China’s Yulin local government has distanced itself from a controversial dog meat festival in southern China after years of activism unleashed a groundswell of public opposition to the event.
The lychee and dog meat summer solstice festival in Yulin, Guangxi province, was formally established by the city government in 2009 to promote tourism but quickly turned into an ugly annual fight.
But this year the Yulin government reassured a concerned HK legislator that the city authorities would work towards ending the festival “as soon as possible”, without specifying any timeframe.
Dog lovers and traders converge on the city each year before June 21 to face off over the fate of caged animals.
The festival has attracted international attention and petitions from Hollywood stars.
The annual fracas is only the tip of the iceberg for some of China’s most committed civil society activists, who organise online to rescue injured animals and break up trading networks. Small clubs of dog rescuers track and intercept trucks full of caged canines on their way to restaurants and meat markets. The most radical have even staged car crashes to push trading trucks off the highways.
“I feel that 10 years ago, dog meat was still pretty popular in the countryside. But recently, it’s more something that older people do. I feel the younger generation is less likely to eat dog meat,” said Tang Zheng, a dog rescuer from northern China.
Dog is a popular winter food in parts of China and Korea, where the rich meat is believed to help keep people warm. In the past, the meat came from strays and dogs bred for sale. Now dog rescuers say they often discover dogs with collars and tags when they intercept traders.
Keeping dogs as pets was denounced as bourgeois in Mao Zedong’s China. Early Communists drew on popular resentment against rich people who pampered their pets while peasants starved.
However, as the country’s prosperity has risen, pet dogs have become ever more common among urban middle classes, with the animals now regarded predominantly as companions rather than as food.
A poll commissioned by the China Animal Welfare Association found that 70 per cent of respondents have never eaten dog meat. A much slimmer majority — 52 per cent — believe the dog meat trade should be banned.
“Some people don’t mind, others oppose,” said Mr Tang. “I feel the opposition is growing” — partly because of the publicity around the origins of the dogs sold in Yulin.
While the Yulin Festival gets the most publicity, dog rescue clubs work year-round. Last July hundreds converged to stop dog-trading trucks from entering the highway around Tianjin on three different evenings. While activists faced off against police and dog traders, many dogs died in cages on the trucks in the sweltering heat.