Late last month news that the Chinese government might institute a ban on dog and cat meat consumption generated cheers from critics of the practice inside and outside the country. According to a Jan. 26 report in the Chongqing Evening News, draft legislation known as the Anti-Animal Cruelty Law would include fines of up to about $730 (U.S.) and 15 days in jail for anyone caught eating dog or cat meat, and up to about $73,000 for “organizations” involved in the trade (restaurants presumably, as well as farms, butchers, and transporters of live animals or carcasses).
However, a look at the story’s fine print reveals that any celebration is premature. In short, dog or cat meat won’t be barred from China’s restaurant menus anytime soon.
“There is currently no proposal for a nationwide ban on dog and cat eating,” says David Neal, animal welfare director for Animals Asia Foundation, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit organization devoted to promoting animal welfare in China and the rest of Asia. Instead, he notes, the article merely “allows individual provinces to ban the slaughter of dogs and cats within their own jurisdictions.”
In fact the only activity banned would be the illegal consumption or sale of dog or cat meat — and it would be up to localities to determine whether eating and selling dog and cat meat within their jurisdictions is illegal. Chang Jiwen, director of the Social Law Research Department at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing and head of the committee that drafted the legislation, clarified the situation the day after the Chongqing Evening News broke the story:
“The media has misunderstood,” Chang said in an interview with the Oriental Daily News, portions of which are translated on China media analysis website Danwei. “The Animal Cruelty Law needs local governments to issue corresponding regulations.”
Such laws are unlikely to be adopted in parts of China in which dog and cat meat are especially popular — such as Guangdong province, where restaurants serving dog, cat, and other “exotic” animal meat have long attracted big-spending diners from around Asia. Also, the measure is unlikely to be adopted in parts of the northeast where large numbers of ethnic Koreans live, and the eastern coastal province of Jiangsu, home to many dog meat farms and purportedly the province in which the consumption of dog meat was popularized thousands of years ago. During his interview with the Oriental Daily News, Chang gave assurances that any ban would be sensitive to those “for whom eating dog meat is a folk custom.”
Furthermore, according to Animal Asia’s Neal, the draft Anti-Animal Cruelty Law has itself “very little chance” of becoming law in the near future. Prepared last spring by a committee of Chinese (and one Australian) academics and foreign representatives of International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the draft legislation had originally been scheduled to go before the National People’s Congress, China’s highest legislative body, by the end of December 2009.
Contrary to reports suggesting that it would finally be presented to legislators this April, Chang told the Oriental Daily News that he has no plans to submit the draft for consideration in 2010. Though Neal sees the draft as a major step forward for the development of animal-protection laws in China, he predicts that “it may take many years before such legislation is accepted into Chinese law.”
An old practice gaining popularity with new middle class
Dog meat has been eaten in China for centuries. It is said to have been a favorite of Han Dynasty general Fan Kuai, who is described in a well-known poem celebrating his return home after an especially hard-won victory with a dog meat feast. Traditionally confined primarily to southern China and a few spots in the eastern coastal province of Jiangsu, the practice of eating dog — which is much more expensive than pork or beef — began to spread throughout China in the late 1980s as the country became more affluent. Industrialization hit the dog-meat trade in the late ’90s with the appearance in eastern and northeastern China of large farms that raise, slaughter, process and pack the meat for distribution around the country.
Believed to have medicinal qualities, enhance sexual performance for male diners and warm the body, xiang rou (“fragrant meat”) or di yang (“mutton of the earth”) – as dog meat is often referred to — is especially favored in cold or humid weather. In Chongqing, a huge metropolis in Sichuan province, it is cooked in a Sichuan-style hot pot to make a “soup” of oil flavored with handfuls of dried chillies, Sichuan peppercorns, and other spices. In Langzhong, a centuries-old river town in the province’s northeast, market stalls display every part of the animal, freshly butchered or rubbed with spices, smoked over pine boughs, and air-dried in the manner of la rou, a Sichuanese cured pork specialty. Fan Kuai’s favored dog meat preparation — stewed with turtle meat — is still served in Jiangsu restaurants today.
Despite the fact that most Chinese don’t dine on dog or cat meat, the public has displayed ambivalence towards the proposed ban. A poll conducted shortly after the draft legislation was announced and reported in China’s Information Times found that 64 percent of more than 37,000 respondents were uncertain about the value of the ban and whether it could even be enforced. According to the People’s Daily, a survey conducted on Chinese website Sohu.com that attracted more than 100,000 votes showed supporters and opponents of the ban in a near dead heat: 48 percent for versus 45 percent against.
Flinching at Western intrusion
Some opponents of the ban chafe against what they see as “cultural imperialism,” or the imposition of Western moral standards on a country with its own highly developed culture. In a commentary published the day after the potential ban was announced (also translated in part on Danwei), the Shenzhen Economic Daily called for an animal cruelty law more “appropriate to a Chinese reality.”
And in a country where many citizens have been left behind despite more than a decade of record economic growth, the thought of a law designed to enhance the well-being of animals is for some hard to swallow. Indeed, the drafters of the legislation changed its original name — “Animal Welfare Law” — in response to critics who argued that the people’s welfare had yet to be adequately attended to.
But China’s economic boom has also created an ever-expanding middle class, more and more of whom are raising cats and dogs as pets. In Chongqing, home the home of fiery dog hot pot, adored pet dogs dressed in jumpers and down jackets are paraded at the end of leashes, carried about like babies, transported in bicycle baskets and even accompanying their owners into shops and restaurants are a common sight.
This, along with the concurrent growth of a grassroots animal-rights movement in China, portend well for the eventual passage of some sort of provision curtailing the consumption of pet animals, believes Jill Robinson, director of Animals Asia who has received a Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for her work.
“Awareness of animal welfare is growing at a phenomenal pace in China,” says Robinson, who has been an animal welfare campaigner in Hong Kong since 1985 and in China since 1993. “And it is the local people themselves who are driving the momentum of change.”
Robinson’s organization currently works with 60 Chinese animal-welfare groups to encourage responsible pet ownership, engage provincial leaders in discussions, and demonstrate how animals can benefit humans via projects like Dr. Dog, an animal-therapy program that takes rescued dogs into hospitals to interact with patients.
Rather than admonishing against the consumption of dog and cat meat, programs like the hospital visits encourage Chinese citizens to decide for themselves, Robinson says. A ban may not be around the corner, but she believes that it is only a matter of time before a critical mass swings in its favor.
“An important lesson I’ve learned over the years working in China is that we need to be pragmatic and we need to be patient.”
Zester Daily contributor David Hagerman shoots for the New York Times, Travel+Leisure and Saveur, among other publications. To view more of his slide shows, go to davidhagerman.photoshelter.com. Robyn Eckhardt is a food and travel journalist based in Penang, Malaysia. She also is a contributor to Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia and has been published in Saveur, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal Asia. Her last article for Zester was a double book review, Veggies and Grains Deluxe.
Photo at top: A man inspects fresh dog meat at a wet market in Lang Zhong, Sichuan province. Credit: David Hagerman