In Fight to Ban Dog Meat, China’s Activists Find an Ally: The Coronavirus

In Fight to Ban Dog Meat, China’s Activists Find an Ally: The Coronavirus

For years, animal rights activists in China have lobbied policymakers, organized education drives and staged protests to persuade the government and the public to support banning the eating of dogs and cats. They scored few concrete wins.

The coronavirus, which spread from a food market in China, changed everything.

After the national government suspended the sale of wildlife in February, the southern Chinese cities of Shenzhen and Zhuhai became the first in the country to ban the consumption of cats and dogs. Last month, the Ministry of Agriculture, in a major step, removed dogs from its list of approved domesticated livestock, referring to dogs for the first time as “companion animals.”

Even in the southern Chinese city of Yulin, a dog meat festival that has long courted controversy opened on Sunday to less fanfare than in past years, as fears of the virus kept revelers away.

“We have been working on this issue for years, but the government kept passing the buck,” said Cynthia Zhang, a Guangzhou-based animal rights activist. “So we are using the epidemic as an opportunity to try to push through as much legislation as possible.”

It’s long-fought validation for a loose but fast growing network of local animal rights activists.

While China’s practice of eating dog meat has received global attention from celebrities including the British comedian Ricky Gervais and the American reality television star Lisa Vanderpump, an often overlooked group of animal activists and pet lovers has been the on-the-ground force for change in communities and cities across the country. They have succeeded despite growing pushback from nationalistic critics who say that eating dog meat is a Chinese tradition, no different than the American love of turkey.

“China has been in a civil war between animal lovers and people who support dog meat consumption, and the animal lovers are gaining the upper hand,” said Peter J. Li, a China policy adviser with Humane Society International. “The Chinese government sees this.”

Persuading the public can still be an uphill battle.

The practice of eating dog meat is limited to a few areas of China and most people do not eat it regularly. Instead, defenders often subscribe to a belief that ‘while I may not eat dog meat, I support your right to do so.’

Xu Zhe, 22, a recent college graduate from the northeastern city of Dalian, said he eats dog meat once a year during the Chinese New Year and had no qualms about it even though he grew up with a dog at home.

“I have a deep connection with my dog, but not with the dog I’m eating,” Mr. Xu said.

The recent rise of nationalism in China has further fueled defenders of the practice. Some say that banning dog meat is a rejection of a longstanding Chinese tradition.

Zhao Nanyuan, a retired Tsinghua professor and longtime proponent of eating dogs, accuses animal rights activists of being manipulated by the West.

“Those who make trouble at the dog meat festival are being supported by foreign black hands,” Mr. Zhao said in an email. “To elevate the status of animals is to degrade the status of people, thus violating the principles of humanism.”

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