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Q & A with Peter Li, author of Animal Welfare in China

Peter Li is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston-Downtown. In Animal Welfare in China: Culture, Politics and Crisis he draws on decades of fieldwork and research to offer a wide-ranging analysis of the animal welfare challenges facing China now, as well as vital historical, cultural and political context. (Photo credit: VShine)

How did you come to be interested in animal welfare?

My interest in animal welfare issues was in one sense an accident. Like most mainland Chinese college students in the 1980s, I paid absolutely no attention to issues related to human–animal relations. As a political science major, I dreamed of becoming a diplomat or an expert on the so-called “high politics” issues of international security, nuclear disarmament or the like. My experience as a foreign student in the US opened my eyes to human–animal relations as a public policy issue. Seeing happy and fearless squirrels on my first day on campus and learning that apples were kept on trees for birds to survive the winter, I realised that how we treated nonhuman animals could make the world a better place. I decided to include human–animal relations as part of my research agenda.

Looking back, however, my interest in animal welfare subjects was to some extent pre-determined. I grew up in Mao’s China and witnessed human suffering on a massive scale. But mine was a loving and caring family. My parents protected me well. My mother never said no to people in need of help. It was my mother who told me that mother birds were like humans who would be heartbroken if their babies were missing from their nests.  At 11, I was terribly “hurt” when my mother refused to allow me to have a puppy. Her explanation was that dogs were like family and people would suffer when their dogs were lost or died. My mother was in fact talking about her own heartbreaking experience. Before I was born, my family had a dog. The dog’s disappearance during China’s Great Famine (1959–62) sent the family into sadness for a long time. My mother vowed never to experience this mental agony again. 

In your book, you describe how the experience of war, famine and political violence shaped human–animal relations in China for much of the 20th century. But Western commentators often talk vaguely about “traditional culture” as an explanation for animal welfare issues in China. Do you think we forget China’s more recent history, or underestimate its ongoing effects?

My childhood experience was shared by many who grew up in Mao’s China. The bond between humans and dogs is in fact not Western, not country or culture specific. It is universal. Compassion and kindness, as moral values passed down from the Chinese ancestors, were still there, even though the country during Mao’s era was devastatingly poor. 

Animal Welfare in China introduces human–animal relations in ancient and pre-reform China in an effort to scrutinise these relations in the contemporary era. The book calls for attention to China’s cultural traditions but warns against a culturally deterministic approach. I believe it is not fair to lay the blame of questionable contemporary behaviours at the doorstep of a country’s past. Modern states are not the pawns of traditional culture. China’s party-state is a powerful, culture-shaping political institution. It would not allow the country’s traditions to define its course of action. Its building a modern Leninist state was not the result of the influence of tradition Chinese culture. Its massive adoption of a Western modernisation model as part of a concerted national economic catch-up was not triggered by China’s traditional culture, either.

China’s animal welfare crisis is more a side-effect of its contemporary politics of economic modernisation. Never in China’s history did such a staggering number of nonhuman animals live such miserable lives as in the contemporary era. China is the world’s biggest livestock and wildlife farming nation. Billions of animals are farmed in concentrated animal feeding operations. A Western farming model has been enthusiastically embraced by Chinese producers and Western farming tools and practices such as battery cages, gestation crates, debeaking, early weaning and other methods have been adopted in farms of all sizes. The SARS and COVID-19 pandemics, believed to be linked to wildlife exploitation, should be blamed on the modern mode of production, in which a large number of wild animals are farmed, transported and slaughtered in crowded conditions. Wildlife farming on this scale never existed in the country’s dynastic past.

Most of your manuscript was written before the outbreak of COVID-19, but since the pandemic the questions you ask seem more pressing than ever. Did the pandemic challenge and/or confirm any of your ideas? 

Written long before the outbreak of COVID-19, this book answers quite a few questions regarding why China’s wildlife industry, which was intended to contribute to poverty reduction, is in fact a public health risk. The outbreak of SARS, COVID-19 and other zoonotic diseases in China can be linked to the country’s animal welfare crisis. China in the last four decades has seen the expansion of a wildlife farming operation and wild animal meat consumption. China also has the world’s biggest wildlife breeding operation for use in traditional Chinese medicine, for use in clothing, in entertainment and display, and for laboratory use. Like the country’s livestock production, the wildlife farming industry is a concentrated animal feeding operation. What makes the industry a potential breeding ground for pandemics is the fact that captive-bred and wild-caught animals are often mixed together in great numbers on the farm, during transport, in wet markets and in restaurants. Each component of the industry is an ideal environment for viral transmission and mutation. Looking back, the outbreak of SARS in 2002 in China was not a surprise. Wuhan’s being the epicenter of the COVID-19 should not be a surprise either, although much is yet to be done to ascertain how the pandemic broke out in this mega-city in central China.

