The angora rabbit, with its front legs tied to a bench, squirmed as a farm worker laid his hand on its white fur. It shrieked when the worker began to rip off its fur by the handful, exposing large patches of pink skin beneath.
The gruesome video, taken by US-based animal rights group Peta at a rabbit farm in northeastern China, enraged animal rights activists worldwide when it appeared online in November. In Britain, retailers such as Primark and Topshop halted orders of angora wool products from China.
The video also had an impact inside China, where animal welfare is becoming an issue with increasingly broad public support. On Youku, a video sharing website, the clip received more than 200,000 views within a month, and provoked a torrent of condemnation. “Have you thought about how the rabbits feel? What if someone tried to pull your hair off like that?” wrote one web user. “I won’t buy animal fur products from now on,” wrote another.
Although ancient Chinese philosophies and religions such as Taoism and Buddhism viewed animals as worthy of respect, even reverence, during the Mao era such beliefs were attacked. Love of animals was denounced as western and bourgeois. Over recent decades these perceptions have begun to fade, but the concept of animals as resources instead of sentient beings still persists. Animals are routinely exploited for their commercial value— in circuses or for ivory, fur and food.
Among younger Chinese, however, there is a different attitude. Having grown up with domestic pets and anthropomorphic Disney characters, they tend to be more receptive to animal welfare campaigns. Hooked on social media, they have helped spread awareness of animal welfare in China.
Two years ago, for example, a Chinese blogger saved more than 1,100 dogs bound for the slaughterhouse after he spotted them in trucks and posted a plea online to alert local police and animal welfare advocates. And in September, an animal performance show in the eastern city of Jinan was cancelled as a result of angry online protests from animal rights groups. The “milking” of bears for their bile—a key ingredient in some traditional Chinese medicines—has also become a target. Bears are often kept in tiny cages and their bile extracted by creating a permanent hole in their abdomen, through which the bile drips out.
Activists and celebrities have enjoyed relative freedom to lobby for animal welfare, says Peter…