Animal welfare in China

Jan 31, 2022 | 0 comments

Obtaining an accurate picture of animal welfare in China requires understanding of history, culture and politics in this large and complex country.  In this episode, Dr. Peter Li, a distinguished scholar and China animal policy expert shares insights on animal welfare in China including wet markets and the role they played in the outbreak of the COVID 19 pandemic.  

Dr. Li is Associate Professor of East Asian Politics, Animal Law and Policy at the University of Houston (Downtown) and a consultant (China Policy Specialist) for Humane Society International (HSI).  He is the author of Animal Welfare in China: Politics, Culture and Crisis.

In this episode Dr. Li explains current animal welfare concerns in China through the socio-political dynamics of the past 70 years and how they differ from historical cultural norms.  In addition to discussing the use of wildlife for traditional medicine and other purposes, he explores companion animals and farm animals in China, and the ways in which the communist government has impacted many of the country’s cultural practices regarding animals and animal welfare. 

Here you can see a select number of Dr Li’s his op-ed pieces and his peer-reviewed journal articles. Dr. Li’s latest publication on China’s animal welfare crisis, animal policymaking and legal development at a time of great social and economic transformation. 

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Episode Transcript

Welcome to the Animal Guide for Curious Humans, the podcast that explores the vast world of non-human animals and our relationship to them. I’m your host, Maureen Armstrong. For more information, please visit us at theanimalguide.com.

Maureen Armstrong:

Hi everyone. On today’s episode of the Animal Guide for Curious Humans, we are talking about animal welfare in China. Our guest today is Peter Li. He is Associate Professor of East Asian politics, Animal Law and Policy at the University of Houston-Downtown. He has a PhD from Northern Arizona University in Comparative Politics and International Relations. In addition to his academic work, he is a China policy specialist who works in consultation with the Humane Society International. Peter’s, most recent published book is called Animal Welfare in China: Culture, Politics and Crisis, and you’ll hear him refer to the book through this discussion. It is really a fascinating conversation. He will cover a wide variety of issues. Of course, we get into the wildlife wet markets in China, particularly Wuhan, and the role that that has played in the COVID pandemic. But we cover everything from companion animals to farmed animals as well as wildlife. So I really hope you enjoy this episode, and here we go with Professor Peter Li. 

So Hi Peter. Thanks very much for joining us. I really appreciate it. To start, how did you become personally interested in animal welfare and animal protection, and particularly in China? 

Peter Li: 

Thank you so much for having me on the program. I was born in China, and I came to study in the United States about 34 years ago as a political science student. Now my interest in animal protection, animal welfare started with my, I want to say, the first two days in the United States. I was walking on campus at a completely new environment and new country, new school. So while I was walking on campus, I was fascinated by the squirrels walking around. I went to Syracuse University, which is very close to Canada, and when I saw these squirrels, I was, oh my god, they were so cute, and they were not afraid of people. There would just chase each other, so I was just fascinated. I thought, what a wonderful world if all these small animals can live happily chasing each other, not feeling afraid of people. So that sparked my interest in animals. To be honest with you, I never saw – I had never seen squirrels in China, even though United States was way more developed than China at that time, 34 years ago, but I did not squirrels. So that sparked my interest. But I have to say this, what really inspired me to look into animal protection was another event which I participated, while I was a student at the Syracuse University. The International Students Office, I believe, International Students Office organized a tour of American farmer’s house. So I think altogether about 40 or 50 international students was on that special trip, and we were at the farmer’s house, and he was very gracious, very friendly and welcomed us, and introduced us to his houses, to his farms, and to his great orchard, so many apple trees. He told us that we got 20,000 apple trees here, and then there’s so many apples, right? And then he said that every year when we had people come in to pick the apples, I told the people to make sure, leave five apples on every tree. So I raised my hand and I said, why do you want to waste these five apples, you got 20,000 apple trees, you’re going to lose a lot of money. And the gentleman said [inaudible 00:05:11] and he said that, young man, no, the money, it’s not going to be wasted, because we’ve got a lot of snow in Central New York, in the Great Lakes area, so I want to make sure that the birds have food for the winter. When I heard that, I was emotionally conquered. So I was thinking, oh my God, in China, we were taught in the 1980s, 1970s that the countries in the West were capitalist, they were going after profits, they don’t care about the life of the people, the workers. Now I’m thinking, no, that’s not the truth, they care about even the welfare how the birds could have survived the winter, so my thinking started to turn around. But I was very touched, and since then, I started to pay attention. But I still continue to work on political science. I was sent to study international politics. But that definitely started the interest. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Fascinating story. I love that. And the squirrels, of course, we take them for granted here. It’s one of the greatest wildlife human interactions. It’s so commonplace in so many areas of North America that we don’t even think about it anymore. But I can imagine, it was a unique experience for you. 

