Reasons To Be Optimistic About Animal Welfare In China
The People’s Republic of China is a global superpower, a large nation with the ability to scale industries to levels seen nowhere else in the world — ever. Animal agriculture is one of the platforms on which this superpower flexes; this one very potent nation is responsible for nearly 40% of world production alone, which jumps to an estimated 60% for aquatic animals. By way of comparison, the U.S., as a runner-up, is responsible for approximately 7.5% of global animal agriculture.
The sheer number of animals subjected to processing makes China a critical area of interest for those interested in improving the lives of the most animals possible. And for many outside of China, the picture that has been painted by the media is grim and hopeless; headline-grabbing articles often depict China as a nation where dogs are eaten and where the population doesn’t care enough about animals to enact any animal protection legislation.
Animal protection laws are not always a reliable barometer for animal welfare.
When it comes to animal industries in China, there are some hard truths to be found. Animals are routinely subjected to systems and processes that animal scientists know to cause pain, fear, and suffering through what ethicists and philosophers would call lives not worth living. Critically, however, the same can be said the world over. My country — Australia — engages in many similar intensive farming practices that we know are detrimental to animals. The U.S. also does the same on a much larger scale than Australia. Both of these nations do have some legislation to protect animals.
On the other end of the scale, consider India, the second most populous nation on earth after China. While on fieldwork in India, I was handed a huge book by a local livestock leader who was participating in my study. The book was titled Animal Law in India. “Impressive…does anyone read this?” I asked. “No, it is filled with laws that contradict each other, and even when they don’t contradict, they’re scarcely enforced.” India has the highest rates of vegetarianism in the world, and has a populace that mostly adheres to the sanctity and even worship of certain commonly farmed species, and more animal protection laws than anywhere else on earth; but that does not mean they effectively protect animals.
So, if the presence or absence of specific animal protection legislation is not always a direct indicator of welfare-friendly practices, is it reflective of a society that doesn’t care about animals? Not according to the research.
Chinese people care about animal welfare.
When approaching animal welfare in China from a U.S. cultural lens, it is easy to see how the absence of animal protection legislation could be misunderstood as a barometer of general care towards animals. On the U.S. domestic animal protection journey, animal lawyers have seen some critical successes. For a highly litigious society, this makes sense. However, just as the presence of law does not always correlate to improved animal welfare everywhere else in the world, it also does not reliably correlate with the level to which individuals in the nation care about animals.
A recent study my international colleagues and I conducted across 14 culturally diverse nations asked citizens to reflect on their perceptions of animals and their welfare. While a vast majority of citizens in both countries stated they very much cared about the welfare of both farmed and companion animals (around 80% in both countries for both groups), Chinese citizens rated the species-specific importance of animal welfare for dogs, cows, and pigs as more important than their U.S. counterparts. They were also more likely to state they would pay more for kinder animal products, should they be available and affordable. Chinese citizens were also more likely to believe chickens and fish have emotions compared to participants in the United States.
In one of our earlier studies a few years ago, Chinese citizens ranked “environmental protection, sustainable development and animal protection” as the most important social issues to them. Animal protection movements have been steadily growing and progressing inside China, and some of our more recent research findings also support the work of Chinese political experts such as Peter Li in dispelling the myth that Chinese culture is cruel. It’s not just the general public that cares about welfare in China, either. In our surveys with livestock stakeholders in China, 77% said they believed animal welfare to be extremely important and 78% of chicken and pig farmers in Guangdong province stated the same. In focus groups, livestock stakeholders shared with me a variety of perceived benefits they could see for improving animal welfare, and in another recent in-depth study on dairy farms in China, workers expressed that “cattle welfare was basically human welfare.”
On a sector-wide scale, the continued development of the Chinese field of “ecological agriculture” (a holistic approach to farming that considers the environment and animal welfare alongside production goals) also demonstrates an increasing perception that these issues matter. Chinese government officials have also been flagging animal welfare as an area for focus in the coming years. In 2019, Vice Agriculture Minister Yu Kangzhen made a particularly promising speech:
“Promoting animal welfare has become not only an important choice for the green development of agriculture and a significant measure to ensure food safety and healthy consumption, but even more so an important embodiment of human caring in modern society.”
None of this is to say that serious animal welfare and protection issues do not exist in China — as they also do to varying natures and degrees elsewhere — or that there isn’t a huge amount of work to be done. However, while there are many interwoven misconceptions and valid concerns for animals in China, there also exist important foundational opportunities for the continued development of Chinese animal welfare. Understanding just what those opportunities might be was the aim of our most recent study.
Chinese leaders have identified opportunities to progress animal welfare.
Recognizing the importance of locally-led initiatives, and the value of all too frequently overlooked local knowledge, our Chinese-Australian-North American collaborative research team engaged with Chinese leaders in a study aimed at identifying key opportunities to progress animal welfare in the nation, from their perspective.
The leaders outlined ways to attract attention to animal welfare, while leaning into the mutual benefits that improving the lives of animals shares with Chinese society in general, along with outlining the key ways in which they can be best supported to achieve these goals.
Of the 100 leaders that participated, 323 specific opportunities for progressing animal welfare in China were shared with our team. After carefully analyzing them, along with responses across the study, we presented a summary of practical applications and recommendations for animal welfare initiatives in China. Many of the responses throughout this study urge emphasis on the ties between improved animal welfare and food safety, product quality, and profit, and demonstrate the existence of Chinese-led animal welfare opportunities outside of the immediate introduction of specific animal protection legislation. Fortunately, the most compelling foundations for action shared by leaders — food safety, product quality, and improved profit — can intersect with improving animal welfare in ways that are backed by science. We present some examples in our full publication in the hope of supporting healthy discussions and potential collaborations with Chinese leadership and animal farming industries.
China is a powerful nation with unique capabilities and a long history of resilience and growth. Should the opportunities presented in this study be harnessed, animal welfare could become one of the areas in which China demonstrates leadership. In addition, any growth could be underpinned by Chinese determination and global support. The delivery of such insightful and fruitful responses from Chinese leaders who themselves hold power to make or influence meaningful change is a huge reason to remain optimistic about the future of animal welfare in China. We should listen to them.