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So much depends on China

by Jeff Zhou

An insider's view of animal welfare in the world's rising power.

I was one of eight children, brought up in a small village in the northeast part of China in the 1970s. The country was just starting to recover from the social turmoil of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. My parents experienced the great famine, during which around 45 million people starved to death across China from 1958 to 1960. Poverty and hunger were always with them in their younger years, which taught them to treasure resources and not to take things for granted. We kept various animals during my childhood - to work, to guard the house and for food - as was common then for households in the countryside.

The animals were kept for the purpose of making our lives better and we cherished them. Each one of us was assigned our responsibilities for them: harnessing the horse for farm work; grazing the cattle on the hillsides; cutting grass for pigs in the pen; ranging the geese and ducks in the pond; hatching chickens in season; and collecting eggs from the shed (not forgetting to get the hens back inside at night in case they were caught by weasels). All these activities filled up our time after school.

People living in the cities needed a special ticket to buy meat because of the poor supply. Those like us, living in a rural area, needed to trade whatever we could collect from the countryside to buy necessities for the family. With little opportunity for anyone to eat animal protein, it was a special moment when we were able to slaughter the pigs for the Spring Festival celebrations at the end of the year. The villagers gathered to help each family in turn. They dragged the pigs out of the pen, tied them up on a table, then killed them in the traditional way by cutting their throats. They didn't mean to treat the animals cruelly, but it was the only way they knew and the communities saw the meat as a reward for the difficulties they had endured.

When I was 13, my sister went to work at a small, newly established chicken farm. When I visited her, I saw for the first time hundreds of eggs being hatched on the shelves, using a thermal incubator machine. It was unimaginably different from my previous experience of our hens. Visiting my sister, I saw hens kept in tiered wire cages to lay. I was told the system would provide us with more eggs to eat, which seemed like a good thing, although I still felt something wasn't right.

In the following years, the economy improved dramatically and people started to have more choice over what they could buy and eat. But the affluence came at a price. From time to time, I witnessed the nearby river turn black, flecked with white bubbles discharged by a new paper factory. I saw trapped pheasants, sparrows, rabbits and frogs being sold in the market. I observed a cow being slaughtered in the riverside woods, the animal's blood and faeces dumped in the river. I witnessed pig farms with tens of pigs living in open, barren cement pens without anyone cutting grass for them to use as bedding.

In 1988, the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of Wildlife was passed, with the aim of protecting and saving precious and endangered wildlife. The principle was to make rational use of wildlife resources while maintaining ecological balance.

Taking animals as food has long been a part of tradition throughout the world, including in China. We are very proud of how Chinese food is prepared and cooked to achieve balanced nutrition. In 1991, I went to college in the capital city of my province. There were always several meat dishes served in the school canteen, but it seemed like we had become totally disconnected from the animals involved, which hadn't been the case in my rural childhood. We talked about what business we would do in our future, how to be successful and how to make money. We never talked about where and how the animals we were eating were produced. That was typical of city life, especially at that time.

In the development of our food system in China, Hericium erinaceus (popularly known as 'monkey head'), bear paw, edible bird's nest and shark's fin were established as haute cuisine ingredients, 'delicacies from land and sea', both because of their rarity and the unimaginably complicated process of cooking them, which was prohibitive for ordinary people. Since these delicacies could only be afforded by wealthy or powerful groups, they came to be regarded as aspirational symbols of higher social status.

As businesses boomed as a result of economic recovery, so did the catering trade. The 'delicacies from land and sea' started to infiltrate back into the food system. China is a country of ceremonies and tradition. Giving gifts plays an important role in social life. A large number of business deals are discussed and agreed at the dinner table, so to be able to charm clients with specialities came to be seen as a way of showing sincerity.

Claims were made that such dishes were rooted in Chinese tradition, though most people had never heard of this. Some dishes - such as crispy goose gut (made by pulling a goose's gut out of its body at restaurants while it is still alive), live carp and live drunken shrimp - involved animal cruelty. But there were no rules against them at that time, no food regulations. There was moral debate, but it remained abstract. Some of the dishes, including crispy goose gut, were only sold in specific restaurants in certain regions. Others, though more commonly eaten, were prepared out of sight of customers, to avoid debate.

