By Kalinga Seneviratne*
A Buddhist revival in China is fuelling a growing animal welfare movement across the country with the Chinese government poised to revise the decades-old animal welfare act. In January, the National People’s Congress (NPC) started soliciting public comments on four draft laws. One is the revision of the Wildlife Protection Law, which came into effect in 1989.
This law created a system of wild animal breeding permits, issued by what is now called the State Forestry Administration. The belief was that the best way to protect threatened wildlife was by developing a wild animal breeding and training sector. China’s success at breeding captive pandas is the global poster child for the success in this sort of conservation.
But, this law has been criticized by the animal welfare movement in recent years for having contributed to the rise of a wildlife exploitation industry in China. In a commentary in South China Morning Post on January 29, Professor Peter Li, a China policy specialist at the Humane Society International claimed that what the law has done was to make wildlife domesticated for commercial exploitation.
“In 2003, the State Forestry Bureau, the national government agency responsible for enforcing the law, announced glowingly that China had succeeded in domesticating 54 wildlife species as an accomplishment of implementing the law,” Prof Li noted.
“Indeed, more Asiatic black bears have been farmed in cages for bile extraction since the law’s adoption than before. Thousands more tigers have been raised in cages in northeast and southwest China,” he said and asked: “Does wildlife farming equal wildlife protection?”
The consumption of wildlife has continued unabated argues Prof Li, who points out that since most exotic animals are no longer found on the mainland, traders have headed to other regions for their prized supplies. Bear paws are smuggled from Siberia. Pangolins are shipped from Africa, Southeast Asia and South Asia. Freshwater turtles from North America and internationally protected sea turtles from the disputed waters of the South China Sea find their way to restaurants in China.
“A so-called ‘tiger trail’ connected to the Chinese market threatens the remaining tiger population on the Indian subcontinent,” he warns, adding, “it is no secret that China is the main destination of global ivory trafficking.”
Such criticisms that point out the futility of a toothless wildlife protection act that could be interpreted for other than to protect animals, has persuaded Chinese authorities to revise the law. Thus, in September 2013, the NPC decided to put a revision of the law on the legislative agenda and a draft revision has been released for public comment.
Before the advent of Communism to China, animal welfare was a major plank of China’s social interaction. All three major religious and philosophical traditions of China – Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism – emphasize compassion towards animals. With Buddhism going through revival in China, many animal protection societies and groups have been established throughout the country. Keeping of pets is in a steep rise. Buddhist vegetarian restaurants flourish.
There are now an estimated 2 million pet dogs in Beijing, up from 1 million in 2006. This in a city where until 1994 the government strongly discouraged dog ownership and the animals could be killed if they were found on the streets.
As Professor Mang Ping of China’s Central Institute of Socialism said in a recent blog post, the Chinese are simply rediscovering their ancient culture and values. “Ancient manuscripts show that animal protection was the first activity to be regulated by the ancient dynasties, and people under the Qing dynasty were not allowed to kill cubs, pregnant females, or working animals,” she noted, adding, “today, we see bears riding bikes, animals cruelly treated in labs, and so on, but can we return to our traditional culture?”
“Our culture is embedded in benevolence, which is the core of Buddhism — and if we lose benevolence, we lose Chinese culture,” argues Prof Ping.
All the three Chinese philosophical traditions suffered during the strict Communist years under Mao Zedong. 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. Caring for animals was seen as “counter-revolutionary” and they were seen as economic resources to be exploited.
But, today, China’s animal-protection movement is growing, particularly among young people, especially those in urban areas and on the Internet. While international NGOs may have played some role in igniting China’s animal welfare movement, local groups are increasingly taking over.
Buddhists with a growing sense of compassion embedded into them are now taking to the streets to protect animal rights.
In June 2014, devout Buddhists from across China strolled through Guangxi province’s Yulin city’s Dongkou wet market performing a religious rite to “console the souls of the slaughtered dogs”. Activists estimate that about 10,000 dogs are slaughtered at a summer event, in which thousands of locals and tourists consume barbecued, stir-fried and boiled dog meat served alongside lychees and grain alcohol.
In November 2013, animal rights activists scored a small victory when the Chinese authorities relaxed rules requiring animal testing of foreign beauty products that is sold in the country. To tap China’s $32 billion beauty market, multinationals have to test their products on animals to demonstrate there is no risk to humans that includes many practices that amounts to torture. China’s Food and Drug Administration will allow local companies to use other data, including results from overseas tests done without animals, to show that their products are safe.
In January, it was reported that leading experts are working on a revision to a national regulation on the management of laboratory animals, which, if adopted, is expected to greatly improve the management and protection of the animals. A draft of the new rules includes changes to the Regulation on the Management of Laboratory Animals, which was adopted in 1988.
“For decades, China’s ancient culture of compassion toward animals was eclipsed by ideologies that ignored animal welfare. There were the years under Mao, when sparrows were exterminated as pests and pet dogs branded bourgeois vices. Then there was the rush to get rich, when profit-driven dog meat dealers started stealing pets and poisoning strays,” observed Karen Lange, in an article in Humane Society of the United States’s website under the heading ‘Surge of Compassion’.
“Now, guided by Buddhism and their own hearts, activists are changing the way Chinese regard animals” she added.
*The author is a Sri Lanka born journalist and academic, who teaches regional communication issues at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
This article is the first in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Feature and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate.