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 Li, a China policy expert at the Humane Society International, because the issue does not pose immediate threat to social and political stability. Yao Ming, the retired NBA star, has led a crusade against eating shark fin soup, which, boosted by the government’s campaign to curb excessive official banquets, has helped curtail the country’s consumption by 50 to 70 per cent in the last two years. In another watershed moment in 2013, a petition signed by more than 70 Chinese celebrities succeeded in blocking the flotation of a company seeking to expand its bear bile-extracting business.
For the same reason that the government allows animal welfare activism, however, it also has little incentive to implement drastic change: it is not an urgent political priority. China still lacks laws proscribing cruelty to animals. In England, the first animal protection legislation was passed in 1822.
Animal rights advocates remain optimistic about the prospect of legal reform. “I believe the current leadership will issue animal protection legislations soon,” says He Jianjun, the founder of Hunan Bird Protection Camp, an NGO in southern China. “The grassroots organisations are pushing for it, and it matters to China’s international image.”
Nonetheless, change, like much else in China, does not follow a neat trajectory—it takes place amid a hodgepodge of new perceptions and old habits. One morning during a recent hike in southern China, I stood in front of a rural restaurant, trying to decide what to order for lunch. The owner recommended dog meat hotpot. “Why don’t you try it?” he said, making a sweeping gesture. “It’s our local speciality!” As I smiled hesitantly and thanked him, an Indian Pariah dog wandered by. I looked at the owner questioningly. “Oh no, that’s my own dog,” he laughed. “It’s been with me for years. I would never eat it.”
Helen Gao is a journalist based in Beijing