Last week, a sensational news item hit the Internet: The government of Dayang New District in the Chinese city of Jinan issued an order declaring that no dogs would be allowed to be kept in the area. As CBS succinctly reported:
“No person is permitted to keep a dog of any kind,” said the notice posted on gateposts around the community of mostly high-rise apartment blocks. “Deal with it on your own, or else the committee will organize people to enter your home and club the dog to death right there.”
If you watched social media, you could see the scope of the event swiftly expand as the news was passed through tweets and Facebook statuses. From a single district in a city, it turned into reports that the entire city was executing dogs, then, simply, “China.”
Writing about the realities of dogs in China is tricky. Partly it’s because China is not only distant from the United States, but is also a culture going through a great deal of changes, and not only with regard to its attitudes toward dogs. The country is undergoing high rates of urbanization, which is causing a lot of rural village culture to disappear, and not always in a benign way, as the New York Times reports.
But it’s also difficult because just acknowledging the realities of conditions for dogs can easily trigger racist stereotypes that date back over a hundred years in American culture. Issues like the annual dog meat festival in Yulin are especially delicate, because although the festival is highly controversial in China itself, as Dogster writer Lisa Plummer Savas reported in her recent story, not all social media and traditional media pause to consider that. At the most extreme, you get responses like the one musician and animal rights activist Morrissey gave in a 2010 interview. He famously told journalist Simon Armitage of the Guardian, “Did you see the thing on the news about their treatment of animals and animal welfare? Absolutely horrific. You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies.”
Morrissey was a little blunter than most, but the suspicion that the Chinese people have an impaired sense of humanity — whether toward factory workers, women and children, or dogs — lies implicit in much of the reporting and analysis that shows up in our media. That’s why it’s very important to make sure that you understand the facts underneath the headline.
The first thing to remember is that this order isn’t a policy of China, or even of the city of Jinan; it’s an order that came from the government of a single district of that city. It’s kind of like talking about the politics of New York City based on an action taken by the Borough Board of Staten Island.
The second thing is that, as I said before, there is a lot of change happening in China. The taboo against having dogs as pets was originally a product of early policies of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party, which declared them to be a bourgeois affectation that used up food and medicine while peasants starved. Mao is long dead, and the taboo against pets is crumbling as well. Younger, middle-class Chinese are more likely to think of dogs as members of the family than previous generations did.
The order from the Dayang New District government is a product of the conflicts that are inevitable during change. Chinese regional governments have ordered large killings of dogs before, but it’s usually a response to outbreaks of rabies or other diseases. There is no disease outbreak in Jinan. Based on the phrasing of the order and the responses of officials, it sounds more like an attempt to strike back at the dogs’ owners and the cultural change that they represent. “Dogs are always defecating all over the place and bothering people,” one committee worker told reporters. “A lot of people were complaining so we wrote a public notice to avoid a conflict.”
One glance at the wording of the order is enough to disprove those last words; it’s not written to avoid conflict, but to belligerently announce the conflict. The words speak of intimidation, not reconciliation.
We are not unfamiliar with this in America; Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis provides an excellent example every day that she remains in the news. The more broadly same-sex marriage has become accepted by Americans, the more aggressively anti-LGBTQ activists fight against it, no matter how futile their battle may be.
Just as Davis is a sign of change happening in American culture, we can also see the Dayang order as a result of change happening in Chinese culture, not as a marker that shows how little their society cares about dogs. Learning to look beyond the sensational headlines is always vital to keeping our own humanity.
Read more commentary by Chris Hall: