Animals in China: from the “four pests” to two signs of hope
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2003:
Animals in China: from the “four pests” to two signs of hope
by Peter Li
In February 2002, a college student in Sichuan province
microwaved a four-week old puppy, reportedly in retaliation against
his wayward girlfriend.
Five zoo bears were at the same time viciously assaulted with
sulfuric acid at a zoo in Beijing. The perpetrator, Liu Haiyang,
was a student at Tsinghua University, whose alumni include President
Hu Jintao, former Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, and Chairman of China’s
legislature Wu Bangguo.
The public was outraged in each instance, but found solace
in the belief that these were isolated cases.
The subsequent outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome
awakened China to the cruel reality of wildlife exploitation across
the country–and put the acts of deranged individuals into the
uncomfortable context of being not far different from business as
usual at live markets and in the traditional medicine trade.
Wildlife has been used in China for human benefit for more
than two thousand years. Because wildlife use is part of the Chinese
culture, it has been widely viewed as politically untouchable.
Yet culture is neither an excuse nor an adequate explanation
for the unscrupulous wildlife traffic now afflicting China.
First, no culture is static. A powerful state has a great
capacity to reshape culture. Second, Confucian culture is not
unique to the Chinese mainland. For example, the legacy of
Confucianism has not kept Taiwan and Hong Kong from banning
dog-eating. Third, the current volume of state-sanctioned wildlife
exploitation has no precedent.
Environmental devastation was a common legacy of socialism in
Eastern Europe. Similar development strategies attempted in China
during the Pre-Reform Era, 1949-1978, comparably harmed Chinese
ecosystems and wildlife.
For example, to implement the “grain production first”
policy introduced in 1950, the central government decommissioned
entire army corps to clear forests, level mountains, drain lakes
and wet lands, and cultivate grasslands for grain production.
Short-term gains in grain production, however, were soon
swallowed by population growth. By 1957, with grain harvests
stagnant, 30 million urban youth were sent to the countryside to
join in land conversion.
The increase of human activity in areas that were once
sparsely populated caused the flow of the Talimu River in Xinjiang to
shrink by a third. Along the lower reaches, the bones of wild
animals littered the once lush banks. Siberian tigers, bears,
river deer, red-crowned cranes, swans and sturgeons disappeared
from the Great Northern Wilderness in Heilongjiang. Asiatic elephants
were driven from the Xishuangbanna rainforest into neighboring Burma,
Laos and Thailand.
In 1958 Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong initiated the
“Great Leap Forward” with a plan to double steel production in only
one year. Huge swaths of forest were cut to feed millions of
backyard smelters. Among the enduring effects of the Great Leap
Forward was the fragmentation of panda bear habitat into widely
separated tracts within which the remaining small bear populations
may lack the genetic diversity to survive.
Mao blamed rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows for the
failure of the 1957 grain harvest. Mao ordered the massacre of 1.96
billion sparrows between March and November 1958, despite the
objection of experts that sparrows were actually the major defense of
the grain fields against insects. The killing culminated on
December 13, 1958, when Shanghai residents reportedly destroyed
The great disaster
Like the sparrow extermination order issued by a Prussian
ruler in the late 18th century, Mao’s sparrow-killing campaign had
two serious consequences.
First, insects destroyed more of the grain harvest than ever in
1959. Second, a generation of the Chinese youth internalized
violence against the weak and defenseless as an acceptable behavior
in the name of serving the interest of “the people.”
The policy-induced famine of 1960-1962 killed 40 million
Chinese. The survivors ate rats, birds, worms, and insects. Dogs
virtually disappeared. Cannibalism broke out. Soldiers were sent to
Northeast China and Inner Mongolia to hunt. One such expedition
brought back seven train cars of Mongolian gazelles, reducing the
species to the verge of extinction for at least the next 20 years.
Pets were not just incidental casualties of the famine.
Chinese Marxist ideology identified anything allegedly associated
with the “bourgeois” lifestyle as an obstacle to revolution and
social progress, including the use of make-up, growing flowers,
listening to Western music, and keeping dogs and fondling cats. The
official ideology not only authorized violence against demonized
“bourgeois” humans and their pets but praised it as heroic. Sympathy
toward the condemned was construed as a sign of weakness and
questionable political loyalty. Enemies of the state were described
as “drowning dogs,” “cunning foxes,” “ox ghosts,” “snake spirits,”
and “dog sons of bitches.”.
To this day Communist Party ideologues detest petkeeping and
portray petkeepers as soulless beings who imitate the “Western
decadent lifestyle” out of mental emptiness. Animal lovers are even
smeared as “the fifth column” of Western “new imperialism,” who
allegedly hate their own country and delight in discrediting their
own government by fabricating accounts of cruelty.
Deng Xiaoping introduced the economic reform era in 1978. He
announced that the work of public officials would begin to be
appraised in terms of their ability to create jobs, generate
revenue, promote local growth, and contribute to the national
The growth of commercial exploitation of wildlife, concentrated in
the tourism, entertainment, and pharmaceutical industries, started
The exploitation of wildlife as the basis for a cuisine that
attracts tourists is concentrated in Guangdong and Hainan provinces,
in south China, but their wildlife restaurants and live markets are
globally depleting many species. The restaurants and live markets
serve not only affluent local residents but also visitors who come
from Hong Kong on “gourmet tours,” or from the north to seek
business connections. If enough visitors develop a taste for
wildlife, there is risk that the wildlife exploitation seen in
Guangdong and Hainan could spread. Already, Shanghai is believed to
consume as many live snakes per year as Guangzhou.
