In recent years, the space for political dissent in China has shrunk considerably, and yet the animal rights movement has made surprising progress. Last month, thousands of Chinese netizens stormed the Internet with angry posts about the kidnapping of a seeing-eye dog named Qiaoqiao to save it from its likely fate of becoming dog meat. After 35 hours, the thief set the dog free, along with an anonymous note asking for forgiveness.

The stigma attached to China’s consumption of animals that are usually kept as pets is well known, as are Chinese activists’ efforts to end the practice. Every year, ten million dogs are slaughtered for food, 70 percent of which are believed to be stolen household pets. In 2011, animal rights activists succeeded in shutting down a centuries-old annual dog-eating festival in Zhejiang. However, the country’s most popular dog-eating festival, in Yuling, which began in 2010 to attract tourists, is still operating. In 2014, activists intercepted 18 trucks on a highway in northern China that were filled with dogs and saved 8,000. In 2015, a similar intervention saved 3,000 dogs.

But China’s animal rights movement doesn’t stop there. It is as diverse as the country itself. Activists have worked for years to end so-called wildlife farming, which includes the exploitation of wild animals. The bear bile trade is a $1.6 billion industry that has led to the capture of over 10,000 Asiatic black bears and 5,000 tigers that are locked up and used solely for extracting bile, a substance that goes into cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and traditional medicines. Animal testing, particularly for cosmetics, is also widespread, although China is now working with British scientists to find alternatives, such as cultured skin cells.

China is also the world’s largest livestock producer, generating 80 million tons of meat in 2013 alone, more than double that of the United States. And yet it still lacks humane slaughtering practices. China first experimented with humane slaughter in 2007. Two years later, the Chinese government issued a protocol for humane slaughter, but implementation has been spotty.

A bear rescued from a bile extraction farm in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China, January 18, 2005.
China Newsphoto HAN / Reuters

Meanwhile, Chinese zoos and aquariums treat their animals cruelly, beating them if they fail to perform as desired. Tigers and lions are intentionally starved to heighten the brutality of a live feeding. Facing pressure from animal activists and the public, zoos in China’s main cities—Beijing and Shanghai, for instance—are beginning to improve the treatment of their animals, but those cases are not the norm. Beijing and Shanghai are global cities that see a number of international visitors. This puts additional public pressure on zoos to maintain humane standards. This may explain why animal performance and live feeding were phased out at the Beijing and Shanghai zoos much earlier than at others.


China, which is founded on Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist ideals, has a long history of protecting animals. An ancient poet from the Tang dynasty cautioned against shooting birds in the spring because “the baby birds are awaiting the safe return of the mother bird.” Qing emperor Yongzheng was known as an enthusiastic dog lover and forbade their consumption. China’s ancient laws also banned excessive fishing, springtime hunting, the destruction of birds’ nests or the theft of their eggs, and the mistreatment of farm animals.

Foreign-educated Chinese established China’s first animal protection association in the 1930s in Nanking, then the capital of the Republic of China. China’s nascent animal rights movement quickly came to an end, however, after Chairman Mao Zedong rose to power in 1949. He considered animal welfare “bourgeois sentimentalism,” and under his rule, which lasted until 1976, phrases such as “animal protection,” “love of animals,” and “compassion for animals” all but disappeared from the Chinese lexicon.

The 1959–61 famine, which killed an estimated 20 million to 40 million Chinese, also deeply affected the people’s relation to food. It meant that no animal was spared from consumption. After Deng Xiaoping took the reins in 1979, the focus shifted to development and to prioritizing food security for China’s millions. China’s growth-driven model led to widespread adoption of inhumane farming and animal-slaughtering techniques. Still, with the country more open to the outside world, Western animal protection ideas started to trickle in, and animal activists brought in books about humane farming techniques, such as Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. In the 1980s, the World Wildlife Fund, which began using the panda bear as its logo, set up a branch in China. The WWF and the International Crane Foundation were the first two foreign conservation groups to set foot on mainland China. They introduced new ideas about animal welfare and ecological ethics. In the early 1980s, people were motivated to look abroad for inspiration—“learning from foreign advanced technology and science” was a common refrain. And Western experts were also eager to share their expertise.

Visitors watch lions prey on an ox at a tourist area in Xiangfan, Hubei province, China, May 2, 2006.

