View a slideshow about a dog's life in China
Two years ago, while visiting Changsha, the dusty provincial capital of China's Hunan province, I decided to take a walk into the crowded lanes and alleys behind my hotel. I'd been in countless lower-middle-class Chinese neighborhoods like this one, and the sounds were happily familiar to me: the sizzle of frying food, the clanking bells of bicycle vendors, and the loudly insistent voices of the province's famously temperamental residents. But a few minutes into my walk, I heard something unfamiliar and alarming: the howl of an animal -- a dog, I thought -- in pain. Curious, I followed the sound around one corner, and then another, until I came across a sight whose painful memory I've never been able to shake: A medium-sized mutt hung by its rear legs from a rope, while two shirtless young men beat it to death with clubs. At their feet, the pulverized remains of additional dead dogs were sprawled like bags of water. Instinctively, I reached for the camera that I carry with me when traveling. But just as I was about to shoot, one of the two men noticed me -- a white foreigner -- and pointed his club in my direction. He was clearly aware that my interest was disapproving, and I had no interest in pressing the issue.
Residents of Changsha have been eating dog for centuries, and ethical questions like whether beating is an acceptable means of slaughter have rarely come to the fore (some aficionados claim that the method ensures more flavorful meat). But due in part to a recently introduced draft law on animal cruelty (China's first), that situation is changing. The proposed law, first circulated last fall, could subject individuals who sell or eat cat and dog meat to U.S. $725 in fines ($7,250 for institutions), up to 15 days in jail, and required statements of repentance. Now the Chinese media and the country's raucous Internet discussion boards are in the throes of something akin to a clash in America's culture wars, with attitudes toward the proposed legislation dividing Chinese by regional and socioeconomic lines. In China, where cuisine is often an issue of identity and rural and urban populations are deeply sensitive to mutual perceptions and misperceptions, the proposed legislation has a symbolic resonance that few other recent social issues have shared. It's a wedge issue, China-style.
According to a study done by the College of Veterinary Medicine at the China Agricultural University, pet ownership expands rapidly when per capita annual GDP reaches $3,000. This benchmark was reached years ago in Shanghai, Beijing, and other first-tier Chinese cities, and sure enough, pet ownership has expanded rapidly there. In Beijing, for example, dog ownership expanded from 100,000 pets to 1.5 million between 2001 and 2007; not coincidentally, during the same period, Beijing's pet stores increased from fewer than 20 to more than 500. Meanwhile, trade shows devoted to the pet industry have spread rapidly across China, and -- based on my visit to a 2005 show in Guangzhou -- the attendees are mostly Chinese interested in marketing chew toys to the urban middle class.