As the May Day holiday is in full swing across China this week, a new law has come into force in the Guangdong cities of Shenzhen and Zhuhai on China’s south coast. On May 1, the neighboring cities became the first in China to officially outlaw the consumption of dog and cat meat. Is the new law purely a reaction to COVID-19 or part of a longer-term trend in Chinese society? As a former resident of both cities, I bring you some explanation as to why Shenzhen and Zhuhai were the first to make the move, some insight into social attitudes about cat and dog meat in modern China, and some thoughts as to whether more cities are likely to follow suit.
In early April following a nationwide ban on the consumption, breeding and sale of wild animals in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, Shenzhen became the first city anywhere in mainland China to announce a ban on cat and dog meat. Zhuhai quickly followed suit a couple of weeks later, with the Humane Society International, an animal rights campaign group, welcoming the bans.
A spokesperson for the Shenzhen government said, “Dogs and cats as pets have established a much closer relationship with humans than all other animals… This ban also responds to the demand and spirit of human civilization”. To avoid any confusion, the city authority also listed animals deemed acceptable for consumption, including pigs, cattle, sheep, donkeys, rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese, pigeons, quails and others. Unlucky for some.
What’s behind the new law?
The timing of the new law is perhaps all too apparent to many. The emergence of coronavirus as a global pandemic has brought scrutiny on China’s animal trade and eating practices. Banning the consumption of dog and cat meat alongside that of wild animals is no doubt a two-pronged arrow, aimed at addressing domestic concerns about the potential for animal to human transmission of the virus while showing disapproving Western countries that China is keen to quell some of the eating habits that are seen as barbaric in other parts of the world.
It’s worth noting though that it’s still unclear whether the virus first passed from animal to human at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, and to suggest that this new law was introduced solely because of COVID-19 would be to underplay many important longer-term factors at play here. Contrary to popular belief in the West, the consumption of dog and cat meat is actually very rare here. As one BBC News article puts it, “The practice of eating dog meat in China is not that common – the majority of Chinese people have never done so and say they don’t want to.”
Other sources suggest that the consumption of dog meat is only common practice among Korean ethnic minorities in parts of Northeast China, although the southwestern city of Yulin in Guangxi province is, of course, renowned for its annual dog meat festival. This event, harrowing images of which are plastered over social media by animal rights groups and celebrities at all times of year, is widely denounced as overly cruel, particularly when it comes to the way in which the dogs are slaughtered. I won’t go into details here, but look it up if you really want to ruin your day.
What gets less attention, however, is the fact that many Chinese citizens have similar feelings to the outraged animal lovers in the West. A 2016 article from state-run newspaper China Daily quoted survey results from Chinese polling company Horizon, which claimed that 64% of those interviewed wanted to see an end to the Yulin Dog Meat Festival. The article went on to claim that the local government has also started to distance itself from the festival as calls to end the event gain momentum.
Far from being a practice in mainstream Chinese society, the trade of dog meat seems to have become a lucrative source of income for criminal gangs. Back in 2014, a number of arrests were made in east coast Zhejiang province when a gang was found to have been hunting pet dogs with poison darts and selling the carcasses to restaurants. Shocking stories on China’s cat meat trade are harder to find, perhaps because of the ready supply of stay cats in China or perhaps because stories about man’s best friend just pull on the heart strings more. Call me a cynic.
Why Shenzhen and Zhuhai?
Many may ask why the new law has only been rolled out in Shenzhen and Zhuhai and not across the whole of the country. It could have something to do with the fact that Guangdong folk have a reputation for their exotic tastes, hence the joke that they “eat anything that has four legs other than a table.” Perhaps they feel now is the time to clean up their image.
After all, compared to most places in China, Guangdong enjoys a lot of exposure to the outside world. Shenzhen in particular is a large economic hub in which many expats reside, work and do business. Zhuhai similarly is a cosmopolitan city where many expats work as English teachers. While the same could be said about Beijing and Shanghai, these two wealthy east coast cities do not have a reputation for their adventurous/indiscriminate eating habits.
Indeed, this move could well be a bid to improve China’s image in the eyes of the world following widespread and decidedly fierce criticism in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. Guo Changgang, head of the History Research Centre of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, called for the ban to be applied nationally, stating that “Eating wild animals, dog meat and cat meat is one of the important elements that damage China’s international image.” He did, however, acknowledge that such practices have never been widely accepted within Chinese society, implying that the stigma is something of a misconception.
The future of cat and dog meat in China
Having lived in both Shenzhen and Zhuhai for several years, I must say that I have never seen dog or cat meat on any menu nor for sale at any market. Furthermore, I have never (knowingly) consumed it, and I’ve certainly never come across locals who have expressed a liking for canine or feline meat. There’s no denying, however, that the practice does exist, with the Yulin Dog Meat Festival being the most visible and unpalatable manifestation of this.
If there is any appetite at all for dog and cat meat — and let’s face it, just one percent of Chinese society is a hell of a lot of people — authorities will likely be wary of the trade making its way into the criminal underbelly on the back of a complete ban. Whether other cities and provinces in China follow suit remains to be seen, but the decision will likely be left up to local authorities unless the central government decides that remedying China’s shattered reputation overseas is worth the risk of spawning a black market.
What is clear, at least at this point, is that the latest law is a culmination of a long-term social trend catalysed by the COVID-19 epidemic. What happens next will be of great intrigue to China-watchers and animal lovers everywhere.
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Keywords: Cat and dog meat ban China
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I live in a village just outside Yangshuo and the consumption of dog meat is common in this area, it's on many menus and I've been invited several times by my students to eat dog meat...politely declining of course. Tradition is strong in rural China, I think it will be hard to manage such a ban.
May 07, 2020 13:40 Report Abuse