China’s wildlife farming operation has no historical precedent. It never existed in China’s past. Today, similar modes of production, i.e., concentrated animal feeding operations, exist not only in China but across the world. Pandemics can happen in any country where animals are massively farmed in concentrated operations. It is not Chinese tradition that is to blame for the pandemic; it is the mode of production that keeps a large number of animals in concentrated operations that is the public health threat.

In your research trips back to China, you have rescued a number of animals that you found for sale in markets. Can you tell us more about this? How did you come to find them and where are they now?

The book has benefitted from many of my field trips, meetings with wildlife traders, visits to slaughterhouses, and unplanned rescue operations. I was in Yulin many times and once tried to comfort those trembling and mentally destroyed dogs who had just witnessed slaughter. In that now globally infamous city, I sat down with dog meat traders and dog butchers and heard their personal stories. At China’s biggest bear farm, I went inside the bear shed and witnessed rows of caged bears rocking their heads in untold boredom and mental meltdown. I went to live animal markets and was shocked to see hairless dogs who suffered from skin diseases waiting to be sold to dog meat restaurants.

On these field trips, I was thrown into a situation where I felt I could not leave without bringing animals who would otherwise be slaughtered home with me. Koby and Scout were puppies when I heard them in a marketplace in Yulin. I took them back to the US. I caught sight of Huru and Yulu inside a slaughterhouse also in Yulin. Both Huru and Yulu (now TingTing) are living the most happy lives they so much deserve. I helped rescue Lily, a dog who we found looking absolutely miserable and desperate outside a dog meat store in Northeast China. Lily came to the US two months after we rescued her. She is living a fear-free life. She even met Santa days after she arrived in the US.

Before and after: Huru in a Yulin slaughterhouse, and at home today in the UK.
(Photo credits: Humane Society International; Jane Sawtell-Fearn)
A white cat with matted, wet fur clings to the bars of a cage in a slaughterhouse, looking fearfully at the camera.
The same white cat lies on its back contentedly, its fur clean and fluffy, on a cat bed. Loungeroom furniture can be seen in the background.
 Lily waiting to be slaughtered, receiving veterinary treatment, and her first Christmas in the US.
(Photo credits: Peter Li; VShine; Chris Green)
A large white fluffy dog sits on the ground in front of a metal fence. Her fur is dirty and she looks worried.
The same white dog, now clean, wears a protective cone and looks at the camera with her tongue out, while three vets examine her in the background.
The same white fluffy dog sits next to a person in a Santa Claus costume against a backdrop of Christmas decorations. The dog appears to be grinning widely at the camera.

 

You end your book on an optimistic note, suggesting that young people in China today have the resources, the will, and the cultural inheritance to make big changes. Can you tell us more about this?

China presents a comprehensive challenge for animal protection. The animal welfare crisis cannot and should not be attributed to China’s cultural traditions. In fact, as the book introduces, ancient China had state policies for conservation, and for compassion for nonhuman animals in the form of slaughter suspension, mercy release and vegetarianism. Dog meat consumption was considered despicable in ancient China. Chinese emperors twice tried to outlaw dog meat consumption. China’s animal welfare crisis is a byproduct of the contemporary politics of economic modernisation.

I see hope in China’s evolving into a more humane society. China’s young generations are a different species compared with their parents and grandparents.  Growing up in a materially much improved society and having no recollection of food deprivation, people born in the 1990s and 2000s are less tolerant of injustice to others, including nonhuman animals. Many grew up with pets. The Chinese government has stopped policies that see pet keeping as an undesirable bourgeois lifestyle. On the contrary, the Chinese government acknowledged dogs as companion animals, perhaps the first time anywhere in the world a Communist government has done so. In the last three decades, animal advocacy and rescue operations have expanded across the Chinese mainland. In fact, the animal protection movement in mainland China has become more robust and prominent than in neighboring countries. This movement is still evolving. Its long-term effectiveness depends on how members of the movement can be more professionalised and, whether the authorities can see the movement as a helper rather than a nuisance.

Book cover of Animal Welfare in China

I am so glad that Animal Welfare in China is soon to be published. I owe thanks to Sydney University Press and Denise O’Dea and Agata Mrva-Montoya in particular for their tireless work and valuable feedback that have made the book much more presentable. The book is the result of years of research. It does not pretend to be a complete overview of all the animal welfare challenges in contemporary China. Neither was it written to expose, demonise or shame China. It sets out to understand the welfare crisis impacting nonhuman animals in China, which is a side-effect of the country’s economic modernisation. The book argues against sweeping claims that blame Chinese culture for the problems of the contemporary era. It acknowledges the need to address China’s animal welfare issues while pursuing economic modernisation.

 

Animal Welfare in China is published this month in our Animal Publics series

You can read more about the rescue of Lily here.