The Animal Rights Conundrum for China

| March 16, 2021 | Leave a Comment

Pigs Being Driven to Slaughter Outside of Shanghai

Media Type: News / Op - Ed

Author(s): Michael Tobias

Categories: , ,

Several years ago, I discussed the situation of animal rights in China with Professor Peter J. Li (Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Houston-Downtown) who remains one of China’s leading advocates for animals and the environment.1 At that time of our conversation for Forbes (2012), China’s population was 1.34 billion. 9 years later, it is today over 1.43 billion and is by far the largest consumer of animal products in the world; not per capita, but collectively, particularly in the domain of tortured pigs. More than “40.3 million metric tons of pork” were consumed by the Chinese in 2020, up by more than a third from 2014 and double that of the entire European Union.2 China’s beef consumption is poised to rise toward levels approximating the U.S., or roughly 58 pounds per person per year. Chinese trends towards rapidly increasing chicken consumption is likely to be the same. Meanwhile, far in excess of her reliance upon coal (82 exajoules in 2019 versus 22 in the U.S. and 18.6 in India)3, China’s unrelenting habitat fragmentation and consumption of wildlife – from tigers to monkeys to pangolins within the country, to a multitude of other “exotic” species outside of the country – escalates unabated; and notwithstanding the world’s Covid condemnation of open (“wet”) animal markets.

Li’s newly published book Animal Welfare in China4 addresses the perplexing ecological contradictions of progress that have thoroughly hampered a nation’s underlying emotional, psychological and practical means of actually deploying a generally humane approach to Nature which, ironically, many of the country’s cultural mores and ancient literary and political leaders thoroughly embraced. As Li elucidates, historically China saw ephemeral periods of restraint. The Buddhist empress Wu Zetian mandated vegetarianism for two years (698-700 CE). There were other bans on slaughter, ritualistic “mercy release(s)” and waves of aesthetic apotheosis of restraint toward, and reverence for other species.5 But the cumulative effects of “human-animal relations” in China prior to the advent of all that Mao Zedong stridently codified (in power from 1943-1976) are but subtle reminders of a lost ethos. They were no match for a “cultural revolution” and the acceleration of a second five-year plan in 1958, the “Great Leap Forward,” intended to transform the country from an agricultural to industrial powerhouse. Its momentum and sheer demographic weight were nothing short of disastrous for China’s remarkable biodiversity, and for the billions of domesticated animals. In our 2012 conversation, Li remarked upon walking around a college campus in the U.S. in 1987 when he first came to this country and being utterly amazed that squirrels were not afraid of people. Or that a local farmer wanted to leave some apples on the trees so that birds would have some food in winter. He described how he was speechless, deeply touched. The sentiment utterly contradicted all that he had been taught about the selfish nature of capitalism by China’s school system.6

China had lifted some half-billion people out of poverty, and alleviated much hunger, and in 1988 China’s National People’s Congress adopted the Wildlife Protection Law of the PRC.7 But its legal flaws were ubiquitous. Wildlife breeders, the multiplicity of “culinary subculture(s),” lax monitoring, policing and systemic corruption between local officials and those in Beijing, added to an international trafficking crisis spawned by a seemingly insatiable demand for animal products by Chinese whose population in 1988 had already hit 1.1 billion. Relying upon a thoroughly documented data bank of sources, Li’s brilliant analysis of the tragic paradox of progress across China invites consideration of the failing matrix of oppositional forces contributing to the Anthropocene in every country. 

But China is under the spotlight for two clearly conflicting realities: the largest population in the world (though soon to be overtaken by that of India), and a history that struggles between the outright cultural worship of nature, and centuries of political strife, economic hardship, and the most serious documented famines in human annals. Li has previously described how “`The State’s War against Nature: 1949-1978’” reached a climax when the ‘great leader’ [Mao] called on the entire nation to engage in a frenzied sparrow killing campaign sending billions of the birds to their brutal death by gunshots, slingshots, bamboo poles, poisons, or out of sheer exhaustion” (farmers would bang pots to keep the birds terrified and in flight until the sparrows finally dropped out of the sky exhausted, dead). “Truckloads of dead sparrows were paraded on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.” And then, how during a three-year famine that started in 1959, Chinese policies unleashed “one of the most intense assaults [ever] on wildlife.”