Peter Li: 

Fascinating, yeah.

Maureen Armstrong: 

So as we look at China, just obviously, very large country and most populated country in the world, some 1.4 billion people, one of the oldest societies in existence, thousands of years old. It has grown exponentially over the last few decades. It has been under a communist regime since I think 1949. But easy for people to forget that China, like Russia, was a critical ally in World War 2. So the system, the communist system, and as it’s developed, and I’m sure you’ll be telling us about that, that’s all in the grand scheme of the China and its culture, very, very new. On a political front, obviously, China is a pretty controversial actor on the international stage; there’s a fair bit of tension between it and other nations, including at times Canada and the United States, you know, concerns about its approach and its policies towards certain principles that are held dear in democracies, human rights, free speech, etc. And so, you’ve got a lot of people outside of China who view it with a certain degree of skepticism, and there’s crept in, I think, a bit of a perception that somehow Chinese culture doesn’t necessarily value life, whether it’s even humans, but certainly not animals to the same extent as other societies do, and that somehow animals are just not deemed significant to Chinese culture. What would you say about that perception? 

Peter Li: 

I want to say there is a lot of misconception inside China and outside China, and I have to say this, I had to be interested in animals, when I was a student in, when I was a student in the United States. That had a lot to do, and a lot in connection with my upbringing in China. If I had not had my upbringing in China, I probably would not have that response to what I saw on the campus, and what I saw on the farm in the United States. So the perception was that the Chinese culture is cruel, China had a culture of cruelty, and the Chinese people are culturally programmed to animal cruelty, that was just completely false. When I was a little, my mother, a Chinese, never read anything foreign. And when I was 10 years old, one day I brought back some baby birds to my house. My mother saw it and she told me very calmly, she said that somebody is very sad. And I said, I’m so happy, I got these cute little baby birds. But she said that the mommy is very sad, because she lost her babies. And I was still not responding to what she was trying to say. But then she said, what if one day you were hijacked, I lost you, who would be the saddest person in the whole wide world. So I threw myself into my mother’s arms, I realized, I shouldn’t have done that. And so, that’s why my mother, a person who was illiterate, she was Chinese, she never learned English, she never learned, exposed to foreign culture. My mother always told me, when your walk, make sure you don’t step on the toad, that could be a mommy toad, he has babies to take care of. So I would just say the perception of Chinese culture being cruel is groundless. Most cultures have a core value, which attach importance to compassion, and China was no exception. But why we see so many cases of animal cruelty in contemporary China, that had a lot to do with the contemporary politics. I want to just move back to, as you mentioned, China, yes, China is a communist state since 1949, and there is a lot of tension, because I also teach political science, a lot of tension between the West and China today. I want to say the tension has been caused by both sides. I will not say it’s entirely the West adopting a hostile policy toward China, or entirely the Chinese side, but there’s a lot of, you know, still a lot misperception between the two sides. But one thing I just want to point out, in 1970, Canada recognized the People’s Republic of China, mainland China or communist China, and enjoyed a period of quiet, favorable relationship. And today, of course, the relations between China and Canada has been deteriorating, if not to the bottom of the relationship. But my question is, was China in a better place in 1970 that was still during the Cultural Revolution, or China is relatively a better place. And, of course, for the 1.4 billion people in China. So there is a lot of misperception that or probably have a high expectation for China to be like what we want it to be like, or we had a lower expectation in 1970. So I just want to add that point.

