Peter Li is Associate Professor of East Asian Politics at the University of Houston-Downtown and China Policy Specialist of Humane Society International
Tom Levitt: How much should we read into increasing media reporting on animals. Is it a reflection of a real shift in public attitudes?
Peter Li: Chinese media attention on animal abuse and animal welfare problems started in the late 1990s. In 1993, Jill Robinson, CEO and President of Animals Asia Foundation and then China director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, uncovered China’s brutal bear farming. She single-handedly alerted the world to this shocking example of humans’ gross inhumanity to an intelligent animal species, the closest cousin of the giant pandas. Following Robinson’s exposure of the farming operation, a Chinese writer published a tourist account of a bear farm in northeast China in 1998 confirming the brutality befalling the farm bears. Since then, bear farming cruelty has been the target of a large number of Chinese media reports and investigations. The long-suppressed compassion for nonhuman animals was evoked.
Compared with the past, animal suffering has never received so much attention in contemporary China – there is a definite public attitude change towards animals. Yet, this shift is not yet complete. I would say the change is most prominent among the younger generation and in the urban centres. A group of people that is computer savvy, internet-obsessed and who mobilises at a finger tip. For example, in April 2011, animal-loving members of this group in Beijing contacted animal-loving friends on social media and succeeded in intercepting a truckload of more than 460 dogs bound for the slaughterhouse.
Media attention on animal suffering is a radical revolution. In China’s pre-reform era, animal suffering or animal protection issues were never a report subject. Love of animals was condemned as bourgeoisie. Compassion for animals was considered counter-revolutionary. Pet ownership was believed to be the luxury of the exploiting class, having nothing to do with the life of the working people. Young people who have no recollection of the past and not influenced by the extremist ideological bias against pet ownership, are more likely to find cruelty to animals unacceptable.
TL: Do you expect a shift from cats and dogs to concern about the welfare of animals in farming systems?
PL: Absolutely! While people have showed greater concern over food safety problems, they are realising that most of that problems are results of the unnatural farming conditions. Crowded indoor factory farms make disease spread a certainty. Drug use is unavoidable and abused in many cases in China and around the world. The link between unsafe meat and dairy products and intensive farming shall be realised by more consumers. In fact, there are already free-ranging chicken farms and pig farms in China.
TL: There was recent criticism of KFC for their use of antibiotics – do you think that was more a reflection of concerns for public health rather than chickens’ welfare?
PL: It was more a reaction to the public health hazards rather than animal suffering on the factory farms. But, consumers will eventually learn that the link mentioned above is not hearsay. They will eventually have to make a choice: go for cheap meats and risk health down the road or act as conscientious consumer and support cage-free meats. A small number of China’s urbanites are already making the right consumption choice.
TL: What attitude does the government take to animal rights activists, who’ve been known to barricade convoys of dogs being taken to slaughter?
PL: China is a post-socialist developmental state. This means the government’s overriding concern has been and will continue to be economic development. Like other east Asian developmental states and regions such as South Korea and Taiwan in the early to middle era of their economic development, mainland China will continue to focus on economic development at the expense of social equality, environmental protection and ecological sustainability.
Compared with other interest groups in China, animal activists have received less attention from the government since they do not pose immediate threat to social or political stability. However, the authorities are not prepared to lift controls on the registration of animal protection NGOs. The way the mainland Chinese authorities have been dealing with the activists and NGOs is very similar to the position adopted by Taipei authorities in the 1970s and 1980s. Economic growth is above everything else. If the food supply were disrupted, for example, political stability could be jeopardised. Yet, if the animal welfare crisis remained the same, there is no threat to the authorities. So, the latter can wait. Material gains or the question of food is a top priority for the Chinese authorities as for the dynastic rulers in the past.
Today, the Chinese authorities have another reason to suppress activists and NGOs: the need to meet the rising expectations of the people who not only want to have food on the table, but better and more varieties of food. To meet the demand, the authorities need to continue the development strategy.
TL: What role can global animals rights groups play in China? e.g. HK based Animals Asia got accused of being part of a western ploy in the campaign against bear bile.
PL: WWF has worked in mainland China since 1979, as one of the first international conservation NGOs getting a foothold in China. By collaborating with the Chinese authorities, WWF not only brought in much needed financial resources but the latest conservation ideas and practices. Today, the top international animal protection NGOs such as Humane Society International (HSI), UK’s RSPCA and WSPA, International Fund for Animals Welfare, Animals Asia and HK SPCA have all worked on different projects in China with the aim of assisting China’s modernisation by focusing on improving the welfare of nonhuman animals.
With the collaboration of the Chinese authorities and Chinese NGOs, they have made some great advancements in, say, encouraging the Chinese government to ban animal performance, stopping the introduction of rodeos (for 2011), stopping the introduction of Spanish bullfighting, implementing training workshops on humane slaughter, encouraging responsible pet ownership, encouraging government spending on stray animal sterilisation and vaccination, and outreaching to the young generation and introducing an animal protection textbook etc.
Animals Asia Foundation has done a job no other group has ever been able to do. Whatever the charges laid at the doorstep of Animals Asia, they should not be believed. Such accusations will continue against other groups. In the anti-bear farming case, Chinese society is overwhelmingly on the side of Animals Asia, not on the side of the Traditional Chinese Medicine Association or the bear farmers. You only need to do a quick search on Google or Baidu using the words “bear farming” and “cruelty” – you’ll pull up hundreds of thousands of condemnation entries.
Working with the Chinese authorities cannot be ruled out. Chinese government is the most effective means of change. Helping Chinese NGOs will lay the foundation for a humane China.
TL: What is the relationship between material wealth and animal welfare in China? Is it inevitable that China’s growing middle-class will be concerned about animal welfare?
PL: Absolutely. Firstly, the younger generation has no experience of the pre-reform “class struggle” where people could act brutally to enemy class members. The younger generation has a higher level of sensitivity to cruelty and a lower level of tolerance to brutality. Second, the younger generation is more generous in spending on the so-called non-essential items such as entertainment, travel and pet ownership. They care less about food on the table and are better donors to charities. Finally, they are exposed to ideas that their parents were not such as animal welfare, ecology, and problems of ivory trade, seal slaughter in Canada, rodeo cruelty, Spanish bullfight brutality, dolphin slaughter and SeaWorld killer whale imprisonment, etc.
A better economic situation generally allows people the extra resources for animal protection.
TL: Lastly, what’s your view on existing and future animal welfare regulations in China?
PL: I would applaud Xi Jingping’s [the new Party General Secretary] campaign against the nationwide lavish eating and drinking habit paid for often by public money, which has resulted in a 70% drop in the sales of shark fin during the Chinese New Year. Government officials have every reason to set a socially responsible, compassionate and sound consumption example for the society. Official catering is one of the two top consumers of wildlife products.
China has lagged behind the most progressive nations in animal protection legislation for more than 180 years, if we use England’s first animal protection law as the signpost of comparison. Mainland China lags behind Taiwan and Hong Kong. Chinese law scholars proposed two animal protection legislative proposals in 2009 and 2010, but it is yet to be on the radar screen of China’s National People’s Congress. Economic concern may be the roadblock.
I am sure China will have a comprehensive animal protection law. If it were enacted, it would encounter enforcement problem, but at least we would have something to fall back on when cases of abuse happen. I am cautiously optimistic, though I know animal protection legislation will not be born in the near future.