Dog owners unleash their power

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2007, 12:00am

When Mao Zedong said 'Political power comes from the barrel of a gun,' the last thing on his mind was that the scales of social power in Beijing would begin to tip because police began nabbing dogs in late 2006. It's a safe bet that he didn't have the political power of dog owners in mind.

A round-up of dogs began in August as part of Beijing's preparations for the 2008 Olympics. But the vigour of the campaign seemed closer to a Cultural Revolution political purge than a cleanup.

In central Beijing, dogs that stood taller than 35 centimetres were impounded indiscriminately, angering everyone from ordinary citizens to foreign ambassadors. Many asked how, given Beijing's unprecedented investment in repackaging its international image through the Olympics, it could tarnish its reputation with a pet persecution campaign out of a bygone era.

Beijing authorities defended themselves by citing Lu Xun , a revolutionary writer associated with the historic May Fourth Movement of 1919. Lu wrote that as China was being carved up by foreign interests, its leaders were guilty of 'playing with things and losing [their] intelligence' - wan wu shang zhi. He was referring to Manchurian pastimes such as raising crickets, birds and Pekingese dogs. But such logic fails to jibe with the image of an Olympic host country today.

The recent anti-dog campaign is not without political precedent. In 1955, during the Great Leap Forward, leaders launched 'patriotic cleansing' efforts to eliminate flies, mosquitoes, rodents and cockroaches. It became extreme, dragging into the net the wholesale slaughter of rodents and snakes - and creating a disaster of environmental imbalances that rural China is still recovering from.

During the Cultural Revolution, dogs were virtually wiped out by similar slaughters.

The 2006 campaign unrolled with equally overwhelming central propaganda blitzed across CCTV and Xinhua. It depicted rabies spreading nationally, and blamed pets.

Jeff He Yong of the International Federation for Animal Welfare, said this traditional approach created conflicts between dog owners and enforcement agencies because it 'blocked the channels of communication between people and government'. The outraged public responded with protests, putting people power back into Beijing's streets.

'When a social class is affected by methods of enforcement and [cannot air their complaints to upper-level government agencies] they make noise, and will indirectly force upper levels to be aware of them,' he said.

Public lobbying efforts began with dog owners spearheaded by Zhang Weiping, director of the Beijing Human Animal Environmental Education Centre. She launched a petition campaign calling for an end to the campaign. The appeal was heard: President Hu Jintao called an end to the national crackdown in November.

'We submitted a rational analysis of what we thought the problem was - not a protest letter,' Mr He said of the lobbying process, in which he played a major role. 'We suggested the only way to control rabies was to vaccinate dogs and people against this disease. It wasn't related to how tall the dog is or how many you raise. We pointed out that raising dogs is not in conflict with President Hu Jintao's establishment of a harmonious society.

'Enforcing old rules created conflicts. Moreover, this programme affected the government's accountability to people and tarnished Beijing's reputation as the 2008 Olympic host. Our lobbying approach worked.'

Some 600 pets remain impounded outside Beijing. Even so, this was a lobbying victory which reflects an emerging people power. It is capable of thwarting misguided policies out of sync with social trends, or hopelessly outdated regulations from another era.

If this turns into a trend touching other issues, we may be witnessing the beginning of a new era of political participation with Chinese characteristics.

Laurence Brahm is a political economist, author, filmmaker and founder of Shambhala Foundation