To sustain the orgy of wildlife-eating, as populations of
wild-caught animals are exhausted, factory farms have begun raising
“wild” species including fox, marten, and masked palm civets,
whose fur may fetch a high price along with their meat.
Before SARS, the live market wildlife traffic was reportedly
worth close to $100 million per year.
While SARS was a setback for the wildlife meat industry,
wildlife use in pharmaceutical products continues to have strong
government backing. The central government has banned the use of
internationally protected species such as tigers and rhinoceros in
traditional medicine, but there are still as many as 400 bear bile
farms in northeastern and southwestern China, with–according to
widely varying estimates from different government departments–7,000
to 9,000 bears living an anguished life behind bars.
The use of traditional medicine has declined in other
nations, but continues to grow in China, where traditional medicine
schools are still training thousands of practitioners per year. In
1997 the government sponsored the publication of a new and
authoritative Complete Collection of Chinese Materia Medica. Among
8,980 listed prescriptions, 1,050 prescriptions use human and
non-human animal parts. Among the species protected by the
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species whose parts
are listed are wild horses, leopards, Asiatic elephants, and golden
Entrepreneurs have also opened entertainment facilities using
animals in various parts of China, but many of them are not making
the profits that the owners expected.
In Guangxi, for example, a businessman is reportedly using
revenue from three other businesses to maintain “Bear and Tiger
Mountain,” a breeding farm with 600 tigers, bears, lions and other
large animals. The facility was intended to simultaneously entertain
tourists, provide tiger parts to pharmaceutical companies, and
breed wildlife for live sale. Crowded conditions and encouraging
tigers to fight to entertain visitors has reportedly led to the death
of 40 tigers.
Live feeding and animal fighting at many wildlife parks, and
the sale of wildlife meat and products to visitors, has been
extensively criticized by both Chinese and foreign media. Asian
Animal Protection Network founder John Wedderburn, M.D., of Hong
Kong, detailed some of the worst abuses in ANIMAL PEOPLE as far back
When cruelly managed wildlife entertainment ventures fail,
as they usually do, the animals may starve to death while the owners
seek buyers who will help to recoup their losses.
Efforts to improve animal welfare in China encounter enormous
difficulties. Politically, the People’s Republic remains a closed
society. Animal welfare organizations must cooperate with the
Chinese authorities. Criticizing the wildlife traffic is difficult
because of the economic influence of the wildlife use industries,
especially at the local level. The Chinese public has been warned
for decades about the alleged vicious designs of western
imperialists. Foreign animal activists are easily accused of wanting
to stop Chinese economic growth.
Questioning Chinese wildlife consumption and the use of
wildlife in traditional medicine can also be construed as an
exhibition of western contempt for Oriental culture.
Hope & opportunity
There are two recent signs of hope.
Pro-animal organizations are still operating in an
uncongenial environment, but a 1999 survey of Beijing and Shanghai
residents conducted by the China Office of the International Fund for
Animal Welfare discovered, as ANIMAL PEOPLE reported in March 2000,
that public attitudes toward animals are on the whole very similar to
those prevailing in the U.S. about 10 to 15 years earlier, when the
U.S. animal rights movement was just beginning to achieve some
The public upset over Liu Hai-yang’s attack on the Beijing
zoo bears confirmed this year that sympathy for animals is residually
strong, especially where the levels of education and affluence are
relatively high and eating wildlife is still uncommon.
In addition, the initial success of the Animals Asia
Foundation bear rescue campaign in Sichuan is changing the official
perception of international pro-animal organizations, helping to
open the way for further involvement in China.
Touched by the sincerity, hard work, and selfless sacrifice
of AAF founder Jill Robinson on behalf of the more than 100 bears she
and her staff have so far rescued from bile farms, China Wildlife
Conservation Association secretary-general Chen Run Shen recently
declared his confidence that “Bear farming will eventually be ended.”
As important as this statement may have been for bears, the
greater vote of confidence was for the concept and principle of
nonprofit enterprise on behalf of animals.
Economic reform and the national drive for modernization have
resulted in state-sanctioned commercial exploitation of wildlife to a
degree unprecedented in Chinese history. Since this industry is
widely seen as part of the Chinese economic miracle, contributing to
the glorification of Chinese culture, combatting it presents a
Yet as China becomes better educated and economically
empowered to choose morality over expedience, there is opportunity
for Chinese people who care about animals to work to persuade fellow
citizens that cruelty has no place in the better world that all
Chinese are striving to build.
There is also now opportunity for sympathizers abroad to help them.
Peter (Jianqiang) Li is Assistant Professor of Political
Science at the University of Houston, downtown campus. “I am from
mainland China,” he wrote to ANIMAL PEOPLE in 1998.
“In 1993 I came to the U.S. for my Ph.D. studies, and
brought my cat Mimi–perhaps the first immigrant cat from China. He
is so attached to me that he might have crossed the Pacific to look
for me if he had been left behind. He was almost thrown to the cold
street in the biting wind of a Beijing winter by my neighbor. The
next year, when my wife came to join us, she brought our other
three cats. We had managed to feed them all, even though there is
no pet food produced or sold in China, and spayed or neutered them
all. Each has a unique story. Since then, we have adopted three
American cats, who at first had some difficulty communicating with
“We don’t just love cats, but love all other animals,” Li
continued. “It is very sad for us to see inhumane treatment of
animals, particularly in our homeland.”
This essay is adapted from Li’s keynote address to the Asia
for Animals conference on September 3, 2003, in Hong Kong.