Animal Cruelty

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.

Owning animals
The traditional pets of China are birds and crickets kept for their singing. You sometimes see old men taking their caged bird to the park, but it’s not so popular now. In the last 10 years cats and dogs have become the common pets. In the living areas of Beijing, you see quite a few owners out with their dogs, some are quite large. They take them out to do their business then return to their apartments. Unlike the caged birds, few take their dogs to the park. The only dogs you meet when walking in the country are the strays that hang around the fringes of cities. Dogs in China do not get much exercise!
 It’s the same with cats. Pet cats are locked indoors. Outside, the only cats you see are mangy skinny creatures that scavenge food and keep away from people.  A colleague had a small kitten as a pet. He lived in a shared house, so kept his cat in his crowded bedroom. Before going on holiday, for three weeks, he asked some friends if they could go to his home and look after the kitten. One girl went around a few times to play with it and check food and water. She had to wear a mask because her skin reacted to the room’s air quality. None of the other friends visited, It was surprising how little sympathy there was shown for this kitten’s life despite them all being ‘cat lovers’.
 Animals for food
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.
In the West, we don’t want to be reminded that we are eating the flesh of, what were, living animals. We certainly do not want to see animals killed in front of us. Many would feel uncomfortable about boiling lobsters or steaming shellfish alive.  Few want to gut a fish or buy a chicken with its head and feet still attached. Customers would be outraged, possibly put off their meal, if there was a video of sheep gambolling around a field being shown in the restaurant while they ate lamb chops. Chinese customers however, are reassured that their dinner is natural and healthy.
A Free life is healthier
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. 
Unlike in the UK, animals in China don’t need to go to an abattoir for slaughter. The restaurant, the market and the small holding will butcher their own meat. I once saw a pig slaughtered from my apartment window and a goat get its throat cut at the side of a road. This is the reality of small-scale family farming throughout the developing world.
Even in the west, many country people would think nothing of wringing a chicken’s neck, shooting rooks, snaring rabbits and using bee depleting pesticides. This doesn’t mean country people find torturing animals more acceptable than city folk, but they are less bothered about killing animals and generally less squeamish about handling them. Most of the Chinese population still live, or recently lived, in the country. The presence of live food is normal, even in a modern shopping mall.
Animal farming
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.
Legislation and public opinion
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.
The UK has some of the best animal welfare laws in the world, but these laws didn’t happen overnight. There is a long history of cruel blood sports like bear-baiting, dog and cock fighting and of course fox hunting. These have very gradually been made illegal. Traditional practices necessary for creating good foie gras and veal still continue and are as inhumane as beating a dog to death to improve its flavour. Cruelty in farming is not limited to China, but in the absence of animal welfare laws,  abuse will be more common.. The recent scandal in China of ‘Blind boxes’ where animals have been sent through the post highlighted the lack of legislation. 

On a visit to a park in Guiyang famous for Macaque monkeys I was outraged to see the security guards firing catapults at them. When asked why, one guard said it was to keep them away, another said it was to stop them biting people. A better method surely would be to stop people feeding them. There were visitors who come regularly with big bags of nuts and vegetables. One of these people told me he thought the guards behaviour was criminal – I doubt any law is being broken.  If there was its by those employed to enforce it.
Changing attitudes
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.
Comparative cruelty
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.
When cycling along a remote part of the Grand Canal between Beijing to Tianjin, I found the remains of three dead dogs. They had been killed and their bodies left on the canal side. The casual indifference for their lives was shocking. They must have been a nuisance, or no longer useful to the owner. Dogs often have a low status; not much higher than the crickets and birds they’ve replaced as pets.
The tourist water towns around Suzhou are filled with cats. One was stuck on the roof opposite the hotel I stayed in. I could hear its cries all night. The next day I told the owner and he said the cat had been up there crying for three days. He had called the fire brigade, but they didn’t want to help, they said there were too many wild cats to save..
The use of animals promotes cruelty. Whether you eat them, wear their skins, make glue from their feet or guitar strings from their vocal cords. Whether kept as pets, in zoos, circuses, or for riding. Their quality of life varies depending on which country they live in, as it does for the citizens of those countries. The importance attached to animal welfare is related to the development of that country, no country treats animals better than its citizens, and even in the UK there is room for improvement. Singling out a country or race as typically cruel because their standard is behind our own, or there is less public pressure for change is blaming them for being poorer or more oppressed. We all exploit animals, and in doing so are all involved in their cruelty.
Live lobster games machine unusual rather than cruel 
Speaking up and speaking out
The treatment of pets and the oblivion to the mental state of the animals at Beijing Zoo points to a lack of empathy more than deliberate cruelty at least in ordinary people. Dogs and cats as pets are a new phenomenon, a luxury for those who grew up among starvation. Their welfare is still secondary for the millions who remain living poor, precarious lives. Many see an animal only as a source of food, entertainment  or income. You would expect animals destined for the pot to be less pampered than pets, but in China there is little difference, the relationship between animal and man is more practical than emotional The mild suffering inflicted on them is balanced by the income or other benefits they provide.
The country has modernized within a generation, but below the surface, people’s attitudes have changed much slower. In many areas, including animal welfare, they have a mentality closer to the UK of the 1970s. Still, its hard not to wonder why no one objects to the living conditions they see animals in, especially when paraded on the street in tiny cages, or on the end of a rope (see below) or being fired at by park security. People appear not to think or feel, but possibly, they are just too used to not speaking up, speaking out or questioning. Perhaps it will change
We will see as time moves on… 
Throw a hoop over the pet to win
Man selling live turtle on the street