CHINA-ANIMAL-RIGHTS

SINCE the mid-1990s people in Yulin, a city in the southern region of Guangxi, have gathered on the summer solstice (June 21st this year) to drink lychee wine and savour dog. Served on skewers, roasted or sliced into steaming hot pot, dog meat is considered tasty and detoxifying. The event has become a tourist draw, with around 10,000 mutts slaughtered during the festivities.

This year, though, a virulent backlash disrupted celebrations. In the weeks leading up to the festival animal-welfare groups gathered in Yulin to report on activities of vendors they said were illegal. A social-media campaign depicting a yellow puppy crying blood was endorsed by celebrities and forwarded tens of thousands of times. On Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging platform, impassioned discussions on the ethics of eating dog became almost as popular a topic as the World Cup. Then, as the festival got under way, animal-welfare groups demonstrated (pictured above) and sparred with vendors. In one well-publicised incident a man held aloft a live dog in a noose and asked activists how much they would pay to save it. A woman offered 350 yuan ($55).

South Korea is renowned for its fondness for dog meat, but eating dogs (and cats) is also considered unremarkable in parts of China. Even in Beijing and Shanghai, the biggest cities, some restaurants serve the meat. Activists are concerned about the cruelty associated with an unregulated industry. A proposed law would make the illegal consumption or sale of dog- or cat-meat punishable by a fine of up to 5,000 yuan ($800). But although such a law would be a boost for animal rights in the country it has long been pending. For locals in Yulin the vigour with which welfare groups have attacked their tradition is puzzling. Why, they ask, is eating dog so different from eating cows or China’s favourite meat, pork?

The difference has less to do with the arguably arbitrary hierarchy into which humans sort animals into food and non-food, and more to do with rising incomes. Between 2000 and 2012 there was a 35% jump in pet ownership, according to Euromonitor International, a market research firm. Today some 33m households keep a cat or dog. Analysts attribute the popularity of pets to demographic factors, including the soaring numbers of elderly people wanting companionship and the prevalence of families with only one child. Chinese pet-owners can be especially doting. Some 50,000 people attended Shanghai’s International Dog Expo in April. Alongside dog hair-stylists, retailers selling tulle-and-chiffon ensembles and a “matchmaking wall” for breeders was a company offering 3D-printed models of beloved pets.

Awareness about civil rights is growing, too, among other social changes wrought by China’s decades of economic growth and rapid urbansiation. The speed and vehemence with which Yulin’s dogs became a topic of national debate shows how moral issues can rally citizens, at least online and when the Communist Party allows. The 25th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square on June 4th passed with an eerie (if anticipated) silence from state-run media, as censors patrolled social channels. Only certain grievances can be aired—notably those about pollution—and this does put pressure on officials to contemplate change.

In 2011 a 600-year-old dog-meat festival in Zhejiang, an eastern province, was shut downafter successive years of protest. The Yulin festival may face a similar fate. At this year’s event one vendor complained that while previously he would sell dozens of dogs a day, this year he could only sell a few.

 

Link to The Economist online