Two weeks ago, I wrote about animal cruelty in China, specifically the careless, and sometimes predatory, practices of dog shelters and the belief among some butchers that causing animals as much pain as possible enhances the flavor of the meat.
In that piece, I explained that torture does not improve the flavor of meat. I also noted that, although there are many terrible animal shelters that probably shouldn’t be operating, there is also a growing number of inspiring individuals working to put an end to animal abuse in China — people like Andrea Gung, Ruby Leslie, and Dr. Peter Li.
I recently met a friend for dinner. This friend is a native of Guangxi, one of the provinces where dog meat is popular. He challenged my use of the word “torture” to describe what people do at dog meat festivals in China. I explained that “torture” is defined as the act of inflicting severe pain, either to make the victim do something or simply for the sake of pleasure. Therefore, it’s the perfect word, since dog butchers inflict as much pain as they can for the sake of pleasure — gustatory pleasure. Indeed, some have rather inventive ways of maximizing pain, and my friend, who had personally witnessed some of the more creative methods, admitted that it made him uncomfortable as well, but that he had tried to put it out of his mind.
Then last week a rumor began to spread that an Australian had dismembered and disemboweled a cat in a Western bar. One report noted that the Australian later offered as an excuse that he had been going through personal issues and was drunk at the time. This hardly reconciled the sadistic nature of the act, though exactly what happened was never made entirely clear.
Naturally, my friend from Guangxi contacted me as soon as he heard the story. He was almost breathless with anticipation. As far as he was concerned, the tables had turned. He wanted to know if such behavior was common in the West, and if so, whether I thought this weakened my argument against animal cruelty in China.
I told him that while the meat industry in the West is badly in need of reform, what the Australian had allegedly done was not common behavior, that it was in fact a misdemeanor in New York, and that many Western countries have animal cruelty laws, whereas to my knowledge, the Australian had broken no Chinese laws. I added that it shouldn’t matter anyway, since animal cruelty is wrong, wherever it takes place. I told him that I was also very upset to hear the story, not simply because of what had happened to the cats, though mainly for that reason, but also because of how this would unfairly damage the reputation of local Westerners.
“Whenever a Chinese person lets their child defecate on a plane, or a Chinese tourist otherwise acts in an obscene way,” I said, “you have millions, if not hundreds of millions, of Chinese people shaking their heads because they know they’ll be painted with the same brush by Western media. And that kind of thing happens, on a much smaller scale, to Westerners in China.”
These intercultural growing pains are likely to fade as China continues to develop, but will China be the same after? As Evan Osnos, former Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker, observed when asked about the Hong Kong protests: “[T]he Beijing government [is] facing a choice: how to balance two competing political ethics, one being globalism and the other being nationalism.”
Since China is increasingly a global actor, this balance is more important than ever. Osnos notes that while concepts like democracy are, for now, too rooted in domestic political narratives to be of promise, the concept of justice is not similarly limited and resonates deeply with Chinese. However, he adds:
It’s very hard to persuade a young Chinese person today to mortgage their self-interest for the sake of some vaguer, broader goal. That’s not to say they’re all selfish. But they see value in their own experience in a way their parents never had the luxury of doing.
As China slowly integrates with the rest of the world, cross-cultural generalizations will give way to understanding. As understandings become more nuanced, the world at large will profit from this cultural enrichment. One then hopes that young Chinese, also enriched by this process and already concerned with matters of justice, will see the value in issues like animal welfare in a way their parents “never had the luxury of doing.”
I am personally hopeful. Yesterday I spoke to my friend, who told me he has forsworn dog meat.