Animal rights campaigner Zhang Yuanyuan said she wanted to cry as she talked about what she had seen in Yulin, south-west China.
“There are so many people here selling and buying dog meat,” said the China director of animal-rights campaign group ACTAsia and assistant to the chair of the Capital Animal Welfare Association. “And we’ve found many of the locals are unsympathetic, abusive and argumentative.
“I wanted to come here to watch calmly, and to talk to people. To tell them that dogs are people’s friends and not to eat them. But they won’t take the time to listen.”
Zhang heard everything from “We’ve got a right to eat dog meat, it’s our custom. You can’t stop us,” to “If you like dogs, why don’t you just buy them all?” She reported how one man, to laughs from the crowd, said “Dog meat is good for the libido. Want to try it with me tonight?”
June 21, the summer solstice, is Yulin’s "dog-meat festival". It’s a contentious occasion. Some commentators accuse the local government and tourism authorities of generating controversy as a ruse to make more money. But the city government denies involvement, claiming the so-called festival is just a term used by some businesses and the public.
Others have questioned how deeply rooted this "tradition" is. Guo Peng, a deputy professor at Shandong University, told chinadialogue that the festival only started in 2009.
Yulin's festival has drawn the attention of both domestic and international media, with news organisations from the Washington Post to Xinhua covering the event. Reports put the number of dogs killed as high as 10,000, many of them still alive while they were electrocuted, boiled or skinned.
The locals of Yulin, a small city of 600,000 people in the south-western Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, have long eaten dog during the summer solstice: the practice is said to be good for the health. But in the last four years their “dog-meat festival” has met with protests.
Dog-lovers, volunteers and reporters pile into the city, while Chinese celebrities turn to Chinese social media platform Weibo in opposition, posting pleas such as “Don’t eat our animal friends” and “Cancel the Dog Meat Festival”.
This year, some overseas Chinese wrote to the Guangxi government, calling for measures to prevent the festival taking place. But it still went ahead, attended by huge and lively crowds. “There’s a sea of people,” Sichuan TV presenter Cai Zhoucheng told chinadialogue. “From the ground, you can really see how much the locals love their dog meat.”
Beijing Youth Daily reported that on June 21 many locals went out to buy dog meat for the festival.
Raw dog meat usually sells for 36 to 40 yuan per kilogram, but during the festival costs rise to about 44 yuan. A kilogram of cooked dog meat costs about 64 yuan and there is a steady stream of customers. Streetside slaughtering of the animals has been banned, so shoppers buy cooked meat rather than having to butcher a live dog at home. “This year has been better than last,” one middle-aged woman selling cooked dog meat was quoted as saying. “We’ve got through about 150 dogs today.”
Zhang Yuanyuan told chinadialogue she had seen dogs slaughtered in the street, with adults and children looking on – even young mothers holding babies. She recalled hearing one elementary school student saying that “only wild animals need protection”. One couple Zhang encountered at the market, accompanied by their young twins, sold a Pekinese they had raised for two years - "it was killed on the spot that day," she said.
Forced to buy dogs
Amid the Yulin crowds, there were clashes between dog-loving activists and dog-meat loving locals.
After the boss of one restaurant reportedly cut her own phone off due to harassment and threats, opinion started to turn against the protesters.
Zhang and others still turned up to try to plead their cause. But others took another approach: buying the dogs to save them from the dinner table.
Yang Xiaoyun from Tianjin was reported to have bought over 200 dogs between June 18 and 21, at a cost of 70,000 yuan(US$11,000). “I can’t stop them having their festival,” said Yang. “But each dog we buy is a dog saved, and I’ll save as many as I can.”
Pictures posted by Cai Zhoucheng on his microblog showed a trader abusing a dog to force an activist to save it. Cai explained how the trader had threatened to "crush" the animal before a tearful dog-lover handed over 350 yuan, which the trader waved in the air to cheers.
Zhang Yuanyuan has had similar experiences. “One man kicked a cage holding seven or eight young puppies and asked me why I didn’t buy them if I liked dogs so much,” she said.
Qin Xiaona, head of the NGO Capital Animal Welfare Association, told chinadialogue that “the traders use our compassion to force us to buy their dogs. It’s extortion, they should be held to account.”
A local brand?
Both Zhang Yuanyuan and Cai Zhoucheng agree that the protests against the dog-meat festival have failed.
Nobody was persuaded to stop eating dog meat. In fact, the locals just got angry at a perceived insult and took to the streets to drink, munch on the local lychees and eat dog meat. The sight even attracted more people in from surrounding cities, until the streets were as busy as at Chinese New Year.
The Beijing Morning Post described how a shop on Yulin’s Jiangbin Road hung out banners, which said: “Thank you for showing China the unity of Yulin’s people”, and “We love lychees, dog meat and the law.”
Qin Xiaona told chinadialogue there was little chance of a Chinese animal protection law in the next 20 years. Currently activists just call for a law banning their mistreatment. Unless public opinion changes significantly, the festival is also expected to go ahead again next year.
“There are huge profits in the dog meat market, and banning the festival would affect that,” added Shandong University's Guo Peng.
For Liang Wendao, a Pheonix TV commentator, the festival is more likely to be about boosting local tourist numbers. “I don’t think eating dog meat is a festival born of tradition! This is the local government trying to increase tourism or establish a local brand.
“If a city wants more attention, it should do so in a kinder way, rather than take this contentious approach.”