Xiaomei, who didn't want her name used, is the proud owner of a two-year-old Husky, Max (whose name has also been changed for his protection). For the moment, Max is safely secreted with a friend in the countryside, beyond the jurisdiction of the Beijing municipality's strict rules limiting each city household to a single dog, and limiting its size. While the regulations have existed in various forms for years, enforcement has been lax until recently. Many owners of oversize dogs had previously simply walked their German shepherds and golden retrievers under cover darkness. But a recent crackdown by Beijing police ostensibly aimed at curbing rabies, a rash of attacks and other canine nuisances has dog owners fearful that their dogs will be confiscated and possibly mistreated or even put down while in police custody. Police are taking no chances: They have set up special reporting hotlines and even offered rewards for reports of wayward owners.
The new enforcement campaign against illegal dog ownership, which began November 13, has caused a storm of complaint and protest everywhere from Beijing's streets to the electronic bulletin boards and blogs of China's hyper-active cyber universe. And the issue has created some unlikely rebels: Xiaomei, for example, is the very model of a law-abiding Chinese and wouldn't dream of doing anything that might get her into trouble. But she nevertheless joined hundreds of protesters who showed up at the entrance to Beijing Zoo on November 12 to protest the crackdown. She says that riot police outnumbered the protesters, and while there were a few scuffles, the protest passed off peacefully enough.
Still, the presence of Xiaomei and hundreds of fellow dog lovers was a sign of changing times in China. Once the reviled symbol of bourgeois indulgence during China's Cultural Revolution and largely wiped out, pet dogs there are an estimated million or more in Beijing now provide comfort and status to a rapidly swelling middle class. So, the canine crackdown has provoked a struggle that pits the power of Beijing's newly rich against the reflexive authoritarianism of the ruling Communist Party. Just how the contest plays out will provide telling insight into how Chinese society is adapting to the seismic shifts brought by years of booming economic growth.
One thing is clear: Despite appeals for calm and cooperation by the police, dog owners aren't planning on backing down. "The new regulation should be revised," asserts Wu Tianyu, founder of Animal Rescue Beijing. "The key point is to manage people, not to manage dogs. Dogs themselves are not dangerous." Wu says emotions on the issue are running high. "I hope there won't be any violence. If the regulation is not revised, there could be a chaos."
With reporting by QuWei.