Animal Welfare awareness of Chinese youth
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2004:
Animal Welfare awareness of Chinese youth
by Peter Li, Zu Shuxian, & Su Pei-feng
In early 2002 five bears at the Beijing Zoo were attacked on
two separate occasions with sulfuric acid by a mysterious visitor.
For months Chinese media gave extensive coverage to the incident,
including the eventual prosecution and conviction of perpetrator Liu
Coming from a single-child family, Liu Hai-yang was among
China’s 80 million “little emperors” who reputedly harbor an
inordinate sense of entitlement. A science major at Beijing’s
prestigious Tsinghua University, Liu showed no signs of remorse. He
questioned his detention, demanded his release, and defended his
act as a “scientific experiment.”
To animal advocates, the incident illustrated why the
passage of anti-cruelty legislation must not be delayed any longer.
Yet others, including some Chinese officials, argued that
proposals to legislate animal welfare are beyond what China is ready
The Liu case was among the topics most discussed at an
October 2002 symposium on animal welfare held in Heifei, Anhui
Province. Responding to the issues raised there, with
co-sponsorship from the World Society for the Protection of Animals
and the University of Houston downtown campus, we surveyed Chinese
college students to investigate whether the alleged “little emperor”
syndrome can actually be found in attitudes toward animals, and what
the prevailing attitudes toward animals are likely to be in coming
decades, as today’s college students become China’s future leaders.
In particular, we sought to find out whether China is ready
for animal welfare legislation.
We conducted separate surveys in 2002 and 2003. We compared
our findings to the results of a 1998 survey of Beijing and Shanghai
residents about their attitudes toward animals, sponsored by the
International Fund for Animal Welfare. Although the views of Beijing
and Shanghai residents do not necessarily reflect the entire nation,
both cities and all of the campuses whose students we surveyed
attract people from all parts of China and many different family
First, we sought to find out if Chinese college students now
living in a nation 27 times richer than the one they were born into
are in any way different from the rest of the society in their
attitudes toward animals. Previous studies of the “little emperor”
generation have found that they are not significantly different from
other Chinese people in their value judgments. In 1998 the Research
Group for Studying the Personality Development of China’s
Single-child Youth reported that the overwhelming majority of the
surveyed single-child youngsters, 84% in all, to be sympathetic
Based on these arguments, we expected that the college
students should have similar views on animals to those held by the
rest of the society.
Yet criminal acts involving college science majors have
repeatedly shocked China in recent years. Before the bear attack
incident, thousands of people were horrified when a college student
in Sichuan microwaved a puppy. Although the outcome of the act was
not remarkably different from actions commonly involved in killing
dogs for meat, the microwaving incident like the bear-torturing
incidents caused many commentators to wonder whether the Chinese
educational emphasis on training technical talent might have produced
students who are deformed in character, lack moral judgment, and
are blind to their social responsibilities. We sought to find out if
Chinese science students are in general morally compromised.
Our third objective was to determine if students’ attitudes
are changing over time, particularly after the emergence of Severe
Acute Respiratory Syndrome as a national crisis.
We surveyed 1,300 students in all. Our 2002 survey was
distributed at 13 universities, with a 93% return rate. Our 2003
survey was repeated at 10 universities, with an 83% return rate. We
took care to stratify our samples so that they represented both
genders, different years in school, different disciplines, and a
typical distribution of family residence between rural and urban.
The 1998 IFAW survey found, as ANIMAL PEOPLE reported, that
Chinese attitudes strikingly resembled those discovered in surveys of
U.S. residents conducted 10 to 15 years earlier. 94% of the Beijing
and Shanghai residents surveyed believed that animals can suffer and
feel pain. Only 4.9% believed otherwise. 94% also agreed that
animals feel sadness and happiness.
We found similar yet slightly stronger positive attitudes
among the college students. 98% of the respondents to our 2002 survey
said that animals have the capacity to feel pain and suffering. 96%
agreed that animals were capable of emotional expressions. These
findings were confirmed when 98.2% and 96.4% of our 2003 survey
respondents agreed that animals feel pain and have emotions. In terms
of empathy for animals, China’s college students do not stand as a
separate group. As a matter of fact, our two surveys have
demonstrated that the college students scored higher in empathy for
the animals than the Beijing and Shanghai residents.
