China is recovering its animal friendly roots

SALLA TUOMIVAARA / Finnish sociologist who is currently on leave of absence from her job as the executive director of Animalia – Federation for the Protection of Animals in Finland – until May 2013. Animalia is Finland’s largest animal protection organization, which was founded in 1961. Animalia’s objective is to promote the welfare and the rights of animals. It opposes any treatment of animals that essentially inhibits their natural behaviour or causes them pain and distress. Animalia’s key areas of work are animal experimentation, the conditions of farm animals, and fur farming. Salla Tuomivaara has written books and various articles about animal issues in Finland.

At midnight on the 1st of March a truck carrying lots of dogs was stopped by animal welfare activists at the municipality of Chongqing, in China. There were over 900 caged dogs in the truck, all of them destined to be used as dog meat. The activists negotiated with the police and the truck driver and finally all the dogs, which had been kept in poor conditions, were released and given to the activists. There have been other similar rescue operations during the last years in China.

China and animals is a combination of words, which often makes us think about animal cruelty and serious lacks in animal welfare. Videos about skinning of live fur animals have circled the internet. Stories about Chinese dog-eating practices appear in Western media regularly.

I have lived in China, in Beijing, now for two years. Before moving to China I worked in Finland in a society for protection of animals, Animalia. Prior to this paid work I had volunteered in different animal welfare and animal rights organizations for years. In fact since I was old enough to go to their meetings alone. When I told people about my decision to leave to China many of them asked, how I thought I could handle all the cruelty to animals that I would encounter in China.

Now that I’m returning to Finland I’m more optimistic about the future of animal welfare in China than ever before. Even though I’m now aware how hard it will be even to get the first ever Chinese animal welfare law written.

In China I have seen cruel handling of animals, unacceptable conditions of animal markets and menus filled with dishes prepared of strange and even endangered animal species. Living in China means seeing whole animal corpses everywhere, recently killed animals in markets and all kinds of too young pets in tiny cages for sale in the cold of winter and the heat of summer.

But I have not seen anything totally different from the treatment of animals I’ve experienced in Finland. In my home country I have been to large pig farms and fur farms, I have visited slaughterhouse and I have seen hunting occasions. Without working for animal protection movement I would not have seen all of this.

In Western countries big part of the cruelty to animals is only carried out behind the curtains – animal cruelty is institutionalized and invisible. In their daily life most of the people meet only the nice-looking part of our relationships with animals: well-groomed pets and neatly packed meat products.

More than fundamental differences in cruelty towards animals, Finland and China have major differences in the structure of their society. In countryside – and sometimes also in the central parts of Beijing – you can see hens digging the dirt and roaming freely. In the countryside piglet litters run around village roads and cows graze in the fields. This is the animal agriculture pension age people in Finland still remember and talk about. In Finland it is no longer reality. In China it is partial reality: China has also the huge industrialized mass production of animals, but it is not visible for most of the people.

China is still going through the modernizing process as a country and it has not any proper animal welfare legislation yet. But it is also a country with extremely long civilization with strong tendencies towards respect for life and different living creatures. All three major religious/philosophical traditions of China – Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism – emphasise (more or less strongly) kind behaviour towards animals. Empathy has special role in Buddhism and Buddhism is going through revival in China at the moment.

All these three traditions suffered during the strict Communist years. Active practice of religion was not allowed. Many Buddhist ideals were seen as harmful or counter-revolutionary. Keeping of pets was considered bourgeois-like hobby and it was strictly restricted.

The old empathetic traditions of Chinese society did not survive these harsh years unharmed. Poor China had not been a good place for animals before the communist years either, but the active abandonment of the old ethical principles slowed down the advancement in the conditions of animals and in the norms protecting them.

But at the moment the ideological and political changes are bringing the animal issues much more strongly to the Chinese agenda. There are animal protection societies and groups around the country. Keeping of pets is in a steep rise. Buddhist vegetarian restaurants flourish. Protection of animals is discussed in the media and the theme is especially dear to the youngest generations who also follow different international discussions more closely. Many university campuses have seen active campaigning in animal issues.

People in China are demanding at least some animal welfare legislation, at least for pets – and the first proposal for animal welfare legislation is under discussion. More and more people think that eating dogs and cats isn’t right. And there are people who are ready to travel across the vast country to help those dogs and cats that have been saved from those live animal transports – even though those actions are illegal in a same way as stopping livestock transportation in Europe would be. But at the same time some people are already asking is it less problematic to eat pigs and cows than cats and dogs – and saying: these different animal species suffer in the same way.

In Finland, Estonia and other European counties the story of animal protection movement was at first mainly a tale about taking care of our companion species, our closest and dearest ones. Little by little the empathy towards these in-house animals is widening to encompass also farm animals. After harsh years China is already taking these steps too. But they also need lots of international support. China is keeping a close eye on what is happening in the western world: United States and Europe. They do not want to do any worse than us, preferably better.

One of the major common grounds is the production and consumption of fur. China is the world’s biggest market of fur. The only way to tackle this huge demand would be to show that Europe and America are saying no to fur – we don’t allow it anymore, we don’t want it. Who would want to be more cruel, more brutal than the others?