Interview with Dr Peter Li

Dr Li is Associate Professor at University of Houston-Downtown and a China Policy Specialist, Humane Society International. His research focuses on China’s animal welfare policies and the country’s animal protection movement. In this interview he discusses meat consumption, animal production, the reputation of animal cruelty in China, and his hopes for more animal welfare protection in national legislature.

1. Within the last 30 years, there has been a dramatic increase in meat consumption in China, resulting in high levels of intensive animal production. What do you think is the major factor causing this increased demand for meat?

China overtook the United States in 1990 to be the biggest livestock producer. The per capita meat consumption, for example, increased from less than 10 kilograms in 1976 to more than 62 kilograms in 2012, an increase that is as startling as the expansion of the Chinese economy. Sixty-two kilograms is still low compared with the per capita meat consumption of the United States and Western Europe, but traditionally Chinese people did not have a diet that was dominated by animal proteins. And today’s Chinese mainlanders are not just consuming meat from farm animals;  they are also consuming more fish and other animal products such as wildlife. The increasing meat consumption is impacting China’s traditional dietary culture in ways never seen in the past. And the changing dietary habit is impacting the health of the Chinese also in ways unheard of before.

What has contributed to the rise of China’s animal agricultural production? There are several factors that have helped the industry to expand exponentially. First, China’s animal agriculture was a target sector that received much government policy support. In 1978, China’s post-Mao regime vowed to end China’s food security crisis that threatened the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Promoting animal agriculture as part of the government rural reform program had a specific regime legitimacy implication.  By the end of Mao’s rule (1949-1976), the majority of the Chinese peasants lived on the verge of starvation. More than one million mainland Chinese chose to flee to Hong Kong between 1950 and 1979 out of oppressive hunger and severe food supply crisis. Beggary, an act that was traditionally held in contempt in China, was out of control among the peasants of the most food deficit provinces.  Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who started China’s economic modernisation program, warned the party that people would not tolerate this any longer if the food security problem were not resolved. Deng’s reformist regime has since 1978 enacted a large number of policies that liberalised rural production, emancipated peasants from the shackles of socialist collective farms, and legalised private productions.  The Chinese peasants responded enthusiastically to the new policies. In 1979 and 1980, the first two years following the initiation of the economic reform program, saw phenomenal growth in animal farming.

Second, the Chinese government has strongly supported industrialisation of animal farming believing that traditional, peasant-backyard operations were of low productivity. Intensive productions started to take off in the early 1990s. What the government and the farming industry care more about is productivity. And, the Western factory farming model meets that expectation. Today, over 90% of the broiler output, for example, comes from highly intensified production units.

Third, Chinese producers are motivated to produce more in view of the enormous market demand for meat products. Chinese people over the age of 50 still have memories of the deprived days in Mao’s era when per capita meat supply was limited to 500 grams a month. This group of the Chinese is what I call “meat eaters in revenge.” They are resentful of the hard days in the past and they consume meat in amounts, as if they want to compensate themselves for the deprived days in the past. Chinese rural residents consume less meat than urbanites. It will take years for the rural residents to measure up to the meat consumption level of the urban residents. Therefore, Chinese animal agriculture still has much room to expand.   

2. China has a reputation for cruel practices involving animals; do you think attitudes towards such practices are changing amongst Chinese people?

China has always been in the spotlight when it comes to animal abuse. True, there are much more shocking cases in China than in any other nations on earth. Several factors have contributed to this situation. First, China is the world’s biggest animal farming nation. This suggests the number of animals in welfare compromised situations is greater than that in any other nation in the world. Second, China has 1.3 billion people. While most people are sensitive to animal suffering, the small number of people who abuse, knowingly or unintentionally, can still be a staggering number. Third, China does not have anti-cruelty laws that can penalise and deter animal cruelty behaviours.  Therefore, animal abuse is a huge issue in mainland China.

Yet, the Chinese society is changing beyond recognition. The animal protection movement is gathering momentum on the Chinese mainland. In 1990, there were no animal protection groups in mainland China. In 2013, hundreds of animal protection NGOs are operating across the country. China’s animal protection community is composed of mostly young urbanites. Many of them are members of the single-child generation. This group is particularly sensitive to animal abuse and least tolerant of abusive acts.

Already, more and more people are treating animals differently.  Pet owners are a noticeable group in China. They call for ending the country’s dog meat trade. They staged protests against the outdated government policies regarding dogs. And, they are actively pursuing a change to the country’s wildlife protection law so that poaching and other activities brutalising wild animals can be penalised. Chinese intellectuals stand at the forefront educating the public on the sentience of non-human animals; drafting legislative proposals to outlaw shark fin consumption and ivory sales; petitioning government offices for improving the welfare of zoo animals; submitting proposals for phasing out animal testing in cosmetics; and calling on the public to be aware of the cruel nature of industrialised animal production.

Yes, China is changing in favour of animal protection. 

3. What do you hope for the future in terms of animal welfare regulations in China?

It is my hope that China’s national legislature will include anti-cruelty on the legislative agenda. Without such a comprehensive animal protection law, protection of animals by piece meal fashion is neither tenable nor enforceable. A national anti-cruelty law should therefore outlaw both the worst form of animal exploitation industry such as bear farming but also the worst practices of industrialised animal farming such as gestation crates, battery cages, and forced feeding. No law is 100% effective in producing compliance. Yet, without anti-cruelty legislation, cruelty behaviours are not legally liable. China has come to a stage in development that it must legislate animal protection. 


* Any views or opinions represented in this interview are personal and belong solely to the interviewee, and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of World Animal Protection.