YULIN (China) - An annual festival putting dog meat on the menu has again turned the spotlight on a small southern Chinese city, drawing fierce criticism at home and abroad.
The festival, which started in 1995 to mark the summer solstice - marking the end of the hottest days of summer - by eating dogs served with lychee, will begin today in Yulin, a city with a population of 600,000 in Guangxi region.
A petition against the festival on Change.org, an online petition platform, has been signed by more than 3.6 million supporters as of last night.
This year's festival, which reportedly would kill some 10,000 dogs, has drawn attention from international celebrities including British comedian Ricky Gervais.
He started tweeting with the hashtag "StopYuLin2015" before it rapidly gained traction on Twitter. More than 1.2 million tweets have been made using the hashtag over the last 30 days, according to Topsy, a social search and analytics company.
But locals believe dog meat is no different from pork and they should be free to enjoy their "tradition" without finger-pointing, Xinhua news agency said yesterday.
"It's some people's custom to eat dogs. Just like those who don't eat pork, they wouldn't protest against us eating pork," said an Internet user, who called for "mutual respect" in a post online.
"If you don't want to eat something, don't eat."
Some restaurant owners selling dog meat in Yulin are accustomed to being bombarded ahead of the festival with anonymous text messages calling for an end to killing "human's friends".
"We are used to it. Some traders just turn off their phones," said Mr Zhong Peihua, whose restaurant has been open for 27 years.
The Yulin government has promised to crack down on anyone caught stealing dogs and banned public slaughter, but the fervour of the festival continues.
The sellers' indifference and the government's inaction have sparked uproar on China's social media too, where tens of thousands of people expressed their opposition to the festival.
A poll on Twitter-like Sina Weibo showed 87.9 per cent of 4,606 people surveyed as of last night were in favour of enacting laws to prohibit animal abuse, while 12.1 per cent say it is not necessary.
Some activists from an animal protection society in Guangxi staged a sit-in on Saturday in front of a dog market, holding banners with the slogan "Stop Killing!"
"Why can't they just eat chicken or duck?" protest organiser Chen Tianhai was quoted by Xinhua as saying.
Calling sit-ins useless, Ms Yang Xiaoyun, 65, found a more effective way to save the animals. She spent about 7,000 yuan (S$1,500) buying 100 dogs on Saturday, with a plan to raise them in a farm, Chinese media said.
"I want to spread the love for dogs in peaceful ways, such as running a dog farm or a vegetarian restaurant," she said.
The business of selling dog meat has been affected by the rising awareness of animal protection, as many sellers were selling about a fifth as many dogs as they were five years ago, Xinhua said.
"You can see people's minds are changing," said Mr Zhong, whose son and daughter refuse to eat dog meat.