Maureen Armstrong: 

Yeah, a very interesting point, and it’s probably worth just, because you’re absolutely right, the tensions, ebb and flow through the years and, of course, there’s been massive changes in reforms that have occurred in China over these decades. I’m hoping we can chat about animals and animal welfare through three lenses, which are common for human-nonhuman interaction, and maybe we can just start with pets or companion animals, just to help give us a better sense of what it’s like in China from that vantage point. So are pets really common in China at this point in time, and are there major differences in terms of pet policy, companion animal policy in China as compared to Western societies which you know well? 

Peter Li: 

Yeah, I want to say that the bond between humans and companion animals is transcultural, it’s very similar. When I was back in China, I had pets. And today pet keeping is very common in China, especially in urban areas. The way they like the pets or the dogs or cats, it’s very similar to what we have, our pets in the United States. But we have to understand in this way, China, when it became communist state in 1949, and between 1949 to 1978, this record period of reform period, when China was under very rigid Stalinist political system and ideological control under Mao Zedong, the former, the founder of the People’s Republic of China. Now, during that period, because of ideological conviction, because of economic difficulties, the government was barely capable of feeding the people, so they adopted a very strict policy against pet owning in the society. So in the entire about 30 some years, almost 30 years under Mao Zedong, dogs, pet dogs are not allowed in urban areas. That’s why Western visitors to China in 1972, following Nixon’s visit, they couldn’t find any pet in Shanghai, on the streets of Shanghai or Beijing, that they wanted to, because the government considered, at that time, pet only as bourgeois, not revolutionary, not a preferred lifestyle, so discouraging people. So that period was over. So since Mao’s death in 1976, and since China opened up in 1978, society was much, much relaxed, control – ideological control was almost minimized to the minimum, necessary to safeguard the legitimacy or the safety of the regime. So the society had become more plural in a way, according to Chinese standard. So pet, pet keeping returned to the Chinese household. So since 1980s to today, pet owning is no longer condemned as ideological problem, like bourgeois lifestyle. And, in fact, China has a huge community of pet owning families and these families are the very vocal voices for animal protection, for pet protection. That’s why China has revised its policy regarding pet ownership, and the new policies has become more and more, I use the word humanistic, less draconian. So that’s the change, yes, so there are pets in China. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Yeah, great. Any presumably, it’s mainly dogs and cats as it is in most other areas of the world, I mean, we all face, certainly, challenges with exotic pets, all kinds of things, we could say about that, and it’s a problem in all, many countries including mine and the United States where you are now. But is that a right assumption on my part that most pets in China would be dogs and cats with a bit of this exotic pet ownership going on as well? 

Peter Li: 

Yes, very similar. But of course, China, we have not seen those outrageous cases like tiger king type of person [inaudible 00:18:12] yet. Yes, they are mostly pets, mostly dogs and cats, and also, wild animals acquired legally or illegally, I would say, mostly illegally. So that’s the same – so that’s why I have always been saying that animal protection is a challenge not only to the west, to China, but around the world, we have the same problems, yes.

Maureen Armstrong: 

Right and Thank you. So that’s pets, let’s move on to wildlife, and there’s much to say in this area I think. China’s most beloved emblem of wildlife, no doubt, is the panda bear, much beloved all over the world. Can you just, before we start delving into the policy issues of wildlife in China, what are some of the other common species of wildlife in China? 

