China’s growing animal rights movement is making its voice heard

China is the only major industrialised nation without major legislation against animal cruelty, but a growing number of campaigners hope to change this

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 December, 2016, 5:30am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 December, 2016, 2:14pm

Wearing fake fur animal suits, chains and masks, the men, women and children – members of Freedom for Animal Actors (FAA) – protest outside the Beijing Workers’ Stadium. “I’m a monkey, chained, starved and beaten to learn to perform unnatural tricks. If you love me, don’t see my performance,” they chant in the video, as they try to deter people from attending a circus in the stadium.

FAA is one of a growing number of grass-roots animal welfare groups sprouting up on the mainland, where the scene is very different from the one recalled by Jill Robinson, founder of Hong Kong-based Animals Asia.

“When I first came to China in 1985, there was only one animal welfare organisation in the country. Today there are hundreds,” says Robinson, who set up Hong kong-based Animals Asia in 1988 and has since rescued more than 500 bears – kept for harvesting bile, used in traditional medicine – from farms in China and Vietnam.

Robinson says it’s vital that the hard work of welfare groups on the mainland is not overlooked amid the barrage of negative images spread worldwide on social media, from dogs crammed into cages waiting to be eaten at the annual Yulin dog meat festival, live rabbits having their fur torn off, cats skinned and cooked alive, and the Asiatic black bears she has worked to free, to a lone polar bear trapped in a shopping mall in Guangzhou, and live fish and reptiles sealed in plastic pouches and sold as keyrings. The list goes on.

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“The people of China are often the recipients of criticism from around the world when it comes to animal welfare. But there is an enormous and growing movement of animal activists in China today.”

Animals Asia’s welfare director Dave Neale agrees, and says groups such as the FAA will change hearts and minds on the mainland.

“Once people question the morality of the entertainment they have taken for granted, there is only one conclusion they can reach,” Neale says. “At the event at the Beijing Workers’ Stadium [in May], many parents took their children somewhere else for the day – somewhere cruelty-free.”

And it’s a movement that has made major progress despite the country’s lack of animal welfare laws (a draft proposal for the first comprehensive animal protection law was introduced in September 2009, but no progress has been made).

Advances include a 2011 ban on animal performance in the country’s 700 zoos, although Robinson says: “We hope that one day that compassion will be extended to those suffering in circuses too.”

In 2014, China revoked a law making animal testing mandatory for all cosmetics, and tightened regulations governing the protection of wildlife. Now, anyone caught eating an endangered animal or buying it for other purposes, including use in traditional Chinese medicine, faces 10 years in jail.

Also in 2014, Kai Bao Pharmaceuticals, a major player in China’s bear bile industry, consuming 18 tonnes of powdered bear bile every year for use in medicines, announced it would spend US$3.7 million researching synthetic alternatives.

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Last month, the mainland’s largest food-delivery services Ele.me, citing food safety reason, banned business that sell dog meat. As a result 294 vendors and 7,733 meal options were deleted from the app.

“There are no quarantine and slaughter standards for dogs in the country, and the majority of dog meat on the market is untraceable,” Ele.me said on its Sina Weibo account. “Dog meat is very likely to carry parasites and the rabies virus, posing a serious food safety risk” to customers.

Other reasons for the rise of animal activism on the mainland, in particular among the young, include the increase in veganism and vegetarianism and the huge role social media plays in spreading animal rights messages. But one of the biggest factors influencing change is the role played by mainland celebrities, from former NBA star Yao Ming who has spoken out against the trade in ivory and shark fin to filmmaker Guo Ke who took on the country’s cat meat industry with the 2010 documentary, San Hua.

WARNING: graphic content

China came under fire in 2013 when US-based animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) released a shocking video of a live Angora rabbits in northeastern China having their fur torn off for use in the fashion industry. The video prompted British retailers including Primark and Topshop to stop importing Angora wool from China.

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In Beijing , Grace Ge Gabriel of the US-based International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), says although the rise of animal activism on the mainland is encouraging, there is still much to be done.

“Hundreds of animal rescue groups have sprung up across the country, most focusing on rescuing dogs and cats,” she says from Beijing. “But the word ‘welfare’ in Chinese is misunderstood, with animal welfare seen by many as a luxury rather than meeting the basic biological and psychological needs of animals. This misconception prevents a general understanding which then translates to a lack of support for animal welfare legislation.”

She says although the official school curriculum in China does not include animal welfare, educators in many regions have put the subject, and that of conservation education, into their curriculums.

Peter J. Li, China policy specialist with Humane Society International (HSI), says a more relaxed political environment has allowed animal advocates to speak for the voiceless.

“Animal activists are no longer condemned as the bourgeois class – there is no more ideological bias against animal lovers,” he says from Beijing.

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HSI has been working on the mainland for more than a decade with programmes covering laboratory animal welfare, wildlife and captive wildlife (zoos and aquarium), and other issues related to animal protection.

Li says China is alone among major industrialised nations in not having a comprehensive animal protection law. He adds that the reasons for this may be that Chinese authorities believe there are more important issues to deal with.

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“Maybe they think animal abuse does not threaten regime stability, so they’re not motivated to do anything. Or, they may be afraid that animal protection legislation could force some industries, such as the dog meat industry, bear farming, the zoo industry, and others, to go out of business, thus causing a drop in GDP growth and unemployment.”

Li says the Chinese authorities have a lot to gain by legislating animal protection.

“China cannot be a modern country if animal abuse and cruelty to animals are allowed.”