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« A Summer in Rural China | Main | Better Biodiesel »

June 19, 2009

China's new animal welfare law: Factory farms not on the menu….

A recent article in the Guardian newspaper reports that China will enact its first animal welfare law soon. The law appears to be a backlash against the widespread practice of local governments slaughtering dogs en masse in response to outbreaks of rabies, which is widespread in China.

“In the past month alone, authorities in Hanzhong, Shaanxi province, rounded up and killed 22,000 dogs after eight people died of rabies. Pet lovers were also up in arms after authorities in Heihe, Heilongjiang province, announced a cull of every dog in the town after an outbreak.”

The law is being drafted by legal experts in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in consultation with groups such as Britain’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

I find the new law noteworthy for two reasons.

First, for what is left out of the law, which draws a bright line between pets and other animals. The vast majority of domesticated animals in China pull carts and plows, provide wool or get eaten, and there is still no official consideration of how they should be treated. That last category is of special interest, since its numbers have exploded in recent years. Per capita annual meat consumption in China went from 25 kilograms in 1995 to 53 kg in 2008 (This is still only about half of what Americans eat). As demand has grown, the structure of meat production in China has also changed. The happy barnyard pigs and chickens feeding on table scraps are increasingly being replaced by factory-farmed animals, as documented in this report from Brighter Green. Drawing on Chinese and Western sources, the report describes a rapid increase in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) in China and the attendant problems, which range from systematic mistreatment of animals to massive increases in pollution from releases of untreated manure into waterways. Is respect for basic farm animal welfare too much to ask of a developing country? Perhaps. Yet, looking at the wide range of social and environmental costs associated with CAFOs documented in the report, I can’t help but think that both animals and people would be better off with a different system.

Despite the fact that farm animal welfare is not yet on the menu, the development of this law certainly shows how far China has come from totalitarian dictatorship, where in 1958 Mao was able to mobilize the entire country to kill sparrows because he thought they competed with humans for food. The kooky man vs. nature ethos is gone, for starters. (The sparrow-killing campaign backfired, of course. Sparrows eat insects, and with bird numbers successfully reduced the locust population exploded, wiping out harvests in the early 1960s.)

Furthermore, the ad hoc and localized nature of the current rabies campaigns is an outcome of the decentralization of governing authority in China during the 1990s, which has hobbled efforts to get coordinated public health responses in the country to any threat short of avian flu. (Local governments hid their SARS data for weeks as that epidemic spread.) And finally, we see in this new legislation the political clout of the new urban middle class. Dogs have been tolerated rather than doted on for most of Chinese history. When I spent time in Chinese villages in the 1980s and 1990s, dogs were regarded by most folks as kickable, garbage-eating burglar alarms. The return of widespread pet dog ownership didn’t really hit its stride until the late 90s, when dogs of all shapes and sizes became a must-own for wealthy city dwellers.

This law--which has no conceivable link to the economic or political agenda of the Chinese Communist Party--is evidence that the economic power of China’s yuppies is increasingly translating into political power. 

Jim Harkness

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