It’s time to outlaw animal cruelty in China

Peter Li says the public outrage stirred by incidents of abuse on the mainland points to significant support for the Chinese government to finally address the issue

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 August, 2016, 10:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 August, 2016, 7:42pm

Three recent incidents involving animals have gone viral in Chinese social media. A dog in Weihai (威海), Shandong (山東) province, died after being dragged behind a car travelling on the city’s busy roads. The perpetrator was confronted by angry citizens and taken into custody by local police.

In Shenzhen, a man claimed to have beaten 50 dogs to death. He posted graphic images of the suffering online for the “entertainment” of young internet users.

The third incident took place at Beijing’s Badaling Wildlife World. Two visitors who ignored warning signs and left their car were attacked by a tiger in the park. One died. What angered the public was the suggestion that the tiger, not the park, should be punished.

These incidents sent a shock wave across the country. The public outcry was such that the People’s Daily joined the condemnation of animal abusers for the first time in its history.

People may think that the Chinese culture is to blame. China does have an ancient history of harsh penal codes, mass human suffering during times of dynastic change, and cruel practices of human sacrifice, infanticide and foot-binding. However, Confucian benevolence was the dominant idea throughout China’s dynastic past. Dog meat was rejected as “dirty meat” because it came from stolen dogs. The Tang and Yuan dynasties both had laws penalising cruelty to livestock animals. Ancient men of letters warned against killing birds in the spring as they could be nursing their young. A vegetarian lifestyle was considered a virtue. Mainstream Chinese culture calls for compassion for the weak and disadvantaged, including animals.

Large-scale animal cruelty, brought about by the advent of technology, is a product of modernity. Among the top 10 most industrialised nations, China is the only one that does not have a law against animal cruelty. England brought in the first modern anti-cruelty legislation in 1822. In China, random violence and institutionalised cruelty to animals go unpunished. This explains why the Shenzhen man videoed his actions and “proudly” posted the images online. And the lack of legal liability for animal abuse also allowed the Weihai man to publicly display his inhumanity to the helpless dog.

China’s contemporary history (1949 to the present) is one of revolutionary experiment and reckless wealth creation. Mao Zedong’s ( 毛澤東 ) socialist experiment in the pre-reform era created an impoverished society. A majority of the people lived in abject poverty. Compassion or sympathy for the most disadvantaged, namely class enemies, was a sign of political untrustworthiness. Love of animals and pet-keeping were bourgeois and therefore ideologically questionable. The imposition of a Stalinist food rationing system eliminated the material conditions for having pets.

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China implemented a reform programme in 1978 to end the country’s gripping food security crisis. “Development first” has since been the motto of officials at all levels. A cat, be it white or black, is a good one if it catches mice. As part of economic development, industries and businesses brutalising animals have arisen. Bear farming has been supported by national and local authorities. Zoos, wildlife parks, aquariums and even shopping malls are involved in animal displays, performances and other acts of exploitation. These industries have served to desensitise society, particularly its young, to animal suffering.

Beijing’s Badaling Wildlife World, long criticised for its shocking conditions, is perhaps one of the worst institutions in China where animals are put on display. For years, the park would allow visitors to buy young goats which were then thrown to the hungry lions and tigers. Monkeys were severely malnourished when I visited. Other animals were clearly deprived of food. Our guide used derogatory language to describe each animal species we encountered. Her lack of respect for the animals was shocking. This park is no educational or conservation facility.

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Animal abuse, online posts of violence and institutionalised exploitation of animals are divisive and socially destabilising. Already, Chinese society is divided into two camps – animal lovers and their opponents. Their conflict could develop into social unrest if the government continues to tolerate animal cruelty. “If law enforcement does not take care of animal abusers, we’ll have to do it for them,” said one angry citizen in Weihai. Young children were among those who witnessed the Weihai dog cruelty. This nightmarish encounter was a mental assault on them, akin to child abuse.

The perpetrators in Weihai and Shenzhen should be held accountable. Similarly, the Badaling wildlife park violated national policy against animal performances. The visitor death should alert the authorities that the park is a public safety hazard. Shutting it down is the only solution.

These three latest incidents should wake up China’s national legislature. Anti-cruelty legislation cannot be postponed any longer. China is materially and philosophically ready to legislate for animal protection. The authorities should realise that abusers are not just a threat to animals; they could become a threat to fellow humans.

Peter J. Li, Ph.D, is associate professor of East Asian Politics at the University of Houston-Downtown and a China policy specialist at Humane Society International