The influx of hundreds of animal rights activists and dog lovers to Yulin, Guangxi, during the past month appeared to have an impact on the city's much-criticised dog-eating festival.
Consumption of dog meat at Yulin's restaurants is believed to have decreased significantly from last year, local restaurants and market operators say.
The run-up to the festival saw a series of confrontations between locals and animal right activists. On Friday night, more than 100 restaurant owners, residents and dog traders surrounded four animal right activists for at least an hour. The activists had to call the police to take them away as no taxi would carry them.
At midnight on Friday, the eve of the festival, activists went around the city to search slaughterhouses that they expected would be in full swing. Instead they found them closed.
Yesterday morning, activists held banners and posters in front of the Yulin government headquarters proclaiming "Yulin, I cry for you today" and calling for greater food safety. The protest ended after several policemen and residents confronted the activists. "Get out of Yulin!" some plain-clothes policemen were heard shouting.
As they protested, dog meat stalls in Dongkou, home to Yulin's biggest wet market, were crowded with local customers. Seven or eight dog carcasses hunging from each stand. But a taxi driver said the throngs of dog meat vendors seen at almost every busy intersection last year were absent. "They have all gone this year," the driver said. "And far fewer residents went to restaurants today as well."
Traditionally, people in Yulin celebrate the summer solstice by eating dog meat and lychees washed down by strong liquor. Each June in recent years, more than 10,000 dogs were slaughtered for the festival as tourists flooded the streets to enjoy the feasting.
The Yulin city government has always insisted that it does not support or sponsor the festival, saying the event was something businesses and local people invented. It is not an official holiday.
This year authorities took additional measures to play down the event, which they believe tarnishes the city's image.
"A large number of lawyers, scholars and activists from more than 60 animal rights associations have visited the city to investigate the festival. It has already raised a nationwide debate on whether people should call for an end to the practice, citing cruelty, local customs, the black market and food safety," said Zhang Yuanyuan, China director of Act Asia, an animal protection organisation based in the UK.
Earlier this month, the Yulin government declared that it did not sponsor the event and would strictly enforce food safety regulations. Civil servants, teachers and medical staff were also ordered not to eat dog meat at restaurants. And restaurants serving dog meat were ordered to cover the word "dog" on their signs.
From late last week, imports to Yulin of live dogs from provinces that did not carry out laboratory testing of the animals were banned. Vendors were also banned from slaughtering dogs at wet markets or on the street.
Authorities also told vendors to reduce dog meat sales as some restaurant owners said they had received dozens of threatening phone calls and messages from dog lovers.
"Officials have been ordered not to eat dog meat at restaurants. And some crazy unidentified people broke down the door of our slaughterhouses and stalls and stole our dogs. They are actually the robbers and are breaking the law," said an owner of one of the city's most popular restaurants.
She said business was down by about a third after the confrontation between locals and animal rights ac tivists.
Some residents said they had already gathered last weekend to eat dog meat and lychees in celebration of the year's longest day, despite yesterday being the summer solstice.
"My husband is a policeman and I also work at a state-run company. We don't want trouble. But we don't want to give up the most important local customs," resident Zhang Bing said. "So we went to my mother-in-law's home at a remote village last weekend and ate dog meat with family and friends.
"The dogs we eat are raised by local villagers just like pigs and chicken," she said. "The summer solstice tradition of eating dog and lychees has been long held in the countryside. It became a festival as more and more dog meat restaurants opened in Yulin in the past decades. Residents would invite friends to go out and enjoy dog meat hot pot there.
"Yulin people eat dog meat in all seasons, just like Cantonese eat chicken every day and foreigners eat beef. I miss last summer when friends got together and enjoyed dog meat and lychees at the crowded restaurants at night. It did look like a wonderful festival."
According to research carried out over a year at Yulin's dog meat market, released by the Guangdong-based animal rights NGO Best Volunteer Centre, the city had more than 100 slaughterhouses, processing between 30 and 100 dogs a day.
"We believe 99 per cent of these dogs in Yulin were stolen from other provinces and transported to Yulin illegally, instead of being raised at legal dog farms," said Huang Shandai, the NGO's founder.
According to the the Yulin Centre for Animal Disease Control and Prevention, the city had only eight dog slaughterhouses, selling about 200 dogs a day but reaching about 2,000 dogs during the summer solstice, Xinhua reported.
Most dogs sold in Yulin were healthy and raised in nearby villages, the report said, rather than being stolen from other provinces as the animal-lovers claimed.
Watch: Animal rights video of kennel in Yulin where dogs are held for slaughter (WARNING: GRAPHIC VIDEO)