srivastava sat down with Dr. Peter Li to unpack the country's most pressing welfare concerns.

Reported Policy Reflections

China’s precarious animal welfare record is at the global center stage once again due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the origins of the virus are still hotly debated, the closest related viruses to SARS-CoV-2 are found in bats. A common hypothesis is that the virus initially spread in Wuhan, China because of wet markets that sell exotic animals’ meat, including bats. The global disruption caused by the pandemic has brought a major reckoning with the broken human-animal relationship across the globe and in China. 

Dr. Peter Li’s timely book Animal Welfare in China provides a comprehensive overview of the history of animal welfare from ancient times to drastic changes in 20th century China. It also explores the country’s most pressing animal welfare concerns like animal agriculture, bear farming, and the trade and consumption of exotic wildlife, dog meat, and other controversial products.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity. 

Sonakshi Srivastava: How do you navigate the space between highlighting animal cruelty in China and, at the same time, not vilifying people, country, or culture? I assume the latter can be challenging since the global perception of animal welfare in China is very negative. 

Peter Li: It’s a great question. Animal exploitation does not happen in China only; it happens around the world. China is the biggest animal producer, there is more animal farming but that does not make China the sole perpetrator of animal cruelty. There is animal cruelty in India, United States, Japan, Australia; China is only a member of the global community that does not treat sentient beings like animals fairly. I don’t buy the argument that oh, the people in Vietnam, Myanmar, Pakistan, or India are cruel to animals because of their culture. Animal cruelty is driven by human greed. Commercial operations are pushed under the name of development and economic modernization but the end goal is to make money. So if we view cruelty as being driven by commercial operation and greed then we won’t blame the culture, people, or the country. 

SS: The cultural argument has still become a double-edged sword. On one hand, there is the persistent idea that China’s culture is a big factor in animal cruelty. On the other hand, Chinese people often use culture as an argument to counter animal welfare concerns. You talk about it in your book, like how wildlife meat and animal products used in traditional Chinese medicine are often packaged under the guise of culture. How do you respond to the acceptance of this cultural argument?

PL: Excellent question, I would say this. Yes, countries have different cultures –  Chinese culture is different from western culture. Even within Asia, Chinese culture is different from the culture of countries in South Asia and Southeast Asia. But humanity is the same. The human bond with companion animals is transnational, for example, dogs have been companion animals in China since the Han dynasty, more than 2000 years ago. Even though there are some who eat dogs but predominantly people think dogs are not food. One thousand to 2000 years ago, Chinese people did not communicate with North Americans and Europeans but all three groups had dogs as companion animals. So culture may be different but there is something transcultural which is humanity. 

Some people in non-western societies use culture to defend some of the practices. For example, a small group in China says that dog meat consumption is our culture but the argument is primarily promoted by traders of dog meat. My own experiences are an example as I grew up in China, never once did my parents cook wild animals at home. I am as Chinese as any other Chinese person in Mainland China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. These practices are not part of our mainstream food culture. But, you hear a lot of people in the west say that Chinese people love eating wild animals like snakes. To which my response is always the same, China does not have a dominant or mainstream culture for wildlife meat. But who is making this argument? It’s the wildlife traders, breeders, and restaurant owners because of greed, they want to make money. Dog meat consumption, wildlife consumption is supply-driven consumption not consumer-driven consumption. The Chinese people themselves are the first to stand up against such practices. 

SS: Speaking of the dog meat industry, there is a detailed chapter in your book on the nuances of the industry which also covers the infamous Yulin Dog Meat Festival. The festival has gained a lot of international traction and mainstream coverage. However, the prevalence of this narrative that Chinese people eat dogs has also resulted in it becoming a racist stereotype. Why do you think the Yulin Meat Festival has caught so much global attention and infamy? 

PL: Why it has caught so much global attention is because it is offensive. It is something that is offensive to the Chinese people themselves. Chinese animal protectionists were the first to stand up and shout at Yulin authorities. They did it first and then the international community was alerted and started a global condemnation. 

Once again there is little knowledge of the background of the Yulin Dog Meat Festival. The festival was actually officially launched in 2010, the traders tried to launch it earlier but were not successful in 1997, 1998, 2000, and 2002. Why did it take off in 2010? Because in 2010, the Guangxi provincial government wanted to boost tourism in the province and asked all the cities to come up with ideas around local specialties. Yulin authorities took advantage of that provincial policy and started this dog meat festival. When I say it was not there before, I had to back up my arguments so I went to Yulin and talked to older people, younger people, in the countryside and the urban areas. I spoke to an 80-year-old gentleman and I asked him if he had heard of the festival when he was 20-30 years old?  He said that he never heard of it. The festival only happens in Yulin city and not rural areas. The dog meat restaurants as well are concentrated in the cities because they make more money there. Dog meat is not something for the poor people. Yulin is not a poor city, sure it is not as developed as Shanghai or Beijing but people are very well to do there. The dog meat festival is just one way for the local government to make money. So once again it has nothing to do with culture or tradition, it is simply about making money. These offensive ideas persist because they are offensive. 