In 1992, a group of activists established China’s first animal advocacy group, the China Small Animal Protection Association. CSAPA became China’s flagship advocacy group and campaigned to change the nation’s pet dog registration policy, a cumbersome rule created to discourage dog ownership. Previously, activists had succeeded in pressuring the government to drop the law forbidding dog ownership—a measure passed under Mao, when pet keeping was condemned as an antisocialist and foreign practice. But the government still made it difficult by requiring pet registration. CSAPA played a symbolic role at the time, proving to both the public and the government that animal welfare was a legitimate concern. CSAPA’s goals were to end animal cruelty, educate the public on animal abuse, and make policy changes to allow pet ownership. Toward the end of the 1990s, hundreds of rescue groups, volunteer associations, and animal shelters sprung up across the Chinese mainland. Today, not only has dog ownership soared—there are more than 130 million dogs in China and nearly 30 million are kept as pets—but Chinese society is also becoming more tolerant of pet ownership and animal welfare.

Many in China, particularly young urbanites, are growing less tolerant of animal abuse. Compared to their elders, many of whom endured the “tyranny of scarcity” under Mao, care less about food security and more about food safety. And they are beginning to realize that food safety involves animal welfare—concentrated animal feeding operations, for example, can make animals sick and unsafe for human consumption.


Chinese animal rights activism is not only a domestic affair. It extends beyond the country’s own borders. In 2012, spokesmen from a U.S. company called ZZYX Entertainment approached the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, which works under the Chinese foreign ministry, to propose a U.S.-Chinese cross-cultural exchange initiative: staging the world’s biggest rodeo show at Beijing’s Olympic Stadium, the Bird’s Nest. The proposal faced immediate opposition from a coalition of 68 Chinese animal protection NGOs led by Capital Animal Welfare Association (CAWA) in Beijing. With assistance from SHARK, a Chicago-based American anti-rodeo group, CAWA held talks with foreign ministry officials and the American businesses in charge of the rodeo project, and held three press conferences highlighting the cruelty of the sport. The coalition’s efforts paid off. The rodeo show was cancelled.

Chinese animal rights activists have also succeeded in squashing another project that involved foreign relations—this time in trade. In 2010, Canada sought to expand its seal-meat market to China. Beijing was initially open to the idea. But a coalition of Chinese groups, led by CAWA, stepped up to block the deal. Activists appealed to the national government to ban the import of seal meat. They also protested at international fishery trade shows and fur trade expos where Canadian delegations promoted Canadian seal products. But in January 2011, Beijing and Ottawa moved forward with the deal. Furious, animal welfare activists denounced Canada’s marketing efforts as “racist,” accusing Ottawa of using China as a “dumping ground” for seal meat, which Europe banned in 2009. Soon after, the Chinese government announced that it needed more time to review the deal and then stalled indefinitely. In April 2014, Canadian Fisheries Minister Gail Shea blamed China’s animal rights activists for thwarting efforts to sell seal products.

A woman holds her pet dog, Beijing, China, February 9, 2016.
Damir Sagolj / Reuters

Although many animal rights groups operate unofficially due to bureaucratic rules that make it difficult for any NGO to register with the government, the success of animal rights groups is the result of a well-organized coalition, access to sympathetic officials, international support, a strong and devoted team of activists, and great media coverage. Most important, compared with human rights organizations, animal welfare groups stay clear of politically sensitive issues. In China today, political stability is a fixation of the Chinese authorities, and so they are more concerned with labor rights, human rights, separatist groups in Xinjiang and Tibet, and followers of the spiritual group Falun Gong. Animal rights concerns do not usually pose an immediate threat to the stability of the established ruling order.

In many ways, animal welfare movements fall in line with China’s goal to modernize, both economically and culturally. Wildlife farming in China, such as the bear-bile trade, although substantial, is negligible when compared to the sheer size of China’s economy, which stands at $10 trillion. Ending bear farming will do little to harm China’s GDP, but may enhance relations with other countries that are pressuring it to end these practices. Although improving conditions on factory farms will increase production costs, it may lead to safer and safer food standards, which after scandals like the melamine-tainted baby formula in 2008, has become a legitimate concern of the Chinese government.

For too long, China watchers around the world have paid little attention to animal suffering in China, except for once a year during the summer solstice, when thousands of dogs are slaughtered and consumed. It is certainly a cruel practice and a grave issue, one that China must move forward on if it is to truly modernize. But the country is home to 6,000 types of vertebrates—the highest concentration in the world. Protecting animal rights in China is a much bigger task than ensuring the welfare of just one species.

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  •  PETER J. LI is Associate Professor of East Asian Politics at the University of Houston-Downtown and a China Policy Adviser with Humane Society International.
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