Welfare legislation to protect animals in China sounds like a pipe dream when every day the international media reports news of bears held in cages no bigger than their own bodies and tapped of their bile, cats water-boiled alive and livestock thrown to tigers and lions in Chinese zoos - in the name of entertainment, to name just a few. And the Chinese government continues to claim they are addressing animal welfare issues but no legal action is forthcoming. But as the world points a finger at China, hope is coming from within the country where a Chinese animal welfare movement is emerging and rapidly maturing - becoming stronger with every documented animal welfare abuse.
Most recently, repeated reports by the Chinese media about the slaughter of thousands of dogs in China to prevent rabies has sparked a backlash from Chinese citizens calling for China's first animal welfare law that could see the criminalisation of this brutal animal slaughter and other mistreatment of domestic animals.
Currently only endangered species are protected in China and this lack of welfare legislation is a major hurdle for NGOs such as Animals Asia and grassroots groups in China.
Chang Jiwen, the law professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, leading the drafting of animal welfare legislation, said, 'China has begun to be aware of the importance of animal welfare because it touches on the economy, trade, religion, and ethics ...' he added that enacting such legislation will be no easy task, 'The future is bright, but the path ahead will be tortuous.'
This 'tortuous' path is something Animals Asia knows only too well. While discussions with the Chinese authorities elicit tacit support, the authorities cannot act because they have no legal framework for any action. For Animals Asia, it means a long-term commitment and approach through developing key relationships with government officials, lawyers, academics and the public, to generate support and encourage development of such legislation. It's an approach we believe will bring about positive changes.
Grassroot call for animal welfare laws
Hope often develops from tragedy and in February 2002, the horrendous act of a Beijing college student, arrested at Beijing Zoo, for pouring sulphuric acid on five black bears saw people across the world united in their criticism. It was also widely condemned within China with discussions developing in internet chat rooms calling for action to be taken against the student. For the first time, bloggers also called for laws to stop other acts of cruelty against animals - the call for China's animal welfare legislation had begun.
Similar acts of cruelty over the past six years have led to the same responses: in 2005 while the rest of the world were turning their backs on bullfighting, China was on the verge of accepting it. But the promoters had not bargained for the strength of feeling within China. China's animal welfare movement, growing ever stronger, protested and ultimately barred bullfighting from China. Zhang Luping, head of the Beijing Human and Animal Environmental Education Centre, said in the Los Angeles Times, 'This is a very significant victory; it shows that ordinary people's voices can be heard in China and that policies can be changed.'
In the last five years, the movement to end cat and dog eating has also grown. In 2006, 40 protesters swarmed the Fangji cat meatball restaurant in Shenzhen forcing it to close. Just eight months later Chinese campaigners confiscated 400 cats from a market in Tianjin - all had been destined for slaughter. Since 2007 further confiscations have taken place with over 2000 cats recently rescued in Shanghai destined for transport to the animal markets in Guangzhou. And in June 2009, following the slaughter of over 40,000 dogs by the Hanzhong City authorities; Chinese welfare groups held candlelight vigils in Hanzhong to honour the dogs killed. Campaigners also organised the development of a 'Rabies Forum' to work alongside government departments to introduce humane stray dog population management and end the mass slaughters so common across the country.
These acts of individual and group compassion show the strength of commitment to end animal suffering - coming from within China. These actions are not led by international animal welfare groups but planned and executed by Chinese citizens.
Emerging signs of hope
The first real hope for legal protection for China's animals came back in 2004 when a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Beijing committee proposed that China urgently draft a law protecting animal welfare nationwide. Expressing particular concern for livestock, especially at the time of slaughter, saying 'if animals die in a great panic, their blood can secrete toxins which are harmful to people's health ...'. Proposals stipulated that 'no one should harass, maltreat or hurt others [animals]' and that 'while carrying animals from one place to another, the vehicles used must be kept clean and animals must be protected from suffering shock, torture or hurt. If animals are killed for disease control they must be killed in a humane way and must be isolated while being killed.'
Disappointingly no law was accepted, but that this draft was presented to the national government showed that China was ready - and eager - to develop animal protection legislation.
Animals Asia's work to end bear farming brought further political action in 2007, when Zhou Ping, a member of China's National People's Congress Party, proposed new legislation to protect Black Asiatic bears (moon bears), specifically calling for a halt in the collection of bear bile, an ingredient used in Chinese medicine. Ms Zhou Ping, a representative from Chengdu, Sichuan Province, challenged the practice, which was encouraged in the 1990s as a way to stop the hunting of endangered wild bears for their bile. This bill wasn't passed, but helped to raise the issue of bear farming and the need to outlaw this practice to over 3,000 NPC delegates from across the country.
In the last 12 months further political hope has emerged. In December 2008, the University of Politics and Law in the ancient city of Xi'an organised a conference discussing international animal welfare legislation and the development of similar legislation in China. The forum was co-hosted with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), RSPCA International, and the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics (OCAE). Some 300 delegates attended, including representatives from government departments, law societies and Chinese universities.
Encouragingly, the conference also marked the establishment of the Animal Protection Law Research Center at the Northwest University of Politics and Law in Shaanxi - a first for China. And lawyers from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, led by Professor Chang Jiwen, are discussing with the RSPCA and IFAW, proposals for a national animal welfare law. This could criminalise the brutal culling of dogs and other forms of companion animal maltreatment. We hope the National Congress of the Communist Party of China will accept the final version within the next three years.
After more than 20 years working in China, we know how fast things are changing - and we know from working with various government departments in Beijing and Sichuan Province that there is a growing recognition and sympathy towards the issue of animal welfare - which did not exist 10 years ago. And, like with our Moon Bear Rescue, which is progressing as a result of good relations with the government and local community, we feel that the issue of cruelty to other animals can be similarly addressed.
We're also working with Chinese welfare groups to aid their grassroots educational work. This is a vital step towards mass improvement in China's animal welfare. In 2006, we hosted China's first Companion Animal Symposium. This groundbreaking event saw 32 Chinese animal welfare groups - from across the country- join together to share the many problems they face and call with one voice for new solutions to help dogs and cats in China. It is estimated that these 32 groups represent 250,000 people!
The success of the China Companion Animal Symposium continues to grow and in 2009 we held the third symposium, which saw 130 delegates, representing 63 animal welfare groups and veterinary clinics attending. At the end of the symposium, all representatives agreed to call on the Chinese government to ban the consumption of cats and dogs countrywide. Once again this is message coming from within China.
China is now on the verge of developing animal welfare legislation and this is the time to provide the support needed to the Chinese animal welfare groups. There is a long way to go, but the wheels are in motion, and we believe it will eventually lead to a brighter future for all animals in China.
For more information about Animals Asia and how you can help see [www.animalsasia.org