There is a view that Chinese people are cruel to animals, that it is part of their culture or their nature. There are many reports online about horrendous practices. These are not addressed here, it is assumed these reported practices are cruel but extreme and practiced by a callous minority. This article is based on what I know and what I have observed in the behaviour of ordinary people, and how they treat animals’ in their day to day interactions. And from this experience concludes whether Chinese people are generally crueller to animals than other nationalities.
The link between food and animal is close in China. It’s normal for supermarkets to have tanks and displays of live seafood. Fish are scooped out with a net, knocked on the head and cleaned while you wait. Crabs and lobsters are trussed up safely and carried home alive in shopping bags. At restaurants too, its normal to have these same fish tanks as a demonstration of how fresh their food is. In the shopping mall where I live there is a vending machine with live lobsters in a tank of water. The user pays a small fee to use an overhead crane to grab the lobster and drop it into the vending slot.
The belief that wild animals are healthier than those from the factory farm isn’t unique to China. UK people worry about use of growth hormones and antibiotics as well as living conditions. It has fuelled a growth in organic meat. The West’s narrow diet and sensitivity to seeing our meat undressed, means country markets and butchers have fewer dead animals hanging up for sale than years ago. In contrast, some markets in the south of China are a menagerie of live birds, reptiles and small mammals. While some will have been poached from the dwindling wild population, most will have been bred on small unregulated farms and taken alive to markets to sell. These are not domesticated breeds, organic they maybe, but their lives are unnatural, their transportation and sale in small crowded cages probably terrifying.
The farming of exotic animals is not widespread, nor are the markets where they are sold common. Wet markets exist in the South and their conditions highlighted because of Covid 19 but they are unusual. The only animals I’ve seen in a market have been the ones typically found in Western butchers and the only live creatures have been sea food. The small farms I’ve visited have the type of animals and conditions you would expect. Sheep or goats wander around in fields or are enclosed in makeshift pens; not so different to the places you’d take UK school kids to visit. There are large factory farms and I assume these are brutal places. This is true wherever in the world they’re located, once animals become mass produced commodities, anything is valid to eke out an extra penny. When you’re processing 20,000 piglets a year, animal welfare is secondary to maximizing efficiency. This is also true for dairy, fur and wool farming and for fishing.
The majority of the horrendous reports of cruelty to animals in China seen online usually relate to practices linked to large scale ‘protein production’. While some practices are unique to S.E.Asia, the callousness necessary to carry them out is not unique to this area People all over the world inflict horrendous suffering on animals and its only through media campaigns and the enforcement of legislation that some of the worst treatments are now banned from western food supply chains.
Most Chinese don’t work in the abattoirs and factory farms nor are they involved in the illegal trade of wild animals, pet snatching or exotic farming. There are numerous charities and online campaigns to improve animal welfare and even reports of restaurants being stormed to try and end some traditional practices; it shows that beliefs and attitudes are changing. But as the Blind box craze and monkey shooting showed, there are still a lot of people who just don’t think how an animal might feel. China is not a democracy but the government does react to strong public opinion. The lack of animal cruelty legislation shows it’s not a high priority either for the leaders or for most people. It takes time to change attitudes, especially when they are associated with traditional life. Thinking about animals beyond being food or entertainment is a habit that has to change internally, to put oneself into their position.
Equally there are few organisations that look after sick animals or take in unwanted pets. In the provinces like Inner Mongolia or Qinghai where horses are common, they are used for work or tourists. The ones I’ve seen, enjoy a quality of life probably as good as anywhere, but there is no retirement. Donkeys are eaten, horses probably work till they drop. The concept of providing animal sanctuaries, or dog and cat homes, is a long way off. They are unlikely to be common until after the provision of equivalent social care for people.
The outlook for an animal living in China today is not as good compared with the same animal living in the UK but historically it’s no worse. The conditions on village farms and small holdings are similar to most places in the world and the markets and restaurants where customers see their food being dispatched is less sentimental, but not crueller than having the same job performed by machines out of sight of the sensitive westerner.
Many differences are cultural. Some things appear cruel because they stand out as unusual. They are noticeable and prompt thought, but comparable examples can always be found in other countries. The area where there is a real difference is in regard to the treatment of pets, especially dogs. While recently they are much more likely to be pets than dinner, few consider their status as ‘family members’ like they are often described in the West. In the city, dogs are not working animals but they still serve the needs of owners who disregard the animal’s nature to explore the freedom outdoors.