Effective Animal Advocacy in China: Perspectives from a UK Activist and Tourist

Post author: Max Harris. Max is a UK volunteer for The Humane League who has travelled around East Asia.

In December 2016, Lewis Bollard of Open Philanthropy Project laid out his vision for improving animal welfare in China. This post is intended to complement the work of Bollard and others, by throwing out some ideas based on my personal experiences in China, and considering what the EA community knows about this issue currently. I shall begin by evaluating how successful attempts to reduce animal suffering have been in the west. Using this information I will look at the situation in China (mainly), and make suggestions about what may be the best methods of reducing suffering over there.

Animal activism has been going for a while in the western world, with varying degrees of success. Here is my take on some of the most successful things which have helped the cause in the West:

  • Vegan products now have a much larger share of the market than they used too, plant-based milk sales growing 61% in the US over the last 5 years for example, which makes reducing animal product consumption much smaller and easier to try out for those interested.
  • We aren’t solely reliant on the number of vegans/vegetarians to drive the consumption of non animal products, various market research (e.g. here) suggests that a large amount of consumers for non animal products are meat reducers. This means a percentage of people have been convinced that it’s worth leaving animals of their plates for at least some of their meals of the week, for whatever reason. Tobias Leenaert has written about the importance of this in his book.  
  • Groups like The Humane League and Mercy For Animals have successfully campaigned to get commitments from companies to improve the lives of livestock in the worst conditions (see here for a report from THL).
  • The clean meat industry is making significant progress, some sources saying it could be in stores by then end of 2018.
  • There are large amounts of material available to help those who want to transition to a vegan diet (youtube, documentaries, vegfests, veg societies at unis) that make it easier for people to transition and not be alone in their journey.

With all the above listed out it’s easy to see a light at the end of the tunnel where in a some number of years the number of animals forced to live in horrific conditions is significantly reduced. However it hasn’t all been perfect, there are some challenges which include the following:

  • The number of animals being slaughtered has increased in the US.
    • Consumption of pigs and cows has gone down, whilst consumption of fish and chickens has gone up. This is an issue because you have to kill more chickens to get the same amount of meat as when you kill one cow (see here for more).
    • This is likely due to the health benefits of avoiding eating cows and pigs are becoming more apparent, so people are avoiding them in terms of “healthier meats”.
  • Vegetarians and vegans have a hard time sticking to it.
    • I personally would say this is because sometimes we demand perfection from people. If a person is 80%+ vegan then they’re still doing a significantly more good than if they aren’t vegan at all so that should be encourage and not chastised. Five 80% vegans does us more good than 1 vegan and 4 non vegans. Basically we should be more accepting of people who aren’t completely vegan.

So there’s still some things to iron out, but with this all in mind let’s have a look at how things are going in the China (and a little in Japan).

This is going to be quite anecdotal, but one of the reasons I’m writing on this topic in particular is that I recently spent about a month travelling around Japan and China. I prepared myself for a drop in the variety of options of foods I could have, of course. However I was actually pleasantly surprised to find that Tokyo has over 50 vegan only restaurants on Happy Cow (which may not reflect the full local variety). Japan in general feels quite heavily influenced by western trends. This lends itself to relatively smooth expansion by Western groups;  the American charity The Humane League has expanded into Japan with some success.

After visiting Tokyo though I hopped over the pond to China to find a very different picture. The level of respect for animals seemed to be quite minimal. In other parts of the world I have been to, when I explain that I don’t eat meat, they generally understand, even if they assume that I’m “probably one of those hippies that cares about animals or something”. In China, though, outside of areas where there are temples that generally serve veggie food, when I explained that I didn’t want meat, it was generally a look of confusion that I got. Why on earth would I not want to eat meat? The level of respect the general public holds for animals like pets seems barely present in China (think of the Yulin dog festival). This translates horrifically into the scale of the farming and legal protection for the animals on said farms (although it is improving slightly). In one survey, a majority of Chinese respondents said they had never heard of animal welfare and/or approve of factory farming in general! Thankfully this does show some signs of improving thanks to a new government initiative to introduce basic animal welfare teachings into schools, but this is far from enough.

In my time in China, I travelled in sort of a line from Shanghai to X’ian, and I experienced quite a mix of city living and small towns where they were even shocked to see foreigners. In the larger cities like Shanghai, when I used Happy cow, I found  about 8 places with vegetarian options (as opposed to Tokyo’s 50+ vegan eateries). I didn’t come across any dedicated vegan/vegetarian places in my time in China. Luckily, Chinese restaurants and people in general are very friendly and flexible, so I was still able to eat out vegan all the time. I pretty much just had to insist on the phrase 不要肉 – Bùyào ròu, which translates to “I don’t want meat” – a fair amount. They’ll happily just invent something or edit a menu item to serve you some noodles and vegetables fried in oil! Also dairy is not commonly part of the diet in China so you don’t have to worry about that so much, just eggs and meat.

Moving on from my anecdotes about my travels, the reason I’m writing this blog post is that the level of respect for animals I observed in china is concerning. Given the size of China’s ever growing population and the fact that the country is responsible for the highest amount of amount of slaughter for any country in the world and that number is rising by the year. I think it would be an effective action to look into how to best reduce animal suffering in China.

China graph

The graph above (data sourced from here) demonstrates graphically that China controls the fate of nearly 20% of the world’s animals. Lewis Bollard mentions mentions in his post about China about the scale of the issues, and has some stats demonstrating how China confines as many pigs as the rest of the world combined, as well as other shocking things.