After the late 1970s, most families only had one child, as a result of the national birth control policy. Children were provided with everything that the family could afford. Food and nutrition were the priority, leading to a drastic increase in the consumption of meat, eggs and milk. It was also the time of China's reform and opening up; a period when western lifestyles came to be considered modern and fashionable. Ideas about western methods of livestock production found a fertile ground for development in China, even though the nation had been based on a culture of cultivation for thousands of years. The western high-fat, high-sugar diet, including a high percentage of animal products, spread from big cities to small towns. Every fast-food outlet was packed with people hoping to get a taste of a different life.

Economic development turned out to have a high cost in terms of natural resources and human health. The rivers in my home town were no longer suitable for swimming. China imported more and more feed and food year on year. Hypertension, hyperlipidemia, obesity and stroke became common among all communities. Incidences of animal cruelty and food scandal, centred on animal-derived food, started to arouse social concerns.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Guanzi said, 'When the granaries are full, the people follow appropriate rules of conduct and when there is enough to eat and wear, the people know honour and shame'. In other words, not going hungry is a prerequisite for moral thinking. Views about animals began to be more nuanced and sophisticated.

After college, I became first a university teacher and then a TV host on China Central TV Station. I enjoyed modern city life in Beijing; nevertheless, my concerns about animals and the environment, built up over the years, grew into an invisible ball of messy strings in my heart. I believe I was one of many who wanted to do something, but I wasn't sure which string to pull and how. When I volunteered for the International Forum of Animal Welfare and Meat Safety, co-hosted by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, the RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming in November 2005, the two-day event brought back all my childhood memories of animals. The cow that I used to graze every day after school; the pig that was brutally hammered for the New Year feast; the hen emerging with a full flock of pullets; the family dog running after our truck when we moved from the village to the town. These animals seemed to be the keys to unlocking mazes; they also helped me to understand animal welfare from a practical standpoint. It was then that I felt 'animals are sentient beings' in the depths of my heart.

The direct Chinese translation of 'welfare' has a quite specific meaning, usually applied to the benefits people are provided by their workplaces. The term 'animal welfare' has led to confusion. Sometimes, it's been understood as a tool to improve food quality and safety; more often and more widely, it's been seen as a concept being inflicted on China by the West to slow its development: a trade barrier. That is why it's been so challenging to move forward.

My experience with animals has helped me to understand animal welfare better. And my life experience has also privileged me with some unusual situations that have given me further insight.

In 2011, I joined Philip Lymbery, the global CEO of Compassion in World Farming, when he visited China while writing his book Farmageddon. We travelled to villages in Zhejiang Province to gauge the environmental impact of local pig farms. On one occasion, while I was speaking to the driver, Philip wandered into a nearby family barn. In no time, he was chased out by a woman who was working there, yelling at him in a local accent, obviously shocked and upset to see a western man showing up out of nowhere, fearing some strange mission. I stepped forward and explained that we bore her no ill will; we just wanted to see the pig production system and how they dealt with the waste. We all felt embarrassed but, as we were about to leave, the woman stared at me and recognised me as a TV host. She relaxed a little and welcomed us into her family barn, a two-storey building. There were 100 or more pigs living in a western-style industrial system on the ground floor, with their teeth clipped, tails docked and the sows confined in narrow stalls where they couldn't turn around. The family lived on the first floor, their toilet sited next to the pig pen on the ground floor. The waste ran into the nearby river without any treatment through a drainage ditch covered by thick weeds. Bottles of antibiotics were scattered randomly on a window sill. In the face of competition from large-scale industrial farms, the family struggled to make a living. It was difficult to blame them individually for not taking care of the pigs properly. The system was against both people and animals. What was plain was that the system itself failed to deliver a sustainable future, be it for the animals, the people, or the planet.

Looking back at traditional Chinese culture, we can find a great deal of literature and poems about compassion towards animals and the sustainable use of natural resources. Some 2,500 years ago, Confucius spoke of respect and restraint towards animals, when he said: 'The Master angled, but did not use a net. He shot, but not at birds perching at night'. Mencius wrote: 'When you've seen how birds and animals live, you can't bear to see them killed; when you've heard how birds chirp and animals cry, you can't bear to eat their meat. Therefore, a man of honour has his kitchen placed out of sight and hearing'. These reflections on animal value and dignity are deeply embedded in Chinese culture, passed down from generation to generation.