SS: Your book also covers the controversial wildlife farms in China. The situation has changed significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic because the Chinese government announced in 2020 that they will suspend all wildlife wet markets and shut down all farms. In a previous interview you said that you were very surprised by the decision, why is that? 

PL: Yes, I was greatly surprised. So when SARS broke out in China in November 2002, it took the Chinese government six months to shut down the trade because they did not know what this was. It took them six months to find out that the virus came from wild animals in live markets. They shut down the markets in May 2003 and in August 2003 when SARS was controlled, they reopened the trade. The government originally was very determined to shut down the trade but then later under the pressure of the wildlife business interest, reopened the markets to the disappointment of a lot of people including me. 

This time when COVID-19 broke out, I have to give credit to the Chinese government. Unlike what western media says, the government was very fast. COVID-19 broke out in November or December 2019 and the markets were closed by 1st January 2020. A lot of wildlife experts were calling on China to control the market. A few of us suggested that it is not just about controlling the market, the markets need to shut down and be outlawed, specifically the ones selling wildlife meat for consumption. When we made this suggestion, the wildlife business interest pushed back and some people in the animal protection community also criticized us saying that we are making things worse by asking for too much. By February 24, the National People’s Congress imposed a complete trade and consumption ban on the wildlife market which took all of us by surprise. Of course, compared to SARS, this pandemic has been more devastating. 

SS: There was a New York Times article in which you are quoted as well that reports on the impact of this ban on small farmers and the fact that overnight their livelihood has been taken away. Perhaps such concerns led to experts lobbying for a middle ground approach of regulation instead of banning? What about the farmers that are losing their livelihood? 

PL: You know when the National People’s Congress issued the complete trade and consumption ban, that announcement also said that the government will start the process of phasing out these farms. Right after the country reopened, the provincial government started drafting plans to phase out this industry. Basically, it is like a buyout and the government comes up with an amount of money by weight of or by each individual wild animal so that farmers can move out of the trade. By the end of September 2020, I cannot say 100 percent of these farms were closed but at least 85 percent of the farms were closed and moved to different production lines. 

SS: The very crux of your argument in the book is that all industries leading to animal cruelty have a shrewd economic logic behind them. The animal agriculture industry illustrates this most clearly as efficiency and profit trump animal welfare. The problems are deeply entrenched within the political system of China but also the global capitalistic system. Where do we even begin talking about change?

PL: You are absolutely right, the livestock industry in China is very cruel and it has to do with economic modernization and production policy. I would strongly suggest that China is ready to move away from animal protein-dominated diet to a plant-based diet which is more balanced. I would use India as a good example, Indian plant-based food is very balanced with protein-rich foods like beans and lentils. But in China between 1949 and 1978, food was plant-based but was not balanced, it had very little protein. I lived through that era and our daily food included rice, cabbage, spinach, turnip, and sometimes tofu and meat. Today, Chinese people have too much meat in their diet and that is leading to health problems. China has the highest number of cardiovascular patients, high blood pressure and diabetes are big problems as well. I think it is realistic for China to return to a plant-based diet like in traditional China because China produces a lot of beans, nuts, and other alternative sources of protein. China needs to change the diet and for that people need to realize that you don’t need that much animal protein. 

Now the resistance to a more plant-based diet comes from both people and the government. People my age and older, who lived through Mao Zedong’s time and experienced starvation are unwilling to give up meat since they didn’t have access in the past. They have a compensation consumption mindset. The government worries that if they don’t provide pork, beef, fish then people might revolt and there is a risk of political instability. 

SS: Since we are talking about the generation that lived through famine, do you think the animal welfare movement needs to take such collective trauma as the famine into account? And how? 

PL: Very very good question, there are many animal protection organizations and groups in China and they work mostly on companion animals. Very few work on farm animals. People don’t respond well to animal cruelty like gestation crates and battery cages because they have not seen it, they love meat and have this idea that people who care about animal cruelty are too sentimental and emotional. When I talk to protection organizations and groups, I advise them to put animal cruelty aside and focus on health problems caused by eating meat. I also ask them to focus on the issue of pandemics, China’s factory farms have a higher frequency of epidemic like the African swine fever wiped out almost 40 percent of Chinese pigs, bird flu was prevalent across different parts of the country. If we focus on informing consumers on such tangible issues, then we might make more progress in running successful campaigns. 

SS: In most of your interviews, you have been optimistic about how animal welfare is improving in China, do you still hold that optimism? 

PL: Yes, I am optimistic because of the changes in China. The Chain of today is very different from the China of Mao Zedong’s time. At that time, people were starving and today starvation is history. People have more disposable income so people are able to spend money on things like pets and traveling. China is far more open to the outside world, millions of people go outside of the country and come back, bringing new ideas with them. China is materially better in becoming a better society for non-human animals. Another thing I would add, more subjectively, we have to keep hope otherwise everything we have done is worthless. We have reasons to be hopeful since the entire world is much better than in the past. I grew up in China and I witnessed the changes—unbelievable changes—so yes I am still optimistic. 

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