BEIJING — In most cities, taking your dog for a walk in the dead of night could be seen as a personal quirk or a byproduct of insomnia. But in Beijing, it's a sure sign that the city's dogcatchers are on the prowl for illicit mutts. If you don't want your pet to end up in the pen or as protein on someone's plate, it's best to keep a low profile.
Once shunned by communist ideologues as capitalist vermin, dogs have become a firm favorite among China's fast-growing middle class and a status symbol among the well-heeled. A generation raised in one-child families is eager to bond with household pets. In Beijing, the number of registered dogs is up 16 percent this year, to 530,000, but the true dog population is likely far higher, as many animals are unregistered.
The reason is not only to avoid paying a $75 to $125 registration fee. Big dogs – those with a shoulder height of more than 35 centimeters (about 13 inches) – are banned in central Beijing. If you want to own a Labrador or Husky, two popular breeds in China, you run the risk of your prized pet being detained as an illegal breed. But regulations being what they are, some dog owners were prepared to flout them, betting that law enforcers had bigger fish to fry.
All that changed in September, when Beijing declared it was stepping up the fight against rabies, a disease that officials say killed more than 2,500 people last year in China. In July, officials in a rural county in Yunnan Province slaughtered 50,000 dogs to contain an outbreak of rabies. Pet dogs were snatched off the street and clubbed to death or hung. Jining City in Shandong Province followed suit after reported deaths from rabies.
Suddenly, nocturnal walks are all the rage in Beijing. So are extended stays at private kennels and training schools, as owners wait for the canine crackdown to run its course. But even registered dogs that have had rabies shots are said to be at risk, as police stations need to fill their weekly quotas for dog exterminations.
For Frank Fan, it's a familiar sense of dread. As a child growing up in Beijing in the austere 1960s, he befriended a mongrel that a neighbor had brought from the countryside. When dogcatchers prowled the streets with sticks, he sneaked the mutt into the basket of his bicycle and fled. A friend built a secret basement in his house, and Mr. Fan kept the dog as a pet at a time when such decadent frivolities were forbidden.
Earlier this year, after business school and a career as a fund manager on Wall Street, Fan returned to Beijing, together with his two dogs, to open an upscale pet hospital to cater to an expanding market. He says China has changed, and so have attitudes toward animals. "Humans are humans. They need animals as pets, to support them," he says.
That attachment can be short-lived, however. Dogs are often abandoned by owners that tire of looking after them or decide they prefer the latest in-vogue breed. "People buy dogs so they can show off. Whichever dog is the most popular, that's what people will go for," says Zhang Luping, who runs a private animal rescue center outside Beijing.
Ms. Zhang, a real-estate developer, takes care of nearly 500 dogs and 200 cats that have been dumped on the streets or rescued from abusive owners. Dog arrivals have surged since news broke of the antirabies campaign, she says. Like many pet lovers, she's skeptical of official tallies of the disease and the justification for canine culls.
The campaign has generated strong online reactions, too, including barbed comments on the political logic at work. "Is there no justice in this world when those poor dogs have to be killed only because of rabies, even if they've already been vaccinated? There are no human rights in China! There are no dog rights, either!" wrote one contributor to Chinapet.com, a website for pet owners .
In additional efforts to curb the spread of rabies in China – which reports a 30 percent increase in cases over last year's figures – 65,000 dogs in Shanghai have been implanted with digital chips. The ID chips contain information about the dog, including its owner's address and the date of its last inoculation.
At a dog market in Liyuan, a suburb of Beijing, breeders say that business has slackened somewhat since the start of the rabies crackdown. But buyers continue to visit the sprawling outdoor market, especially on weekends when thousands of dogs, big and small, pedigreed and mongrel, are paraded for sale in cages or on leashes.
Not all are destined to become household pets, however. In the back of a red pickup truck, a pack of mottled brown dogs are roped together inside a cage. Three men pick one, and agree upon a price with the owners. The dog is leashed and led to a waiting car to be taken to a restaurant and slaughtered for its meat, a common practice in parts of China.
It's a fate that Ms. Yang, who declined to give her first name, is determined won't befall her two small dogs. After anxious weeks of hiding them at home, she has decided to sell them, rather than risk their capture by the authorities. So with a dog scooped in her arms and another on a leash, she waits by the roadside near the market for potential buyers.
Ms. Yang says that the dogcatchers are selling carcasses in her hometown of Tianjin, a coastal city near Beijing. She hugs her 2-month old puppy tight. "I'll feel relieved when they go to a good family, It's better than being beaten to death," she says.
• Material from Reuters was used in this report.