Peter Li: 

China is one of the top hotspots of biodiversity. So it has, I believe, it ranks about a sixth of fifth in the countries with biggest number of animal species. China has more than 6000 vertebrates, so it has a wide range of animal species. Of course, China doesn’t have a polar bear. But China has tigers, elephants, a lot of people only believe that elephants are in Africa, but also in China as well; panda bears, of course, and many others, even including seal. Canada has a seal, China has a seal species at seven most seals in northern hemisphere. So China has a wide variety of animals. Birds accounted for about 14% of bird species in the world. Now, another important fact is that China is in the middle of a major migrating in a route, between Arctic and Australia. So it draws a lot of wild animals from across the world, but, of course, not just natural migration, but illegal traffic. So for China, to conserve and to protect wild animals, it is an uphill struggle, and hopefully, that it will do, we’ll be doing a better job. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Yeah, I like your reference to the elephants. It’s a reminder there was news there a few months ago of a herd of elephants in China who were moving from one area to another, and I recall hearing that the Chinese authorities at the time were advising the communities to kind of just stay out of their way, let them pass through, going to wherever they’re going. I never heard the outcome of that, where they – they were obviously on the move for a reason, but I’m not sure what the outcome was. 

Peter Li: 

That’s a great reminder of the 15 wandering elephants that left the habitat, and headed towards provincial capital, which is Kunming. People were joking even in China that these elephants were going to Kunming which was to be the site of the next Biodiversity UN Conference, they want to go there to tell the international attendees that how we are being treated, that’s one of the jokes they were talking. Now, I want to say this, I give the Chinese government credit for making sure that these 15 elephants are cared for, and not harassed, and not hurt, and are provided food and protection, so that they can return to the habitat. 20 years earlier or even 30 years ago, I will not expect the happy ending, the good ending for this elephant. There would be draconian and forceful ways to capture the elephant and relocate them. So I saw the Chinese government mobilizing experts across the country to provide advice how these elephants should be handled. So we like to see that result, but I also want to point out why the Chinese government is doing what it did with regard to the 15 elephants, BECAUSE, in the West, we always say that China is a one party dictatorship; but because of China’s enormous engagement with the outside world, economically, sometimes I consider the entire world in the China’s opposition parties. So when Canada, when United States, when we are criticizing China, oftentimes they accept the criticism, even when they don’t accept it publicly, openly, like, they internalize. So that’s why when they’re dealing with the elephants in this way, they know, if they did not do it in the right way, they would be in trouble, China’s image would be terribly damaged. So that’s why we should continue to voice our views regarding things in China, but, of course, politely. Don’t shame them. So it works. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Good. Thank you. So it’s a nice segue, I think on to looking at wildlife, from the vantage point of the – there’s a fair amount, as I understand it, of farming, trade, and consumption of wildlife that has been really intensifying over the last couple of decades. Why is that happening? And can you help us understand who is the market for all of this wildlife globally, who’s consuming it when it’s for meat purposes? What might happen to prompt some change in that area in China? 

Peter Li: 

Yeah, that’s an excellent question. But before I get to that, let me just add one more point about the right approach to deal with the Chinese government on conservation issue. Now in 2015, President Obama of the United States went to China and had several meetings with President Xi Jinping regarding the need for the two superpowers to sit down together to take actions against the global wildlife trafficking. United States took the lead to destroy the ivory in stock, and I think about 60,000 tons of ivory, and China followed up and did the same thing. And most importantly, China declared in 2016 to outlaw domestic ivory trade, a result for us had never expected; even though we worked on it for so many years, we couldn’t dreamed that that would happen. 

