The Chinese Media's Pet Cause

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There was nothing particularly surprising about the international outrage over the reports of the wholesale slaughter of 50,000 dogs in rural China as part of a poorly executed campaign to curb the spread of rabies; some of the dogs, after all, were taken from their owners and beaten to death with sticks on the spot. China's official news agency has reported that up to half a million more dogs are expected to be exterminated in a separate cull over the next few days. "China's slaughter of dogs is a disproportionate, inhumane and ill response to rabies. It is a waste of life and dollars," said Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. "This policy is based on ignorance and lack of understanding of rabies and how it spreads."

There is, of course, outrage in China as well. The People's Republic's adoption of bourgeois values has, in recent years, led to a larger pet-owning population. What is notable, however, is the Chinese media's open coverage of these enormous culls, which opens government policy to the public's critical eye; in contrast, violations of human—as opposed to animal—rights are very rarely publicized by the mainstream Chinese media and very rarely open to public scrutiny. China is a country where advocacy for abused animals is more recognized and permissible than advocacy for abused humans. Part of why the dog killing got so much attention is that unlike say, the number of people killed in a given mining accident, or the number of people executed for capital crimes, dead dog statistics aren't considered state secrets in China. Likewise, while NGOs in China that focus on issues like the rule of law or rights of workers have to tread carefully if they want to stay in business, people gathering to take in stray cats or protect pandas can operate freely. The coverage in the Chinese media served as a stark reminder of how seldom people in China are allowed to express similar outrage when it comes to cruelty toward other people.

The Chinese weren't always so quick to leap to the defense of man's best friend. When I first arrived four years ago, my Canadian neighbor's dog Genghis—a pug with a self-important streak that rivals that of his namesakeŚwas one of the very few dogs in our Beijing neighborhood. Other people on my street kept pets. There were old men who hitched elegant bamboo cages to their bicycle handlebars every dawn to pedal their songbirds out to the park for a morning of refreshment. There were well-fed crickets, flocks of homing pigeons that hummed through the sky with whistles attached to their tails, the occasional rabbit. Genghis, however, was a novelty; he scared children and grown men alike.

Although people in Beijing don't generally eat dogs, which are raised for meat in the south of the country, the idea of dogs as pets hadn't caught on back then. That time, however, is long past. Today it seems everyone in my neighborhood has a dog. Genghis barely attracts any notice. Like humans, pet dogs must be registered with the local police station; owners pay a fee for registration. This is a lot of money and thus a dog confers a certain status on its owner.

So yes, it's true that dogs now have a important place in many Chinese hearts nowadays. But it's also likely that in some respects, the anguish among Chinese over dogs being culled may well be proxy for the poor, defenseless fellow citizens that the Chinese are not encouraged to sympathize with or given the opportunity to have feelings for. If Chinese papers were allowed, for example, to report on Chen Guangcheng, a blind peasant activist who's been repeatedly beaten and is now in jail for standing up for the victims of illegal forced abortions and who's due to go on trial on trumped-up charges of destroying public property this month, I'm sure his case would generate public outcry too. Right now, that's not possible in China. But maybe in a country where it's okay to protest the inhumane treatment of animals, someday it'll also be acceptable to take a stand against the inhumane treatment of humans.