Politicians in the West, South Asia and South America, when deciding on their position or rhetoric regarding Beijing, are informed by how ordinary citizens in their countries feel about China. In the era of populism, arguing that better relations with the People’s Republic yields long-term economic benefits can be outdone by rabble-rousing anti-China speeches highlighting animal cruelty.
In the West, where the traditional critiques of China’s political system have been losing traction in recent years, animal cruelty, alongside the coronavirus, opens up a new front for those hostile to Beijing to attack on.
Animal welfare is increasingly important to people in countries that China is trying to improve its image in, such as India, America, Sri Lanka, Britain, Australia and across the European Union. This is evident from the explosive rise of
and from polling that shows outrage at animal cruelty crosses party lines and changes votes.
Furthermore, in comparison to other areas highlighted by China’s critiques, animal cruelty is something the Chinese government can easily address.
Firstly, the country has age-old cultural traditions of compassion to animals. Buddhism, in particular, is globally recognised for its kindness to all living beings. Buddhist texts are full of references to moral consideration of animals and an acute sensitivity to their suffering. Asia’s traditions as a whole draw less of a human-animal divide than those Abrahamic religions that have influenced the West.
Rather than animal rights being something imposed from outside, it can be seen as a reaffirmation of ancient Chinese culture that preceded European colonialism. In India for instance, bans on cow slaughter are considered a reinforcement of pre-colonial indigenous Hindu values.
Secondly, the Chinese public is increasingly supportive of laws protecting animals.
on eating dogs and cats, along with wildlife, shows it is possible. Recent years have seen a proliferation of
across China as well as pet ownership.
Thirdly, China’s centrally planned economy gives the state the power to enforce bans on the cruel trading and slaughter of animals. China’s government would be less susceptible to the factory farm industry’s lobbying than in other countries (in the West, for example, this is the central obstacle to improving animal welfare laws).
Finally, banning animal cruelty offers a better cost-benefit ratio to the Communist Party than other reforms that would improve China’s global image but which contain political risk, such as in
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed and inflamed a weak spot in Beijing’s global image. Cruelty to animals reinforces the worst biases against China held across the world. It solidifies an emotion-driven animosity towards Beijing among ordinary people overseas; one that cannot be fully addressed through trade or aid.
While foreign leaders see political incentives in
, they will continue. Conversely, if the public had a favourable view of Beijing, anti-China lobby groups would have a harder time influencing politicians. Stamping out animal cruelty can be seen as a tribute to China’s grand civilisational past.
It can also be an “easy win” for China as it competes for the greatest prize in world politics – the hearts and minds of ordinary people globally. And more importantly, it is the right thing to do.
Dr Kadira Pethiyagoda was a Brookings Institution Fellow, diplomat, and visiting scholar at Oxford University. He has advised shadow cabinet members in Australia and the UK. He has two upcoming books, one on foreign policy and cultural values, and another on animal rights and human rights law. @KPethiyagoda
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