By the late 1980s, Li had been in the U.S. for two years, following closely the situation in China. He writes, “Contrary to the expectations of the country’s wildlife management authorities and of the public, China’s wildlife crisis has worsened since 1989.”9 He puts it clearly: “Animal cruelty in today’s China is an outgrowth of the national drive for modernisation.” And adds, “The dog meat traders do not necessarily enjoy killing dogs, still less torturing them allegedly for making the meat taste better. They are in business to make a living. Since most dog meat traders are drawn from the least skilled and least educated of the former peasants, their business, heinous as it is to animal lovers, has been protected and tolerated by local authorites.”10

The underlying animal rights and ecological crises far outpaces any apologetic tone of nostalgia that might seek to point out the prohibitions on killing other animals in China’s Buddhist and Daoist past; calls for compassion, Confucianist benevolence. Yes, those who view fermented kimchi in Korea and much of Northern China as the vegetarian staple of choice, vilifying dog meat, are certainly on the rise, as Li points out in calling upon this generation of Chinese to embrace animal and environmental protections; millions of young people who did not suffer bouts of hunger like many of their grandparents, and cannot therefore remember what it was like. But Li also illustrates the contemporary nightmares: “the industry that ‘enslaves’ the most animals – tens of billions of them – is livestock farming. This industry has received consistent policy support from China’s developmental state since the early years of the country’s economic modernization campaign” and thus persists as “a major contributor to the state’s political objectives of achieving food security…”11

The challenges for China could not be more straightforward and bewildering, what I once called “A Paradox of Souls,” referring to the nation’s demographic runaway train and its subsequent ecological fall-out. This lethal combination was in sync with the reality that Chinese communism was quick to embrace Deng Xiaoping’s declaration in 1978, “To get rich is glorious.”12 This desperate madness invoked convulsions within China’s family planning programs as their numeric revelations collided head-on with China’s GDP. It was Dr. Qian Xinzhong whose 1984 visionary book, Renkouxinpian (a new look into the population problem) would earn him praise by the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund). Indeed, by the time I first met Dr. Qian one icy morning in Beijing in the early 1990s at the Winter Palace, with the intricate assistance of China’s National Family Planning Commission, this architect of China’s then one-child family program could poignantly assert that he and his cohorts had “successfully prevented the birth of 260 million people” (consumers) in spite of setbacks, not least those of the U.S. Senate that time and again (under Republicans) voted to reject support for international family planning.13 

But Peter Li remains hopeful. Despite the “state obsession with growth… positive change is on the horizon. In the pre-reform era, ‘animal protection’ was never heard of. Dogs as pets disappeared in urban China. Tigers were killed to the brink of extinction as part of the government’s policy to wipe out the ‘injurious pests’…[But] China’s future will be rewritten by the younger generations,”14 and by these, Li is looking to all those who are becoming daily more sensitive to the critical needs for compassion in action, citing numerous new NGOs within the country whose sole aim is to advance the cause of animal rights, at times successfully helping to shape new government policies and, at times, intervene effectively in that “`holy alliance’ between business interests and local political power.”15 And to this end, he concludes, “Those urbanites who were born in the 1980s and 1990s are much less tolerant of cruelty and more responsive to distress calls from fellow humans and nonhumans. They are much less desensitized than their elders.”16 It is a globally familiar clarion call that also strikes of something His Holiness the Dalai Lama told me many years ago: Once the old guard who still hold on to the reins of power within Beijing are gone, there will be a renaissance of freedom for China’s millions of indigenous peoples. 

By Michael Tobias

© 2021


1 See “Animal Rights in China,” by Michael Tobias, Forbes, November 2, 2012,

2 “China’s Appetite for Meat is still Growing,” Nelson Low, Reuters, November 16, 2020,

3 1 exajoule is equal to 23,884,589.66275 tons of oil equivalent. 

4 Sydney University Press, Sydney Australia, 2021.

5 ibid., pp. 86-91.

6 op cit., “Animal Rights in China,” Forbes.

7 op cit., Li, Animal Welfare in China, p. 218.

8 op cit., Li, Forbes.

9 op cit., Li, Animal Welfare in China, p. 219.

10 ibid., p. 315.

11 ibid., p. 315.

12 World War III – Population And The Biosphere At The End Of The Millennium, by Michael Charles Tobias, Bear & Co. Publishing, Santa Fe, NM, 1994, p. 34.

13 For a thorough overview of Dr. Qian’s work, see World War III, by M.C.Tobias, pp. 60-68.

14 op cit., Animal Welfare in China, pp.316, 318.

15 ibid., pp. 304-305.

16 ibid., p. 318.

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