It's still a dog's life for pets on the mainland
With basic human rights flouted on a regular basis on the mainland, what chance do animals have of being protected by the law? Precious little, if the recent dog cull in Hanzhong, Shaanxi province is anything to go by. At least 36,000 have been killed by local officials over the last month, in response to a rabies outbreak that has resulted in the deaths of 12 people over the last three months.
The pictures of groups of men chasing down any dog roaming the streets, whether a stray or a pet, and then beating them to death with bamboo poles are repugnant and have sparked outrage at home. It is medieval behaviour, and hardly appropriate for a country that increasingly wants to present itself as a force for good in the world.
That carefully nurtured image has taken a battering with the widespread reporting of the cull in the overseas media. To many foreigners, it confirms that the mainland remains a place where even the most domesticated animals can be killed at will.
Currently, there is no animal welfare legislation on the mainland, so there are no penalties for people who abuse animals. While a draft law on animal protection is being considered, it is not on the agenda of the National People's Congress Standing Committee for the current five-year session. It is unlikely to become law until 2014 at the earliest.
The next time there is a rabies outbreak, the bamboo pole squads will be in action again, just as they were in Yunnan in 2007, when 50,000 dogs died. That's despite the fact that the most efficient way of preventing the spread of rabies is to have dogs registered so authorities can monitor whether they have been inoculated against the disease.
But the price of registering a dog remains prohibitive: until last year in Guangzhou, it cost more to register a dog than a new car. In country areas, where incomes are low, many people simply can't afford it.
Worse still, the myriad rules and regulations that surround dog ownership hark back to the time when the state exerted total control over every aspect of people's lives. And, by charging so much for a licence, the authorities are also sending a message that they still regard having a pet as evidence of bourgeois affectation, as was the case in the Mao Zedong era.
But dogs are playmates for the children who have no brothers or sisters because of the one-child policy, and company for the rising number of people living alone. They are a force for good, not a social evil. Most people recognise that, which is why a proposed dog cull in Heihe , Heilongjiang province last month had to be called off after protests from the local population.
Animal welfare may seem like a low priority in a country struggling to lift the majority of its population out of poverty. But the failure of Beijing to recognise that people expect their pets to be protected by the law highlights the way the mainland continues to be held back by its stifling bureaucracy. Events like the Hanzhong cull are proof that, just as dogs have no rights, their owners are still subject to the capricious whims of officialdom too.
David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist