Global media frenzy overlooks lack of official notice from China
YULIN, China––Chinese media, including those that usually publicize government announcements, had through May 20, 2017 remained conspicuously silent about a purported week-long suspension of dog meat sales said to have been introduced in Yulin, China coinciding with the annual Yulin Lychee & Dog-Eating Festival.
The festival is scheduled for June 15-22, 2017.
Cancellation, suspension, or just noise?
Though officially unconfirmed, the claim that dog meat sales would be suspended was nonetheless amplified worldwide by the Humane Society of the U.S. and the HSUS affiliate Humane Society International, and by major media including The New York Times, Reuters, and the Daily Mail. The May 17, 2017 online edition Time went farther, proclaiming “China’s Gruesome Dog Meat Festival Has Been Canceled, Say Activists.”
Cautioned New York Times correspondent Amy Qin, “No [Yulin] city officials were able to confirm the ban, and dog restaurants contacted by the BBC said they had not heard anything about it.”
Reports started with California activist
Andrea Gung, founder of the California-based Duo Duo Project, which works to end dog-eating in China, announced the purported week-long suspension of dog meat sales on May 16, 2017 via Twitter.
“I don’t think they will publicly acknowledge it,” Gung told Qin . “But my source spoke with every single one of the dog meat vendors at Dongkou,” the major Yulin dog meat market, “and they all said the same thing: a seven-day ban on dog meat sales starting on June 15.”
Wrote Qin, “Activists said notice of the temporary prohibition was conveyed orally to local restaurant owners and vendors,” a departure from the conventional approach of Chinese bureaucracy, which tends to rely heavily on posting public announcements.
“Officials have skirted the issue”
“In the past, officials have mostly skirted the issue,” Qin said, “insisting that the festival is a local tradition signaling the summer solstice and not organized or endorsed by the government. Reached by telephone, employees at four government departments in Yulin, including the food safety bureau, said that they had not heard of a ban.”
Despite the lack of confirmation, the Duo Duo announcement was almost immediately hailed by by HSUS president Wayne Pacelle in his May 17, 2017 blog posting.
Update from a Beijing group
Elaborated and qualified Humane Society International representative Peter Li to Facebook, “From sources in Yulin, we learned that the Yulin authorities decided to ban dog meat sales during the festival,” a statement conflicting with some `other sources reporting that the claimed ban would be in effect during the week preceding the festival.
Added Li early on May 20, 2017, shortly before attending a mass rally against dog-eating in the city of Dalian, “The Ta Foundation, a Beijing-based animal protection group, confirmed in a social media post the dog meat sale ban order communicated in closed door sessions by local officials to the city’s dog meat vendors.
“The Secretary General of the Ta Foundation is conducting field research in Yulin,” Li said, “and confirmed the earlier information about Yulin authorities’ decision to ban the sale during the festival time.”
“Illegal and immoral activities”
“This is a temporary ban by the Yulin authorities,” Li said. “We hope this will become a permanent action in the interest of public health, public safety, public morality, and the reputation of Yulin, Guangxi and China as a whole.
“It is nonetheless a positive move,” Li continued. “It shows that the Yulin authorities have heard the voices from around the world. China’s dog meat trade has been sustained by a host of illegal and immoral activities against China’s own laws and public opinion. We hope Yulin authorities can take a step further to: make the ban permanent; close slaughterhouses; crack down on sale of dog and cat meat; and build a facility to accommodate confiscated dogs and cats shipped to the city illegally.”
The Dalian rally addressed dog-eating in an entirely different region: Liaoning province, just northeast of North Korea, the northernmost part of China where dog-eating persists.
Animals Asia Foundation is cautious
Said the Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation of developments in Yulin, “Local authorities have not yet released an announcement, although Animals Asia sources in Yulin claim a ‘secret ban’ has been instigated by the local Food and Drug Administration. Restauranteurs, markets and slaughterhouses were told in late April they would face fines if found to be selling dog meat in the week following June 15, with the festival falling on June 21.
“Sources differ as to how long the moratorium will continue,” the Animals Asia Foundation said. “Some state dog meat will once again be sold on the 22nd, while others claim [the moratorium] will not end until the 24th. It is believed the ban applies to official restaurants, markets, and slaughterhouses, raising the possibility street vendors could continue to sell dog meat.”
The Animals Asia Foundation operates a sanctuary for former bile farm bears in Chengdu and a variety of educational projects elsewhere in mainland China.
“Cannot be sure yet that any ban will happen”
Warned Animals Asia Foundation cat and dog welfare director Irene Feng, “Without an official announcement, we cannot yet be sure that any ban will happen or be enforced. Also, in previous years, the people of Yulin have held their dog eating celebrations at different times to avoid protestors and condemnation. With the ban expected to end soon after the festival was to take place, it is possible we will see gatherings come together soon after the ban ends.
“It is also likely,” Feng added, “that dog meat traders, restaurants and resolute dog meat eaters will rebel against this news. We would expect dog meat eating not just in spite of this ban but also in defiance of it.”
Breitbart News commentator Adelle Nazarian was skeptical of the purported dog meat ban for a different reason, suggesting “It is likely cats will be served instead.”
There is little basis for this claim. Some cats have always been eaten at the Yulin Lychee & Dog-Eating Festival, and cat-eating persists elsewhere in Guangdong province, but Guangdong is the only part of China where cats are commonly eaten, and even in Guangdong the demand for cat meat is far less than the demand for dog meat.
The one-week suspension, if there actually is one and if it is enforced, would inhibit bunchers from engaging in the conspicuous preparations that have contributed to making the seven-year-old festival internationally notorious and magnet for outside media.
In past years truckloads of tightly packed caged dogs, some apparently stolen from yards in distant cities and still wearing collars, have been roughly unloaded in front of cameras, then left to suffer for hours without water in summer heat. Both the noise of dogs mournfully howling all night, an irritant to locals, and the sight of dogs crudely muzzled with tin cans to stop the howling, have fueled widespread outrage.
Dog meat vendors have also offered to sell dogs to activists at auction, threatening to kill the dogs or let them go to butchers until they have secured exorbitant prices––which many activists have nonetheless tearfully paid to avoid seeing the slaughter.
Animal lovers warned against bidding on dogs
More than eighty Chinese animal advocacy organizations in 2016 endorsed an open letter asking fellow animal lovers to refrain from bidding on dogs, to avoid making the slaughter traffic more profitable, attracting more people to steal and transport dogs.
Of additional concern, several hundred dogs purchased by activists at the 2016 Yulin festival were reportedly then abandoned at “sanctuaries” that were ill-prepared to look after them.
Though opposition to the dog-eating component of the Yulin Lychee & Dog-Eating Festival is intense from abroad, the festival is even more vehemently denounced by Chinese activists year-round via Weibo, the national social media equivalent to Facebook.
More than half of Chinese want to ban dog meat
China leads the world in numbers of dogs eaten––as many as 10 million per year, according to one 14-year-old estimate––but also ranks among the leading nations in pet dogs kept per capita, especially among younger people, with thousands of times more pet dogs than are consumed.
A poll commissioned in 2016 by Qin Xiaona, director of the Beijing-based Capital Animal Welfare Association, reported that nearly 52% of Chinese, including Yulin residents, would like to see dog meat consumption banned entirely, while nearly 70% have never eaten dog meat. Similar surveys done circa 2000 showed that about 60% of samplings taken in Beijing and Shanghai had never eaten dog meat, along with about 80% of Hong Kong residents.
Yulin toll down 90%
Of those who have eaten dog meat at least once, few are regular consumers. Though an established practice in the Guangdong region, and in several other mostly Cantonese-speaking southern and mountain regions, eating dogs has historically been practiced mostly by older men, relatively seldom by speakers of Mandarin (the predominant language in northern China), and appears to be aging out of vogue. As many as 10,000 dogs were reportedly killed and eaten during early Yulin Lychee & Dog Meat Festivals, but as few as 1,000 were believed to have been consumed in 2016.
A decline of dog meat consumption increasingly evident during the past decade has been quietly encouraged by the central government in Beijing.
Partly this is because rabies remains endemic in southern China and parts of the central mountains, tending to spread mostly in association with movements of dogs in connection with the dog meat industry. Prevailing belief is that eating dogs known to have been vaccinated against rabies is unsafe, a notion lingering from the era of vaccines based on live viruses, which could transmit rabies if not kept frozen before use.
Many Chinese cities lack full-time animal control departments, though this is now rapidly changing, and instead have traditionally relied for street dog population control upon dog meat bunchers, who round up stray dogs for sale.
Formerly, stray dogs were often publicly bludgeoned to death in sweeps by low-ranking civil servants or soldiers, who were typically deployed to kill dogs as a show of force in times of civil unrest, and/or in response to rabies outbreaks. This approach, however, fell out of favor by the dawn of the 21st century and has seldom been seen since.
Yulin is attempt to revive failing trade
The Yulin Lychee & Dog-Eating Festival emerged in 2009, and became internationally notorious in 2010, as an apparent last-ditch effort by Guangzhou province dog-eaters and dog meat traders to reinvigorate the failing industry.
Under 20 years ago the dog meat trade was widely believed to have growth prospects enough to encourage the opening of several mega-sized factory-style dog meat farms, including some built by local branches of government.
But as keeping dogs as pets gained popularity, the volume of strays and easily stolen dogs rose rapidly to undercut the profitability of the dog meat farms. Most or all of the mega-dog meat farms were believed to be out of business by 2011.
The last day of 2008 brought the first known mass seizure of dogs from meat traders in mainland China. Such incidents, in which activists surround and intercept truckloads of dogs and cats in transport from northern non-dog-and-cat-eating provinces to the Guangdong live markets, have becom almost commonplace.
Chinese animal advocates have maintained since 2011 that existing laws requiring vaccination of mammals transported across provincial borders should already be sufficient to stop most of the dog and cat meat trade. Law enforcement agencies have often, if inconsistently, allowed activists to take the animals from detained vehicles, or allowed the animals to be taken upon payment of relatively modest sums to the truckers.
Dog-eating is known to have been practiced in northern coastal China, near the Korean peninsula, between about 400 and 189 BCE, but by the latter part of that time came to be regarded as a practice of criminals, and appears to have disappeared from polite society.
The 14th century Italian explorer Marco Polo mentioned specifically that the people of Kinsay, the city now known as Hangzhou, “eat every kind of flesh, even that of dogs and other unclean beasts, which nothing would induce a Christian to eat,” but did not report similar of other Chinese cities.
Evangelical humane missions to southern and coastal China made no mention of dog-eating before World War II, though some of the same missionaries did often mention and denounced dog-eating in the Philippines.
Commerce in dogs and cats to be eaten, as it exists today, appears to have grown out of the “famine cuisine” that evolved in parts of Asia, especially China and Korea during World War II and the Korean War.
Even in those hard times, three years after the 1936 Japanese invasion of China and ensuing food shortages, the National Humane Review, published by the American Humane Association, reported in September 1939 that the Shanghai SPCA had successfully prosecuted two men for fraud after they were caught selling dog and cat meat as “rabbit.”
Of note is that instead of commanding a higher price than rabbit meat, as dog and cat meat does today, the dog and cat meat was disguised as one of the cheapest meats available.