More Chinese than Westerners howl against annual dog meat festival

Canine cuisine has long been viewed with disgust in the West, but this year Chinese themselves loudly voiced their distaste

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 June, 2014, 5:27am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 June, 2014, 5:27am

One man's meat is another man's poison, as the Yulin Dog Meat Festival shows.

While most Westerners would never consider eating a dog or cat, these and other domestic animals are consumed in China for their supposed health benefits or as delicacies.

But this year the festival, which has for decades been held during the summer solstice in Yulin, Guangxi province, has come under fire online from animal-protection activists and celebrities at home and abroad since opening on June 21.

While there has long been international condemnation of the practice of eating dog - a culinary custom in 11 countries and regions, including Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Polynesia, Taiwan and Vietnam, as well as in places as disparate as Mexico and Switzerland - this year's campaign witnessed a shift: Chinese opponents became the driving force. The outrage on social media appeared more intense than ever.

On Weibo, China's version of Twitter, the topic page for "Yulin Dog Meat Festival" had attracted 41,000 posts by mid-afternoon on June 20 and been viewed nearly 31 million times.

Animal-welfare activists headed to Yulin to try to stop the event, and in some cases clashed with residents who defended the tradition.

The government and state-run media have adopted a cautious and neutral stance in an effort to defuse tensions.

In response to howls of criticism, authorities in the city of Yulin shrugged and said they were not responsible for the festivities.

An editorial in People's Daily, the Communist Party's mouthpiece, declared that dogs could be both man's best friend and his food, while Xinhua said it was important to take a measured view of the issue, noting the relatively recent change in the status of dogs from foodstuff to friend.

The Global Times said banning the festival outright would not work because of its local popularity, so instead authorities should work to implement stricter regulations.

The Communist Party seems to view the conflict as a clash of differing cultural values - the West's view that dogs are just pets, and the East's view that they can be food. The government fears a ban on the festival might be seen as a bow to a blatant attempt by the Western world to impose its cultural standards on China.

However, historical cultural records show Chinese Buddhists have preached against the consumption of dog, which is regarded as one of the five "forbidden meats". Eating dog is also forbidden under both Jewish and Islamic dietary laws.

In 2011, authorities in Jinhua, a city in Zhejiang , banned a similar festival after widespread protests. And back in 1988, when Seoul was about to host the Olympic Games and in 2002 when it co-hosted the Fifa World Cup with Japan, a large number of dog-meat restaurants in the capital were either shut down or permanently relocated to the outskirts or other cities.

In Hong Kong, the Dogs and Cats Ordinance, introduced in January 1950, prohibits the slaughter of any dog or cat for use as food, whether for mankind or otherwise, on pain of fine and imprisonment.

With growing concerns over public health and animal cruelty, there are increasing laws to protect animals. Chinese law makes it illegal to hunt, buy or eat any of the country's 420 protected endangered species, which include Asiatic black bears and South China tigers, which were once food and medicine for some.

As the mainland adapts to modern times, the debate reflects changing attitudes about the treatment of animals in China. Raising pets has become increasingly popular, like other middle-class activities.

During this transition, China has to embrace modern norms and attitudes. Surely, the march towards modernity will help bring this clash to gradual consensus.