Earlier this year, I was on a slow highway on the outskirts of Hanoi when my daughters said something like “look at all those dogs down there being prepared for eating. Eewww.” Without looking, (and thinking they were referring to live dogs in cages) I tried to put the best face on things for my 13 year old by saying, “those dogs aren’t for eating, they are for pets.” My daughters laughed and conclusively disputed that by noting they had “already been grilled and had their heads removed.”
For much of the car ride, we then talked about the morality of eating certain animals and not others and whether we as Americans have any right to impose our values on others. The point was in the talking, not the resolution. I have to say though that I love discussing issues like this with my children because no matter how they come down on them, it forces them to think.
The Washington Post just came out with an article that does the same thing. It is entitled, “Chinese dog eaters and dog lovers spar over animal rights” and it is an issue-spotters dream.
Before anyone accuses me of anything (and I know you will), let me explicitly set out my biases. I have not had any meat of any kind for nearly twenty years. I like knowing that animals are not getting killed for my meals, yet I do not think that my forsaking meat makes me any more moral than anyone else. The morality of an individual is based on the totality of the circumstances. Hitler was supposedly a vegetarian.
Dogs are by far my favorite animal. On the other hand, I have trouble distinguishing on moral grounds between the eating of dogs on the one hand, and cows and baby sheep on the other. What, other than cultural background makes one okay and the other appalling? I am not asking this as a rhetorical question; I am asking this as a question I would like to see answered.
All this make it very complex, I think.
But there is even more to this. As the Washington Post article makes clear, the eating of dog issue goes even deeper in China (and no doubt elsewhere as well) where the dividing lines are very much class and wealth based:
But in many ways, it was a battle that has been brewing for years between the rural and the urbanites, the poor and the rich — between China’s dog eaters and its growing number of dog lovers.
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And the debate is the latest sign of China’s rapidly changing mores and culture. For centuries, dog meat has been coveted for its fragrant and unique flavor; it is an especially popular dish in the winter, when it is believed to keep you warm. But pet ownership has skyrocketed in recent years as China’s booming economy produced a burgeoning middle class with both money and time for four-legged friends. And with the new pet stores, a once powerless animal rights movement is slowly gaining traction.
The article focuses on a recent and highly publicized incident in China where a truck hauling dogs was forced off the road. The truck drivers and many others in China see the issue as rich versus poor:
“I still don’t understand what was immoral about my shipment. People also eat cow and sheep. What’s the difference?” he asked. Of the activists, he said, “They were just a group of rich bullies who own pets and have nothing better to do.”
Several others have also raised the specter of class warfare — a common meme in modern China amid the widening gap between rich and poor. In online debates, many have noted the symbolic nature of the confrontation: a working trucker forced off the road by a black Mercedes-Benz whose driver was on his way to a resort hotel with his girlfriend.
There is also “historical baggage” in China that says those who treat dogs well treat peasants badly:
The issue comes with historical baggage as well, notes Jiang Jinsong, a philosophy professor at Tsinghua University. “During the Cultural Revolution, having a pet was seen as a capitalist activity. Only the rich and arrogant had dogs and allowed them to bite poor people,” he said. “So there’s this implication that if you treated pets well, you will treat those who are weaker badly.”
At least one netizen has taken this argument to the extreme. Enraged by activists fighting for animals while ignoring the plight of so many rural, impoverished Chinese, a man in Guangzhou posted threats online to kill a dog a day until animal activists donate the money they raised to peasants living in poverty instead of to dogs.
“I felt I had to do something to represent the grass-roots people,” said Zhu Guangbing, 35, who recently plastered his threat on Twitterlike microblogs in China. “I grew up in a poor village. We raised one dog to watch the door and one to be killed in the Lunar New Year because we were too poor to buy pork. I don’t understand what’s wrong with that.”
The animal activists challenge this by contending that being kind to animals leads to being kind to humans as well:
But dog activists have defended their fervor as a necessity. China does not have any laws against cruelty to animals, and by some estimates, as many as 10 million dogs — some vagrant, others stolen pets — are sold for consumption each year and are often kept under horrible conditions.
“People are saying it’s a silly thing protecting animals,” said Wang, the activist. “But it is a question of civilization.
“By teaching people in this country to love little animals, maybe we can help them to love their fellow human beings better.”
Like I said, it’s very complex. And what a great wedge issue.
And where does the law fit into this? Laws can help lead people to do the right thing (witness the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the United States), but if they get too far out in front of what people want, they will usually be ignored and might actually give ammunition to those who oppose them. What should the United States’ and Europe’s role be with respect to China’s eating dog? No matter how you feel about this issue on moral grounds, the reality is that the United States and Europe have virtually no influence and, if anything, their trying to impose their will on China will only cause it to get its back up and end up being counterproductive.
What do you think? Does this issue have legs in China? Might it become a stalking horse for the rich-poor divide? Or is this just a side issue that I am blowing out of proportion?