Interest in animals or literature and broadcast programs
about animals do not necessarily correlate with high animal welfare
consciousness. Yet, people with such interest tend to be more
knowledgeable about animals and therefore tend to be likely to
empathize with animals. IFAW found in 1998 that 79% of Beijing and
Shanghai respondents expressed interest in animal-related literary
and broadcast works. Both of our surveys found that only 70% of
respondents said that they like animal-related literature and
broadcast programs, but this difference may reflect that students
have less free time than the general population for recreational
reading and television-watching. Supporting this
hypothesis, 17% of the Beijing and Shanghai residents said that
while they were not particularly interested in animal-related
literature and broadcasts, they had no objection toward them. 26%
of our respondents answered likewise. Only 3% of the Beijing and
Shanghai residents and 4% of the students actively disliked literary
and broadcast works about animals.
In contrast to the disinterest in animal comfort and welfare
evident at the notorious live markets of Guangzhou and many other
Chinese cities, especially in the south and northeast, our surveys
found a surprisingly low percentage of respondents, just 2.7% and
2.5%, respectively, who saw animal existence as being primarily for
human use. 92.4% and 93% believed that animals and their welfare
deserve respect and consideration.
Among the Chinese institutions most often identified as
abusive toward animals, zoos received the strongest approval. Even
so, slightly more than half of our respondents saw zoos as prisons
for the animals, while barely more than a quarter of respondents
expressed positive views of zoos. This is the inverse of most U.S.
and European findings. To be noted, however, is that most Chinese
zoos are approximately 50 years behind the animal welfare standards
advanced by the American Zoo Association.
36.5% of the IFAW survey respondents believed that there is
no moral difference between eating dog meat and consuming beef or
pork. Our 2003 survey found that 45% of the respondents saw
dog-eating as morally the same as consuming beef or pork.
This finding requires further study. If dog-eating has
become more acceptable to young Chinese people than to their elders,
western anti-dog meat tactics that include aspects of ethnic
stereotyping and broadly indiscriminate appeals for boycott are not
only failing but are helping to reinforce public acceptance of
dog-eating as an aspect of Chinese culture.
“If younger Chinese people believe dog-eating is morally the
same as consuming beef or pork and can be brought to recognize a
moral objection to killing cattle and pigs for human consumption,”
argues ANIMAL PEOPLE editor Merritt Clifton, “then China may be
significantly closer than the U.S. to becoming a vegetarian nation as
result of conscientious choice. I suggest this because the late
Henry Spira was a longtime Marxist who wrote that he did not see
dog-eating as morally different from eating other animals, if all of
them were treated well and slaughtered humanely. Spira did not have
any moral objection to meat-eating, until he became fond of a cat he
was keeping temporarily for a friend. One evening at supper he
realized that the cat and the animals he ate were morally equivalent
in their capacity to suffer. Instead of mentally constructing the
differentiation between ‘companion animals’ and ‘meat animals’ that
most people do, Spira put down his fork in mid-meal, and never ate
meat of any kind again. Spira went on to become one of the most
accomplished animal defenders and advocates against meat-eating who
The outbreak of SARS brought international attention to the
practice of wildlife eating in China. Yet contrary to the perception
of many outside observers, both the IFAW survey and our own
demonstrate that wildlife eating is a culinary sub-culture. IFAW
found that 38% of Beijing and Shanghai respondents had eaten wild
animals in the recent past. We found that only 24% of the college
students we surveyed in 2003 survey had eaten wildlife in recent
Both the IFAW survey and ours reflect the overall frequency
of practices which appear to vary greatly by region. An opinion poll
conducted later in 2003 by the Shanghai #2 Medical Sciences
University Public Health Institute found that among 400 Shanghai
residents, 83% had eaten wildlife.
Reappraising the IFAW findings to presume that Shanghai
residents responded comparably in 1998 and 2003 produces the
inference that virtually all of the wildlife eaters polled by IFAW
were from Shanghai.
