Animal Welfare in China: Tradition, Facts, and Fiction

Peter Li's new book offers very unique, timely, and much-needed perspectives.

Posted Mar 01, 2021

 Peter Li, used with permission.
Dr. Li visiting a rescue home in Northeast China.
Source: Peter Li, used with permission.

"All in all, Chinese culture does not sanction cruelty to nonhuman animals." —Peter Li, Animal Welfare in China (p. 107)

I'm thrilled to learn that the University of Houston-Downtown's Dr. Peter Li's new book Animal Welfare in China has been published.1,2,3 

Peter is the go-to-man for explaining what has happened and is currently happening in the arena of animal welfare in this highly diverse country, and I'm pleased he could take the time to answer a few questions about his landmark, much-needed, and must-read book. 

Why did you write Animal Welfare in China?

In the last three decades, animal cruelty in China has attracted much international attention. Several factors may have contributed to this growing attention on the well-being of nonhuman individuals in China. First, it is China's openness to the outside world. China is one of the most frequently visited countries in the world. This openness has allowed people from outside the country to have a close look at people's lives, the country's stunning natural beauty, and how nonhuman animals are treated.

Second, China's growing affluence in the last three decades has given rise to a new demographic group in the country, i.e., animal lovers and people who have companion animals and who care about animals. These Chinese are, in fact, the first in the world who have stood up to speak for the billions of voiceless individuals in the country.

Third, while China is not alone in its unfair treatment of nonhuman individuals, animal cruelty in China is often interpreted simplistically. In this foreign criticism of animal cruelty in China, Chinese culture is often believed to be a culprit. Chinese are therefore perceived to be culturally incapable of compassion, love, and kindness to nonhuman animals. 

 Peter J. Li/Sydney University Press
Source: Peter J. Li/Sydney University Press

I wrote this book to debunk some of the outstanding misperceptions about Chinese culture and the so-called Chinese propensity for violence toward nonhuman animals. I argue in the book that China's past is not responsible for the problems of contemporary China.

It is true that wild animal parts were used as ingredients of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Weren't these animal parts also used as medicine in other cultures and countries in ancient times? Massive wildlife farming never happened in ancient China. And consumption of wild animal meats like dog meat was not part of the mainstream Chinese food culture.

What is happening in China today, say concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), dog meat trade, fur animal farming, wildlife parks and ocean parks, etc., are all business operations created by the businesses or introduced from foreign countries.

Against the perception that the Chinese are cruel because of their culture and tradition, China in ancient times had some of the most progressive animal welfare and animal rights ideas and practices. Chinese ancestors knew the importance of conservation and warned against excessive exploitation of nature; cautioned against killing, hunting in spring, and disturbing animals in hibernation; practiced mercy release (a symbolic gesture to call on the society to be kind and compassionate) and vegetarianism, one of the highly praised virtues; and implemented slaughter suspension as a state policy.

The animal welfare crisis in today's China is a result of the country's massive economic modernization policy that prioritized economic growth, efficiency, productivity, human exploitation of nonhuman animals for the national objective of making China great again. 

How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

I was one of the earliest Chinese students who came to the U.S. to study political science in the mid-1980s. This educational experience opened my eyes to other subject matters of public policy beyond the so-called "high politics" issues of nuclear security, national defense, and international diplomacy. I began to pay attention to environmental and animal protection issues.

My decision to focus my attention on research on animal-related policy issues happened when I was about to finish my doctoral dissertation. I read about bear farming and was shocked by this business operation's intrinsic brutality to Asiatic bears. At that moment, I decided to devote more time to studying the cultural, if any, political, institutional, and other factors that had underlain bear farming and other animal-related business operations.  

Who is your intended audience?

The intended audience is everybody who is interested in finding an answer to the many issues related to animal suffering in China. In the book, I included a chapter on China's dog meat trade and dog meat consumption. I want to tell people who care about dogs in China that the country is in a "civil war" between people who oppose dog meat consumption and those who do not.

For those who want to find out about China's wildlife policy, wildlife wet markets, wildlife trade, and their connection to the COVID-19 pandemic, the book has two chapters that address these issues. In these chapters on dogs and wildlife, I argue that dog meat consumption and consumption of wild animal meat are supply-driven. There is no demand from the people or consumers for dog meat or snake meat. Dog meat and wild animal meats have been promoted by the traders as good for strengthening the human body, enhancing sex, improving memory, fighting cancer and illnesses, and other alleged benefits.

To the Chinese people, government shutdown of the dog meat trade or wildlife trade does no harm to the consumers; yet it does impact the profits of the traders who would lobby, protest, and urge the government to resume and protect their trades. They have long alleged that their trade is for satisfying people's demand. The fact is they want their businesses to satisfy or fulfill their own profit objectives.  

 Peter Li, used with permission.
Dr. Li conducting a field study of a wet market in southwest China.
Source: Peter Li, used with permission.

Different reader groups can certainly benefit from the book. For college students who study animal-related public policy and law, for example, this book addresses law enforcement and lawmaking issues in China's policymaking related to urban animal management and wildlife conservation. It can be a reader for students who study international relations and Chinese politics. China's environmental politics has long been an ignored subject area. This book can certainly help dispel some of the misperceptions about human-animal relations in contemporary China and in its dynastic past. 

What are some of the topics that are woven into your book, and what are some of the major messages? 