First off, let’s start with the negatives and what we should avoid: I think a hugely important approach to avoid in China is the environment and health being emphasised too much by animal charities as a reason to ditch meat (because it leads to an increase in consumption of smaller animals like fish and chicken). From my limited personal experience observing the haggling that goes on in some parts of China, and the openness that they seem to have to street food, I’d honestly expect price to be the main driving factor in food adoption. Granted I don’t have any evidence to back this up, but I hope a different angle like that could be tried out.  

There is some very interesting research however about how a large portion of Chinese like to import food from the west and the primary driving factor for this appears to be food safety. It’s quite easy to highlight the safety issues with fish (pollution in the sea making fish contain scary chemicals) and chicken. So perhaps another way to go would be market plantbased products as a safer option?

Another thing I think it would be prudent for the movement in China to avoid, would be being seen as the West trying to impose their views on China. The activities charities like Mercy For Animals and The Humane League do when campaigning against businesses probably wouldn’t fly in China either. An organisation from outside China campaigning against a Chinese business would likely get shut down by the government very quickly; China has a history of protecting chinese businesses over western ones, even when Chinese businesses are in the wrong, committing something like copyright fraud. From this, I think it would be a good idea to have seperate Chinese based charities which are set up in China which we can support (perhaps rather than extensions of American ones? ProVeg is setting up a branch in China currently, so hopefully I’m incorrect about this and their expansion goes smoothly.

I think my main issue with the animal charities in China is that, to my knowledge, none of them are anywhere near as effective as Animal Chariy Evaluators’ top recommended charities. My reason for saying this is there is no charity (that I can find) set up and going which is dedicated solely to reducing meat consumption, which is the leading cause of animal death and suffering. My favourite chinese charity is probably TACN (mentioned below), who spend time promoting a vegan diet but also spend a significant amount of effort rehoming dogs. While this is lovely, if they focussed solely on farm animals/vegan diet promotion, they’d save more animals overall. I do recognise though that there are fewer dog adoption charities in China than the West so it’s not as if another charity will do this if they don’t. This means it’d probably be a very difficult decision to stop doing this work for the dogs now that they’ve started, as it’d essentially be condemning them to live on the streets.

From this point onwards let’s take a look at some current animal charities in China and from that I’ll draw some observations based on what I think is lacking. Here are some animal charities of note in China:

  • ProVeg
    • Is working to set up in China (hopefully will fill the role I mentioned earlier when they are up and going!)
    • Hosted a vegfest in Shanghai which was quite popular
  • TACN (Towards a compassionate nation)
    • A Chinese charity
    • Primarily focuses of saving dogs and anti dog meat
      • I think this is still quite high priority work because dogs are really terrible to farm because you have to feed them meat which multiplies the amount of animals that die depending on the type of meat that is fed to the dogs
    • Works with Veganuary to promote veganism in China, especially around the time of January. They claim to be a big part of the 3000+ participants that signed up to Veganuary in China this year
  • GoalBlue
    • Promotes environmental living
    • Promotes eating chicken and fish over cows and pigs which is terrible if you’re concerned about animal suffering.
    • I personally would not recommend donating here due to the promoting of eating smaller animals which increases suffering.
  • No To Dog Meat
    • Lobbies to ban the dog meat trade in countries where lobbying is allowed and in countries where lobbying is not allowed they pressure other countries to put pressure on them.

I could go on but pretty much all of them are dog meat or dog rescue charities. Based on this, I think the core of what we need in China and possibly Asia more widely is:

  1. General farm animal charities
  2. General animal welfare promotion charities
  3. Charities which measure their effectiveness and are transparent
  4. Charities that promote a vegan lifestyle (there’s ProVeg and TACN but those were all I could find).
  5. I think we could potentially benefit largely from having a charity which tries to put out cheap plant based meat/vegan products in china, but this one is just a hunch based off anecdotal evidence from me.
  6. More effort just trying things out, there really haven’t been that many intervention types tried in China, so we need to see what works and gather evidence.

It’s fantastic to see that work has already begun towards several of these goals, funded by the Open Philanthropy Project – which has made 16 grants to charities operating in China, which has helped to fund, for example, advocate summits in China – and by EA Grants.

Also one thing to note is that if clean meat becomes cheaper to produce than normal meat then I think we can probably win China if it can be emphasised that clean meat is a safer (and cheaper) product than normal meat. However, this successful transition is not guaranteed, and there’s plenty of work to be done in making the lives of animals better before this point far in the future.

(The photo at the top is a picture of some vegan food from Max’s travels in China)

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3 thoughts on “Effective Animal Advocacy in China: Perspectives from a UK Activist and Tourist

  1. A well-balanced piece of writing. I think cost and safety is the corrrect way to sell veganism in China. A country with little respect for animals will not convert on the basis of compassion or suffering. Sometimes you have to go in the back door to achieve what you want.

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    1. Hi Helen, Jamie here (blog editor, as opposed to Max, who wrote the above post). I agree with you and Max that seeking to change the way that food is supplied to people in China may be a more promising approach in some contexts. I don’t think China necessarily has little respect for animals, however. From Lewis Bollard’s post, reporting on a poll in China:

      “Although a majority of survey respondents had never heard of animal welfare, and a slight majority viewed factory farming positively, just 7.9% endorsed the statement “Pigs and domestic fowls are only beast, and people can treat them as they wish.” A majority of respondents also supported farm animal welfare legislation, and 69.7% and 74.3% of respondents thought it was “inappropriate” to rear pigs on cement floor and “kill fowls near the cages in which fowls are kept” — both standard practices on Chinese and American pig and egg farms alike.”

      See here for the original: https://us14.campaign-archive.com/?u=66df320da8400b581cbc1b539&id=856a5150e6

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