SHANGHAI — Every summer, the little town of Yulin in southeastern China celebrates the summer solstice by tasting local dishes: lychees (a Chinese fruit) in alcohol, for example, and, perhaps the favorite main course delicacy, dog meat.
Dog carcasses are visibly displayed on street stalls — for now. But last year, animal rights activists began to disrupt such festivities by denouncing the cruelty of keeping dogs in overcrowded cages, and opposing the very idea of eating "man's best friend."
The June festival this year was even more tumultuous. Sales barely reached a third of their 2013 level. Stall owners received threatening phone calls from new Chinese militants and even impromptu visits from members of some 60 animal protection groups. Some of these unwanted guests were in turn surrounded by food sellers angered by the meddling in their business, which they said was no more cruel than eating beef or pork. Police had to step in to separate the dissenting groups.
Animal rights groups have emerged only recently in China, arriving in tandem with a middle class increasingly enthralled by pets. Likewise, the Internet has allowed the Chinese to view certain shocking realities — street gangs stealing pet dogs for resale and pictures of dogs hanging from poles before being cooked in the kitchens of towns like Yulin.
And with such reports, a growing number of Chinese are refusing to eat dogs. In Yulin, local authorities have stressed that they had no hand in organizing the controversial dog fest. Civil servants have been banned from taking part even in a private capacity, and stalls have been asked to remove any mention of "dog meat" to avoid more trouble.
All creatures great and small
This spreading awareness is not limited to dogs. Campaigns against eating shark fins have shown how mutilated sharks are thrown back into the sea to die once their fins were cut off, persuading some restaurants to eliminate fins from their menus. The upscale dish remains widely available in China.
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Save our sharks, in Beijing. Photo: Shizhao
In a study published in May, two researchers at Beijing University's life sciences faculty, Li Zhang and Feng Yin, observed that 52.7% of the capital's residents believed people should no longer eat wild animals, in contrast with 42.7% in 2004. But their study also showed that those with the highest incomes were those who most frequently ate wild species, which are expensive.
Growing awareness in some sectors was shown to be offset by the general rise in Chinese incomes. Serving your guests wild delicacies is often perceived as a sign of wealth. And there is a deeper, underlying belief among the Chinese, that they can dominate and exploit nature. Many believe in the benefits of consuming wild species in the context of traditional medicine.
In March, a police raid in the southern port city of Zhanjiang discovered 10 tiger corpses. These had been killed before an audience of businessmen and officials keen to show their rising social status by attending spectacles that included torturing and electrocuting the animals, and eating bits of them.
Tigers are equated with manly vigor in China, and their consumption is a source of pride for some.
Again, changing ideas about animal suffering are prompting some citizens at least to confront such practices. A drugmaking group specializing in traditional medicine, Guizhentang, discovered this in 2013. The firm sells bear bile, which some Chinese believe cures liver and kidney ailments. The liquid is extracted through a catheter implanted in the gall bladder of a bear that is caged for life.
Guizhentang promised to develop this enterprise by buying as many as 1,200 bears, in contrast with the 400 it had at the time. Its website was hacked, and activists dressed as bears attacked its products in shops. Faced with the rage online, and the mobilization of basketball stars such as Yao Ming, the firm had to cancel its plans to go public on the Shenzen stock exchange.