More in China are eating dog meat but it's set to change

Ms Wang Zheng's daughter, Letong, and her furry companion, Pang Hei. More Chinese, like Ms Wang, are keeping dogs.
Ms Wang Zheng's daughter, Letong, and her furry companion, Pang Hei. More Chinese, like Ms Wang, are keeping dogs.PHOTO: COURTESY OF WANG ZHENG

As a rising number keep dogs as pets, activists hope that attitudes towards them will change

As a child, Ms Wang Zheng, now 45, had longed for a pet.

But her parents did not allow her to have any as they thought of pets as troublesome and dirty. She was left with playing with the neighbours' cats instead.

So when she saw that her daughter, an only child, also had a liking for animals, Ms Wang decided to get a pet dog for the family 19 months ago. It would keep Letong, now 13, company and help relieve her schoolwork pressure, she thought.

"Pang Hei keeps Letong company when she does her homework," she said of the schnauzer-poodle mix that she adopted from a neighbour's litter for a token sum of 600 yuan (S$122).

Ms Wang is among a growing number of middle-class Chinese, including the residents of Beijing, who have taken to keeping dogs as pets. Growing affluence and the now defunct one-child policy have been drivers of this trend.

The Communist Party had frowned on the practice as elitist and Beijing banned dogs in 1983, after they started to appear in households after the Cultural Revolution.

At the same time that more Chinese are keeping dogs as pets, more are also eating dog meat... This is because dog meat is relatively cheaper than other meats. The reason is not that it is cheap to rear a dog... it is because most dogs being sold in Chinese markets for their meat have been stolen from their owners.

When Beijing lifted the ban on dog ownership in 2002, 140,000 dogs were registered. By 2012, that number had jumped to 1.2 million and then to two million by last year.

But with only 50 to 60 per cent of dogs within the city limits registered, and virtually all of those in the suburbs unregistered, the real number of dogs owned by Beijingers could be between four and six million, Ms Mary Peng, chief executive officer of an animal hospital, said at a recent forum on animal welfare. Beijing has 21.5 million residents.

Nationwide, there are an estimated 62 million registered dogs.

Yet, at the same time that more Chinese are keeping dogs as pets, more are also eating dog meat, according to Professor Guo Peng of Shandong University, who researches animal ethics.

This is because dog meat is relatively cheaper than other meats, she told the same forum.

The reason is not that it is cheap to rear a dog, as any canine owner would attest. Rather, it is because most dogs being sold in Chinese markets for their meat have been stolen from their owners.

A live dog sells for an average of 5 yuan per jin (500g), Prof Guo said in a written interview with The Sunday Times, while it is 3 yuan to 4 yuan for a dead canine.

In contrast, pork costs about 9 yuan to 10 yuan per jin, she noted.

Aside from price, Chinese have no qualms eating dog meat because, traditionally, keeping dogs as pets was something that was confined to the wealthy classes. Common folk, if they kept dogs at all, had them as guard dogs to protect their homes. There is not the same kind of common regard for dogs as friends as there is in the West.

"Old dogs might be slaughtered in some areas in China (for food), especially in very harsh times when food is in short supply," noted Prof Guo.

A director of a documentary on dog ownership in China told the Atlantic magazine that while many Chinese dog owners think there is a contradiction between eating dog meat and owning a dog, others do not.

"Another one of my subjects has a small dog he adores, but, at the same time, he owns a Korean-Chinese restaurant where he serves dog meat," said the director who wanted to remain anonymous.

Said Prof Guo: "China is not an open society. Most of the social and ethical issues are not yet very well addressed and discussed among the public."

About 10 million dogs are slaughtered annually for their meat nationwide and areas where dog meat is commonly eaten are north-eastern China, Guangdong province and Guangxi region.

"In these areas, dog meat is sold in the name of minority tradition, that of the ethnic Koreans in north-eastern China, or local tradition, in Guangdong and Guangxi," noted Prof Guo.

She added, however, that the north-eastern China dog meat market is not confined to the minority community and that there is not really an established tradition of eating dog meat in Guangdong and Guangxi.

But what has stirred controversy both in China and abroad is the annual Yulin Lychee and Dog Meat Festival in Guangxi. The festival was started informally in the late 1990s by restaurant owners. It grew popular and became an important tourist attraction for the city.

Last year, however, a petition against the festival drew millions of signatures nationwide, showing a growing opposition to the eating of dog meat in China.

It threw into uncertainty this year's festival and last month, reports surfaced that government officials intended to ban dog meat in markets, streets and restaurants during the festival period.

However, a Beijing News report on June 15 cited the city's officials as saying that the festival is not an officially organised event but a folk custom and that there is no policy to ban the dog meat trade.

This year's festival started last Wednesday and will last for 10 days.

Animal welfare activists do not expect Chinese to stop eating dog meat overnight but, instead, hope that there will be a change of attitude as more Chinese take to keeping dogs as pets.

"As this generation starts to grow up with pets in the household and experience the human-animal bond... we hope to see the younger generation start to choose not to continue with those practices," said Ms Peng.

In the meantime, what could be done is to frame the argument against eating dog meat as a public health issue, she added, given that there are no rules to regulate where the meat comes from or how it is prepared. "It's just not safe meat to eat," she said.

Prof Guo thought there should simply be a ban on dog-meat eating outside of the ethnic Korean community where the practice has a long tradition.

And that would be what China's growing legion of dog lovers will welcome.

"I can't accept it," said Ms Wang. "It's ugly for humans to eat dog meat."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 25, 2017, with the headline 'More in China are eating dog meat but it's set to change'. Print Edition | Subscribe