East, West and animals.

Last week I was talking to my 10th grade students about diets around the world. I asked them what questions that they could ask themselves in front of their plate, and obtained correct and obvious answers: Would it taste good? Would it be safe? Would it make me fat? Where did this food come from?


When I suggested “would it hurt animals?” however, a few of them snorted. Another kid said it was “stupid” and “made no sense” to have tried veganism for a couple of months as a birthday present for a friend. He didn’t answer when I replied “Why not?”

Later, I showed pictures of puppies and drew a surge of “aaaw”s from half the class. I would probably get this last reaction anywhere, but the two first ones were symptomatic of the widespread indifference shown towards animals destined to be eaten here. If I mention that I am a vegetarian, people will often ask “did you lose weight?” or more typically word a puzzled “Why?!”

Only twenty years ago, when economic development took off, did attitudes begin to change[1]: More and more people own pets and pamper them more than anywhere else, endangered species have been put under strict protection since 1988–you can still be executed for killing a panda- and animal treatment is slowly improving in zoos.

History tends to show that the richer nations become, the better animals seem treated. Seem. The few times that I have witnessed animal cruelty in public with the absence of disapproval occurred in developing countries, mostly near rural areas, or on the market: chickens stuffed in minuscule cages on the curb, a man dragging and half-strangling his monkey by a chain to make him perform for tourists, a little girl shaking a frail kitten like a rag, baby turtles sold in minuscule boxes without water, all doomed to die within two months, fish dumped alive in a plastic bag and left to suffocate in them, one of my younger students posing proudly on his Wechat moments, holding onto a lion then a panther’s tail -drugged and chained up-, a man dangling a bloody turtle by the tail, trying to sell it to us… All commodities or source of entertainment. Most seeing this didn’t blink twice, some were intrigued, few showed disgust.

Butchering a water buffalo in Yunnan, where most of the animals still graze outdoors.

If you rewind a hundred and fifty years ago in the West, you could watch a couple of animals being tortured for the spectacle of it. The practice hasn’t ended if you consider cock-fighting, corrida and factory farming, although they all are widely frowned upon and kept between closed walls. Explaining why animal cruelty in public has become offensive or even punishable in many areas is difficult and would require an additional thousands of pages, but I rounded up a few explanations among many possible others.

First, the newly-urbanized populations are usually wealthier than the rural parts. They attain a higher level of personal comfort and have more time and resources to remedy to problems that concern them indirectly, such as environmental pollution or animal treatment*. They view animals as affectionate, loyal companions and become more sensitive to their fate, which explains why in most big cities, especially downtown, cat and dog eating have almost become unheard of. Second, urban citizens do not need to slaughter their own food or witness death on a daily basis, as most farmers do; they do not need to remember meat as a former living creature that was killed, skinned, butchered and cooked. Urban life is characterized by constant, “civilized” restraint where necessary violence no longer stands as the norm, therefore when people do see this violence, they feel a shock, or an awkward reminder. My upper-middle class students’ gasp of horror, when I had to explain to them the fate of male chicks in the egg industry, testifies of this.

Originally we all are, to various degrees, endowed with a “morbid curiosity” that enables us to contemplate suffering, or even death, in the face. As we urbanized, this side of us has progressively receded for both reasons aforementioned; predominantly to deafen individuals’ violent impulses, which have devastating consequences if unleashed to a large scale in the metropolis. The fear grew that outdoor animal beatings instilled violence in those who attended them. Gaining momentum also was the perception that how we treat helpless beings reflects who we truly are[3].

One of my favorite quotes by Milan Kundera exactly captures this trail of thought:

“True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which is deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.”

Stray pup at Shangrila, Yunnan.


Couple this reasoning to emerging scientific proof that some animals do suffer, in the sense that they feel conscious pain, then the road unfolds slowly from legal condemnation of ill-treatment to their classification as sentient beings, as is the case in some nations.[4]

Lately, there has been mounting pressure on Chinese authorities to put in place animal protection laws, notably in the event of the Yulin Dog Festival which appeared in the 1990s. Eventually this push didn’t succeed, one of the reasons being that such legislation connotes to Western Imperialism according to some[5]. The argument seems valid up to a point, since dog meat has featured on Chinese menus for centuries, whereas the growing disgust associated with its consumption is a fairly recent phenomenon. This last trend is accelerating however: a majority of Chinese condemn the way the animals are slaughtered – beaten to death or boiled alive – and hitherto dog meat sales have been diminishing every year.

The CCP now has to confront these facts on the one hand with its nationalist narrative, which claims that Chinese cultural practices shouldn’t be influenced or meddled with by the outside. On the other hand, it is believed that implementing animal welfare laws would put more pressure on farmers and thus stymie economic growth, which is not an option as of now. Factory farming currently stands as the most productive model to secure national food reserves, regardless of the cruelty and environmental damage its practices entail.

Signs of change have been taking place slowly nevertheless: the ban on elephant ivory was an urgently needed and welcome piece of legislation in January 2017, some other endangered species, such as the pangolin, have been banned for human consumption, more people than ever before choose to volunteer in animal welfare associations[6], the Yulin dog meat festival has been banned in 2017 and the growing middle class is showing more and more inclination to take animal welfare into account in its meat production processes[7].

Rescued puppy, Beilun dog shelter.

Back to my students.

When it comes to the topic of our relationship with animals, the usual conclusion young people come to is that they should be considered as partners and treated with respect, regardless of cultural heritage or social pressure. The impact of this, possibly, first conversation on the topic of animal welfare for some of the students in that class was much more important than I had expected. A week later, as we were discussing environmental problems, they were seeking more sustainable and cruelty-free farming practices for around an hour, overwhelmingly rejecting the factory farming model.

[1] Xiaolin You, Yibo Li, Min Zhang, Huoqi Yan and Ruqian Zhao, “A Survey of Chinese Citizens’ Perceptions on Farm Animal Welfare”, National Center for Biotechnology Information, published 14 October 2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4196765/, found 4 March 2017.

[2] Michael Tobias,”Animal Rights in China”, Forbes, published 2 November 2012, https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltobias/2012/11/02/animal-rights-in-china/#69db691d7d57, found 28 Februrary 2017.

[3] Zhang Chun, “Activists Push for Animal Protection Law in China”, China Dialogue, published 23 March 2015, https://www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/7810–Activists-push-for-animal-protection-law-in-China, found 4 March 2017.

[4] Carl Safina, ”Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel”, Henry Holt and Co, 14 July 2015.

[5] ESDAW, “Animal Welfare and Rights in China”, http://www.esdaw.eu/animal-welfare-and-rights-in-china.html, found 4 March 2017.

[6] Helen Gao, “Letter from Beijing: Animal cruelty is rife in China – but things are changing”, Prospect Magazine, published 23 January 2014, http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/animal-cruelty-is-rife-in-china-but-things-are-changing, found 4 March 2017.

[7] Xiaolin You, Yibo Li, Min Zhang, Huoqi Yan and Ruqian Zhao, “A Survey of Chinese Citizens’ Perceptions on Farm Animal Welfare”, National Center for Biotechnology Information, published 14 October 2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4196765/, found 4 March 2017.


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