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Bad News Bears

From TAC’s Bookshelf: The Chinese attitude to animals is very different from our own.

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Credit: Dan

What would a Chinese future look like? We spend a lot of time in Washington debating the best ways to maintain American power against an increasingly aggressive China, so it’s easy to lose sight of why that’s a goal worth fighting for. Is it just because it’s always better to be on the winning side than the losing one? What would be so bad about a more Chinese world?

Animals would fare poorly in it. It may be a minor thing, but it is a difference between Chinese culture and ours that I can’t help being bothered by. It is hard to find concrete information on animal rights in China, but a useful book on the subject is Animal Welfare in China: Culture, Politics, and Crisis (2021).

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Author Peter J. Li states right at the beginning: “The term ‘animal welfare’ is not native to the Chinese language.” No kidding. The Cantonese are famous for their omnivorous and sometimes sadistic eating habits, including brains, eyeballs, scorpions, monkeys, and other (sometimes still) living things. As the saying goes (it is sometimes attributed to the late Prince Philip but I believe it is original to China): If it has four legs and is not a chair, if it has two wings and is not an airplane, the Cantonese will eat it.

The phenomenon is not merely culinary. Animals are mistreated outside the context of food. Bears in zoos are displayed in open pits and pelted with snacks, trash, and other items. In 2002, a man poured concentrated acid on a bear in the Beijing Zoo, just to see how it would react, he said. A viral video in 2017 showed a policeman in Changsha beating a golden retriever to death on the street. Another in 2016 showed a man dragging his pet dog to its death behind his SUV.

The biggest animal abuse in China is the farming of so-called “bile bears,” which today affects around 10,000 animals. Asiatic black bears are kept in tiny cages and open wounds are created in their abdomens so that bile can be extracted from their gall bladders and sold for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Iron corsets prevent the bears from clawing at their stomachs. 

Western activists drew attention to bear farming in the mid-1990s and some regulations were passed, such as a ban on the use of iron catheters. When the company Guizhentang Pharmaceuticals applied to go public on the Shenzhen stock exchange in 2012 to raise funds to expand its bear farming, the IPO was halted due to public outcry over animal cruelty. Yet efforts to ban bear farming entirely have been unsuccessful.

If indifference to animal suffering is native to Chinese culture, the Communists amplified it. Mao considered pet ownership a bourgeois affectation. Li writes that he has never seen a single photo “of a Chinese Communist leader holding or walking with a pet dog.” Pet ownership was officially discouraged by party policy.

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As China has opened up, pet ownership has become more common. Authorities estimate that there were 168 million pet dogs in China in 2017, a 900 percent increase since 2003. But the life of a pet dog in China is still fraught with danger, including the threat of being picked up off the street and sold for meat.

“Dog theft for the meat trade is an open secret in China,” Li writes. Most Chinese people never eat dog meat, but it is a popular minority taste in some regions. Between 10 and 15 million dogs are slaughtered and eaten per year, it is estimated. Farming dogs costs more money than their meat is worth, so much of the meat trade relies on other methods for obtaining animals.

“Mainland China is today almost 200 years behind the industrialized nations in lawmaking for animal protection,” Li writes. China’s first animal rights organization, the China Small Animal Protection Association (CSAPA), was founded only in 1992. Great Britain passed its first animal cruelty law in 1822. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1866.

Yet perhaps Li is wrong to think of this linearly. There is no reason to think that, given enough time, Chinese culture will converge on the same ethic toward animals that the West has. Indeed, based on the panoramic depiction in his book, I rather doubt it.

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