Animal Welfare in China acknowledges that China is a comprehensive challenge in animal protection. However, rejecting the cultural deterministic approach that blames China's cultural tradition for the animal welfare problems in today's China, the book instead calls for attention to the contemporary politics of the country's reformist state. Throughout the book, I argue that culture is relevant but not deterministic. China's contemporary Leninist Party-state is a culture-shaping regime, not a pawn to be moved at will by China's tradition. In fact, ancient China had a set of moral values that encouraged kindness to the old, young, disadvantaged, and nonhuman animals.

The book calls for attention on China's post-socialist developmental state for an answer. A developmental state is one that values development, modern technology and modern mode of production, and efficiency for state-led economic modernization and catch-up. As such a development-oriented state, China embraces, for example, Western animal farming model and practices for their efficiency and productivity. The result is a massive animal welfare problem in China's livestock farms.

Like other East Asian developmental states in their early years of development, China has pursued a "development-first" strategy. The objective of the strategy was economic modernization, not democratization, environmental justice, or animal welfare. The entire book and the chapters are revolving around this main theme. 

How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics? 

​This is perhaps the first book on China's animal welfare from the analytical angle of a political scientist. There are many articles touching on China's animal welfare problems. While some of these articles mentioned China's modernization as a factor, most do not address China's post-socialist development state.

There are books with chapters on China's wildlife crisis. But their attention is not welfare but conservation and ecological health. Animals in China: Law and Society by Deborah Cao is a great work focusing on the legal aspect of China's animal welfare issues. China's post-socialist developmental state is not a theoretical guide for Cao's book. 

Although Animal Welfare in China sees the country's developmental state and its development strategy as the explanation of the country's massive animal welfare problems, it is critical more of the mode of production introduced in, for example, livestock production. CAFOs are intrinsically cruel. While I understand  China's need to eliminate poverty, I ask if wildlife farming is a solution to poverty and if local authorities are risking the safety of the 1.4 billion people by encouraging the wildlife farming operation as a productive activity for local growth.   

References

Notes

1) Dr. Li is associate professor at University of Houston-Downtown. He teaches East Asian Politics, U.S. Foreign Policy, Politics and Animal Rights, Contemporary China, and international relations. His research focuses on China’s animal law and policies a time of the country’s earthshaking transformation. Dr. Li’s publications cover subjects related to wildlife trade, culture/politics of wildlife exploitation, the political and institutional obstacles to China’s animal protection legislation, human-animal relations in contemporary China, and animal agriculture and food security. For a selected number of his publications click here.  His “Enforcing Wildlife Protection in China” is one of the most cited of his works. “Explaining China’s Wildlife Crisis” is a more recent overview of the political and institutional challenges of China’s wildlife protection law enforcement. “Re-opening the Trade after SARS: China’s Wildlife Industry and the Fateful Policy Reversal” is the most recent research paper on the role of the wildlife business interest in China’s wildlife policymaking. Dr. Li appears in a large number of media interviews on behalf of the University of Houston-Downtown and Humane Society International on issues related to China’s international relations, China’s domestic politics and transnational wildlife trade and related issues.  He writes frequently in media outlets. For his opinion pieces published in South China Morning Post click here

2) The book's description reads, "The plight of animals in China has attracted intense interest in recent times. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, speculation about the origins of the virus have sparked global curiosity Speculation about the origins of COVID-19 has sparked curiosity about how animals are treated, traded and consumed in China today. In Animal Welfare in China, Peter Li explores the key animal welfare challenges facing China now, including animal agriculture, bear farming, and the trade and consumption of exotic wildlife, dog meat, and other controversial products. He considers how Chinese policymakers have approached these issues and speaks with activists from China's growing animal rights movement. Li also offers an overview of the history of animal welfare in China, from ancient times through the enormous changes of the 20th and 21st centuries. Some practices that are today described as "traditional", he argues, are in fact quite recent developments, reflecting the contemporary pursuit of economic growth rather than long-standing cultural traditions. Based on years of fieldwork and analysis, Animal Welfare in China makes a compelling case for a more nuanced and evidence-based approach to these complex issues.

3) Having done some work on animal welfare in China mainly focusing on the plight of moon bears and bear bile farming with Animals Asia, I've been anxiously waiting for Peter's book to be available to a wide international audience. In August 2004 I organized the first International Symposium on Animal Welfare held in China as part of the International Congress of Zoology at which I met Peter and Jill Robinson, founder and CEO of Animals Asia. Animal Welfare in China is a comprehensive review of the history of the ways in which nonhuman animals (animals) have been treated through the ages and what is currently happening in this highly diverse country. It also debunks misleading simplistic myths about what is happening in China. There are very few people who could write such a unique, timely, authoritative, well-referenced—the bibliography is an encyclopedic goldmine of information—and on-the-ground perspective of a wide range of topics including animal agriculture, bear farming, zoos, and the trade and consumption of exotic wildlife, dog meat, and other products. For an interview with Dr. Jill Robinson, founder and CEO of Animals Asia, click here.

Bekoff, Marc. The Bear Bile Industry: Cruelty Can't Stand the Spotlight. 

_____. A Conversation With Jill Robinson About #MoonBearDay2019.

_____. Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears Offers Lessons in Hope

_____. The Healing Power of Animals: Moon Bear Has a Place. (An essay by a former inmate shows how other animals can help people move on.)

_____. The Captive Panda Breeding Boondoggle: The Invisible Side

_____. Cuddly Pandas Are "Cuteness Crack" Says British Zoologist. 

_____. Are Fluffy Pandas Worth Saving or Should We Let Them Go?

_____. Pandas: Do We Really Need Another Cute "Ambassador"?