As the world’s largest pork producer, China is home to more than half of the world’s pig population. However many of these pigs have been forced to live in small, overcrowded cages to increase profits.
But one of the country’s largest agricultural producers, Da Bei Nong, signed an agreement with the International Cooperation Committee of Animal Welfare (ICCAW) on June 5 to improve the quality of life for its 60,000 sows and millions of piglets through more roaming space and comfortable flooring.
“We are committed to the promotion of animal welfare, and to the production of high quality and safe pork for our customers,” said Song Weiping, vice president of Da Bei Nong, in a press release.
A 2016 survey by ICCAW found that two thirds of Chinese shoppers would pay more for pork that had lived better lives. And it’s not just pigs: China is also changing the way it thinks about dog meat, animal testing, and the ivory trade.
The southern city of Yulin usually celebrates the summer solstice by feasting on fragrant lychees and fried dog, but sales have dramatically reduced in recent years. During Yulin’s inaugural festival in June 2009, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 dogs were killed, but in 2016 the number of dogs killed for the festival fell as low as 2,000. Last year, advocacy groups delivered an 11-million signature petition against the festival to the Yulin government office in Beijing.
“There is an expanded animal loving community in China,” says Peter Li, The Humane Society International’s China Policy Specialist. Young people born in the 1980s and 1990s have an improved quality of life compared with their parents, so they are less tolerant of animal cruelty, says Li. Additionally, Chinese – regardless of age – are concerned with their country’s reputation.
“Anything happening in China cannot escape international scrutiny,” says Dr. Li.
Some festival supporters say Yulin’s dog meat festival is part of Chinese culture, and that opposition is unfairly fueled by Western culture.
“Dog rearing is the same as rearing pigs or chickens. There is no difference,” a man named Zhong told CNN in 2015 while eating dog hot pot.
But the majority of Chinese dog owners own dogs for protection or companionship – only 8 percent say they own dogs specifically to eat. And according to a 2016 poll by the Humane Society, almost 70 percent of China has never eaten dog meat.
“Judging by the sporadic waves of outrage about dog-eating in China, you might think it was one of the pillars of the Chinese diet,” Chinese food expert Fuschia Dunlop told the BBC. “Actually ... it’s seldom seen in markets and on restaurant menus, and most Chinese people eat it rarely, if at all.”
China’s animal welfare progress goes farther than dogs and pigs. In 2014 China repealed a longstanding law requiring animal testing for some cosmetics, and also implemented a law that makes eating endangered animals punishable by up to 10 years in jail.
And while international ivory trade has been illegal since the early 1990s, China and the United States have continued to permit domestic sales, which animal activists say directly contributes to declining elephant populations. But in 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to crack down on domestic sales, and in March, China closed 67 licensed ivory factories. The remaining 130 factories are expected to close by the end of the year. (See related item on page 15.)
Jill Robinson, animal activist and founder of Animals Asia, says she has seen China’s attitude towards animal welfare improve over the years. In the 1980s there was only one animal welfare organization in the country, says Ms. Robinson, and now there are hundreds.
“The people of China are often the recipients of criticism from around the world when it comes to animal welfare,” Robinson told the South China Morning Post. “But there is an enormous and growing movement of animal activists in China today.”