To find out if Chinese college students are apathetic toward
routine acts of cruelty by animal use industries, which are easily
observed because they are not illegal, we asked respondents to
identify from a list of 10 acts those that they consider unacceptably
Act 2002 2003
Raising meat dogs in small cages 30% 32%
Using animals in a circus 39% 44%
Eating live monkey brains 89% 90%
Putting on a monkey show 57% 63%
Skinning quail alive 75% 74%
Force-watering before slaughter 60% 63%
Scaling fish alive 57% 59%
Caging wild birds 52% 54%
Shooting live targets 90% 89%
Sterilizing pets 42% 44%
We included sterilizing pets, actually phrased as “de-sexing
pets,” because it is widely perceived in China as a cruelty. Street
dogs and feral cats have been few in China since the famines of the
1950s and 1960s, resulting in low awareness of any need to control
Among the 1,082 respondents to the 2003 survey, the majority
identified more than four acts as cruel. Only 2.3% of respondents
checked just one act; 71% identified five or more.
IFAW found that 97%, 92%, and 94% of Beijing and Shanghai
respondents said they philosophically supported Chinese wildlife
protection organizations, international environmental groups and
international animal welfare organizations. We found 95%
philosophical support for animal protection in 2002, and 94% in 2003.
But philosophical support tends to stop short of active
participation. 48% of our 2002 respondents said that they were
willing to participate in pro-animal activities, as did 51% in 2003.
Actual participation is obviously far lower than that. Few nations
offer as many easily accessible opportunities to help animals as the
U.S., but while 31% of U.S. residents enjoy watching wildlife,
according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service surveys, and approximately
two-thirds live with either dogs or cats, only one U.S. household
in four donates to animal protection causes, which receive less than
2% of all U.S. charitable donations.
The highest levels of volunteerism on behalf of animals
documented among the U.S. public were found in surveys of California
householders done in the mid-1990s by Karen Johnson of the National
Pet Alliance. Johnson found that one household in 10 fed homeless
cats. At the time that was approximately the same number of
households that fed wild birds. Since then, the U.S. feral cat
population has fallen sharply, while bird-feeding is believed to
have tripled in popularity, but most bird-feeders appear to feed
birds more to enhance their viewing opportunities than out of a
belief that the birds would otherwise starve.
Actively participating in animal protection is discouraged in
China by a combination of economic, ideological, and political
factors. Economic growth is the top priority of government.
Protesting against cruel industries often brings direct conflict with
local growth opportunities, and may be seen as a challenge to social
order. The Chinese Communist Party since taking power in 1949 has
often derided animal lovers for allegedly “worshipping the decadent
Western bourgeois life-style” and for being alleged “members of the
5th column of Western imperialism.”
Our 2003 survey included two questions about students’
awareness of wildlife breeding in China. The objective was to
determine if the students were also aware of the cruelty associated
with such practices as “farming” bears for their bile.
IFAW reported in 1998 that only 30% of Beijing and Shanghai
residents had ever heard of bear bile farming. We discovered that
40% of our student respondents are aware of it, largely through the
work of the Animals Asia Foundation’s China Bear Rescue Project.
More than 87% of the IFAW respondents and 90% of our 2003
survey subjects recognized bear bile farming as cruel when it was
described to them.
Influence of SARS
Our surveys did not find different attitudes toward animals
among science students, in comparison to social science and liberal
arts counterparts. The interest of science students in reading about
animals and watching television programs about them was higher, at
72%, than among non-science majors (65%). Otherwise our surveys
found no significant variations.
The SARS crisis, however, may have helped to accelerate an
attitudinal shift in favor of animals that was already underway.
Months after the official end of the epidemic, we could still see
increasing recognition that unbridled exploitation of wildlife and
other animals not only jeopardizes Chinese wildlife resources but
also puts human welfare at risk. 13% of our 2002 survey respondents
said that their formerly unfavorable attitudes towards animals had
changed after SARS.
Admittedly, our surveys highlighted the challenges ahead for
the Chinese animal advocacy community. Yet we also confirmed that
Chinese attitudes toward animals are moving, on most issues, in a
markedly more favorable direction.
Peter (Jianqiang) Li is an assistant professor of political
science at the University of Houston, downtown campus.
Zu Shuxian is a professor of epidemiology and social medicine
at the Anhui Medical University in Anhui, China.
Su Pei-feng is director of the China office of the World
Society for the Protection of Animals.