No defence for a pseudo Chinese custom like dog eating

Peter Li says the practice is not rooted in Chinese history and its defenders – seen by some now as protecting a rural lifestyle – ought to move with the times, or risk becoming a laughing stock

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 June, 2016, 10:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 June, 2016, 10:00am

On June 21, the globally known Yulin Dog Meat Festival will celebrate its seventh birthday. In 2010, the festival was fabricated by local traders so that thousands of dogs could be slaughtered and consumed.

There is nothing traditional about the festival in Guangxi ( 廣西 ). “We never heard of it when we grew up,” said a 67-year-old farmer during one of my recent trips to the city. On the contrary, the traditional view was that dog meat was “dirty meat” from stolen pets. In ancient times, Chinese emperors tried twice to outlaw dog meat consumption. The Sui dynasty (581-618) was a watershed in China’s culinary history; that was when dog eating lost popularity. Under the Tang dynasty, consumption of dog meat became a despicable habit in the eyes of the upper class. Successive dynasties led the world in cultural development. In the Yuan and Qing dynasties, dogs were seen as hunting companions and helpers.

The dog meat industry is not triggered by consumption; demand has been created by the industry. What makes it controversial is the claim that dog meat is a traditional food.

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Dog meat is not a mainstream food. Only a small number of people. mostly in rural and inland areas, consume the meat. A Shandong University professor found that dog meat is seldom eaten by Yulin’s rural and urban residents. My own observation of the dog meat market in Yulin in 2014 and 2015 suggested that the majority do not eat dog meat.

A recent survey commissioned by Humane Society International and civic organisation Avaaz also confirmed the finding, with 70 per cent of respondents saying they had not eaten dog meat.

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The Yulin festival is hugely divisive. The festival and the industry as a whole have been implicated in a host of illegal activities, undermining public interest. The sources of the dogs for slaughter are suspect. Their transportation across provincial borders is in violation of vaccination requirements. Poisoned, injured, sick and dying dogs are crammed in suffocatingly small cages without food and water for days. Their slaughter is brutal.

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In April, I visited a slaughterhouse in a busy market in Yulin. Dogs stood in a pool of fresh blood from other dogs that had been killed. They were uncharacteristically quiet. Some huddled together.

The eating of dog meat is not illegal in mainland China. But, trading and processing stolen pets is a violation of food safety laws. Shipping dogs without quarantine certificates is a violation of state policy on animal disease control and prevention. The slaughter of dogs in public places is a mental assault on children who may witness it.

Guangxi has China’s highest number of human rabies cases. Yulin used to be one of the top 10 cities for infections. Studies have linked the handling of dogs and processing of dog meat to rabies infections. During the dog meat festival, slaughterhouse workers and traders are especially vulnerable to the risk of being scratched and bitten by frightened dogs. None of the Yulin traders and slaughterhouse workers I interviewed in 2015 had been vaccinated against rabies.

Among the 660 subprovincial cities in China, Yulin is arguably the most “famous”. Because of the festival, it has become a public relations disaster for China. More than 11 million people worldwide have signed petitions calling for the festival and the industry to be shut down for good. Celebrities and politicians have added their voices to the campaign.

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This year, Zhen Xiaohe and Michael Tien Puk-sun, delegates to the National People’s Congress, submitted proposals to end the festival and outlaw the dog meat trade. In California, animal protection groups are urging the governor to use the sister-state relations with Guangdong to press for an end to the dog meat trade there. The festival was discussed in the British Parliament. And it is the subject of a US Congressional resolution initiated by congressman Alcee Hastings from Florida, who also sent a letter to Zhang Dejiang ( 張德江 ), chairman of the National People’s Congress, urging him to act.

The international condemnation of the festival may look like unwanted Western interference. In fact, Chinese themselves were the first to stand up against it. Supporters of the festival are angry; the majority of opponents are urbanites and supporters see opposition to dog meat consumption as an urban cultural assault on their rural lifestyle. And, in the eyes of supporters, this has contributed to the marginalisation of the rural value system. The defenders are not simply speaking up for an outdated eating habit. “We are defending the dignity of rural folk,” said one passionate defender of the festival.

In the early 20th century, China was a grand stage for farcical dramas. Conservatives took to the streets to demand the continuation of foot-binding. They saw the practice as a tradition. Former officials of the Manchu dynasty protested publicly in an attempt to restore the monarchy. In both cases, the conservatives turned themselves into a laughing stock.

Supporters of the Yulin dog meat festival are repeating history. In this conflict, the Chinese authorities only have one choice: to stand on the right side of history.

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