This past week, the annual Yulin Dog Festival met with a debilitating blow. Local authorities will now fine any vendor found selling dog meat a whopping $15,000. Animal rights activists are hailing this as the final death knell for the Yulin Festival, despised the world over for its heinous abuse of animals. I'm still on the fence. Given regional attitudes on animal welfare, this may not be enough.
Yulin: Cultural Heritage?
It seems every June, news reports and Facebook feeds start to flood with images of the Yulin Festival. Great debates begin on the merits of animal rights, why we eat the meats we do, and especially the notion of cultural heritage. Organizers and even some Government officials tout the Yulin Festival as the intangible cultural heritage of people in the region. I've visited this region of China, also renowned for its minority hill tribes and stunning verdant beauty. Everywhere you go, there seems to be a restaurant selling dog meat hot pot. For the uninformed, it really does seem like this has been part and parcel of the region for generations.
Imagine my surprise when I found out this is far from the truth. Dog has long been promoted by traditional Chinese medicine, and throughout Asia, as a means of cooling the body. It's popularity, though, is relatively small. In fact, the Yulin Festival was only started in 2009 by a group of twisted entrepreneurs looking to bring a tourist boom to their town. This is hardly a generations-old tradition.
Initially, the Festival's promotional team had done a good job at bucking the distaste for dog. Between 2009 and 2014, an estimated 10,000-15,000 dogs were consumed annually during the 10-day Festival. In parading, skinning, and cooking animals on city streets, Yulin organizers turned the world against them. Celebrities, both domestic and international, joined millions of protestors in calling for an end to Yulin. Governments, including Taiwan and the Philippines, passed moral legislation improving their own animal welfare practices. By 2015, only 1,000 dogs met their demise at the Festival. With new fines in place, this number is sure to drop further this year.
But, does this mean the Yulin Festival will cease to be? I'm not so sure.
Yulin: Tip of the Iceberg
While horrific, the Festival is really just an encapsulation of the state of animal welfare in China (spoiler alert: there is none). While many Chinese traditions promote the idea of animals as sentient beings, these feelings were done away with during the Cultural Revolution. In fact, Mao decried animal welfare as a bourgeois sentiment and counter-revolutionary. One need only consider his campaign against swallows. Villagers were told to bang metal objects day and night to exhaust and kill the birds. The campaign was so effective the entire ecosystem collapsed, precipitating the great famine that killed 60 million people.
Fast forward to today and sentiment is changing at a snail's pace. There is no national legislation on animal welfare. In fact, China is the only economy in the world where animal testing is a requirement. Yes that means the cosmetics used here, whether it's Mac, Maybeline, or Mary Kay, were tested on our furry friends first. On a micro level, pet ownership is up among China's burgeoning middle class. Shanghai alone now has 1 million dog owners. For activists, this leads to hope for a changing mindset among the population. Still, news reports about brazen mid-day dognapping are more frequent than you would expect.
This undercurrent provides the constant pilot light keeping things like the Yulin Festival alive. As much as we might argue about tradition, or compare Yulin to Spain's Running of the Bulls, Puerto Rican cockfighting, or the poultry supply chain in the U.S., the notion is still the same. The abuse of animals has no place in modern, advanced society. As China assumes its global moral leadership position, it must work on those parts of itself it would rather keep hidden.
How Can You Help?
There are numerous organizations and individuals doing their part to stop the Yulin Dog Festival and improve animal welfare in China. Below are just a few worthy resources to learn more.