Since the turn of the century, in China as elsewhere, we have seen an awakening of social conscience regarding the natural world, especially towards the animals that inhabit it alongside us. The internet has enabled debates about the use of natural resources, biodiversity loss and the use of animal products in traditional Chinese medicine. Incidents of whaling and dolphin-killing have attracted great attention. As a result, campaigns to stop shark finning or the use of bear bile and tiger bones, to ban Canadian seal production and to prevent the introduction of American rodeo into China have been widely publicised and supported by citizens. There have been increasingly loud demands for an end to cruelty to animals, driven not only by a better understanding of animal welfare but also by a groundswell of wider ethical concerns. It is a shame, then, that certain forms of animal-cruelty-related business still have a big market in China, mainly due to local authorities trying to sell them as tourist attractions, such as the Guangxi Yulin Dog Meat Festival and bullfighting in Southeast Guizhou.

'The difference between man and animals is that man can make and use tools,' was a key precept of my primary school textbook, decades ago. The underlying assumption was that man is superior to animals and that only human endeavour really counts. We are now much better able to understand animals as sentient beings rather than as a mere resource. We recognise that animals share emotions with us, that they communicate in ways that we may not yet understand, that they have intelligence of a kind we have not always paid heed to. The more we learn, the more we are aware of the limitations of our prior knowledge. We have come to realise it is not the world that we need to change, but ourselves.

In April 2015, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council issued the Opinions on Accelerating the Construction of Ecological Civilization. Its statement that 'green water and green mountains are golden mountains and silver mountains and deeply and permanently promote the construction of ecological civilization' declared environmental protection and resource conservation to be a priority. On 26 October 2018, the Law of the People's Republic of China on the Protection of Wildlife was amended for the third time to protect wild animals, maintain biodiversity and ecological balance and promote the construction of a more eco-friendly civilisation.

Prompted by the COVID-19 outbreak, in October 2020, strict national regulations were rolled out to prohibit the hunting and consumption of wild animals.

China is getting more confident about its culture and beliefs. The country is very different now from 30 years ago when western lifestyles were taken to be unquestionably desirable. We have a better understanding of the world and a greater appreciation of our own philosophical traditions. The 'kindheartedness' of Confucianism; the 'harmony between man and nature' of Taoism; and the injunction to 'help the world and save people and help all living beings' of Buddhism are increasingly shaping society's attitudes both to the outside world and to animals.

As for farm animals - well, unfortunately, that remains another story. China's arable land accounts for seven percent of the world's total and feeds 20 percent of the global population. With the increased demand for livestock products, farm animals are now competing for limited land resources, meaning that the food system is under great pressure. Industrial animal farming - factory farming - has been promoted by Chinese authorities, leaving little space for animal welfare. When the country's pig herd was hit by African swine fever, wiping out about half of China's pig population, most small farms were pushed out of the industry. They have been replaced by intensive farming operations. Multi-storey pig production systems have spread quickly across the country. The aim is to raise more pigs on a single site than anywhere else in the world. Roughly 10 times the size of a typical American breeding facility, one new mega-farm will produce more than two million pigs a year. Investment has flowed into this spread of new industrial facilities. The hidden risks and animal cruelty have been confined behind the walls, just like the millions of pigs. Out of sight, out of mind.

It is a great shame that in China there are still no laws covering animal welfare or forbidding cruelties. They will come, I believe; and they will create much greater harmony between man, nature and animals as well as benefits to society as a whole. Animal welfare is a fundamental ethical baseline for society, one whose time has surely come.

Jeff Zhou

Jeff Zhou has been representing Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) in China since 2008. He has worked with several partners in developing the World Conference on Farm Animal Welfare since 2017. On 2 October 2020, he was selected as the Asian Animal Person for the World Day of Farm Animals, and, in 2021, he was nominated as the chair of the Asia, Far East and Oceania Regional Working Group of the International Coalition for Farm Animal Welfare (ICFAW).