Now, I want to say just one point why China’s suddenly announced the outlawing of the ivory trade? It had a lot to do with the efforts from inside China, Chinese animal activists, Chinese experts, and, of course, Prince William, Yao Ming, all these celebrities. But, of course, United States government at that time, talking to China as equal, don’t humiliate them publicly. And also, take the lead in saying, I’m going to do this first, would you like to do it. In that way, so you would have trust, now you do something together. You’re not saying, hey, you are the problem, you are the villain. If you do things like this, they’re going to push back. Now, about wildlife farming, China has the world’s biggest wildlife farming, capital wildlife farming operation. By 2017, the industry produced a revenue of about $78 billion. So $78 billion dollars is a huge, it’s bigger than many countries’ national GDP. So that’s China’s wildlife breeding operation. Now, why China had wildlife breeding? China did not have it in history, in ancient times. So this wildlife breeding operation in China was started in the mid-1980s. It got expanded in the 1980s and 1990s, and was boosted in 2000, the year 2000. Now, so… 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Why is that? What boosted it? 

Peter Li: 

There are two considerations, the first, because there had been, since the mid-1980s, to the end of last century, there had been enormous number of illegal poaching. So go to the mountains to hunt wild animals, so there was a concern that if this trend continued, then the species in the wild would be wiped out. So they come up with an idea, why don’t we do captive breeding, why don’t we expand captive breeding so that we can stop wildlife [inaudible 00:28:24]. So that’s the idea which was out of good intention. But the problem was that by keeping captive breeding, you’re actually encouraging poaching activity, you could not get rid of poaching activity, because people would just say, hey, I want the real wild animals, not fake wild animals, which were captively bred. So that’s the first reason, although with good intention, but misguided good intention. Now, second one was the Chinese government wanted to use wildlife breeding program as a way to fight rural poverty. So you could hire, employ rural surplus labor to make a living. So those are the two considerations, but I want to say, it’s a more economic profit that was driving the expansion of the wildlife breeding operation. So China, by 2017, about 14 million, one-four million people, 14 million people have been employed directly or indirectly in wildlife breeding operation. Now, for [inaudible 00:29:50] oh that’s a lot of people, 14 million people, right? Some countries don’t even have 14 million, probably about half, 40% of Canadians population. But the thing is this, China had a labor force of 900 million. So 14 million people is less than 1%, but probably a little bit over 1% of China’s labor force. So it’s really not a big deal. But anyway, so wildlife breeding has been protected by local governments, especially, as a way to fight poverty, for local employment, and to generate revenue for the local governments, so they protect it. But I have to tell you, wildlife breeding in China today, by the time COVID broke out, wildlife breeding had been intensive farming operation, very much like factory farming of the livestock. So it’s enormous. So it’s something new in the last 30 years, not anything left from China’s past, it’s for economic purposes. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

What is the market for these wild animals though – is it a meat market, predominantly? Is it in China or is it international? 

Peter Li: 

The captive wildlife breeding had five components. The biggest one is a fur animal for clothing. Now, the second biggest one, the second biggest part was the farming operation for the exotic food market, eating part, which had been outlawed. And the third part is for traditional Chinese medicine. And the fourth part for display, and pet. And the smallest part, the smallest part is for laboratory use. Does China have a market? I would say, this market is supply driven, it’s not consumer driven. So what does that mean? That means people really do not have a demand for eating snake meat. I grew up in China, never even once my mother brought back snake meat and cook at home, never even once. If you go to China, we did a survey in 2018, we went into 210 houses, we opened the refrigerator to see if there were frozen snakes, frozen civet cats or other wild animals in the refrigerators, we found none, we didn’t find anything. But the industry, the wildlife business interest group has been saying, oh, this is people’s demand, we have this essential need from the people, that’s why we are doing this, not for our profits, we are doing it to satisfy people’s demand for animal meat, that’s just completely false. We did another national survey in October-November 2020, and I’m still working on that paper to be submitted for a journal. There is no such demand from the people for wild animal meat. Now, let’s say, in this way, in Canada, if Canada had a short supply, market supply in beef and chicken, you think there would be a social stability in Canada? I doubt. There would be probably protests, right? In China, if you have a short supply of pork, there will be riots, there will be political instability. But if people cannot have access to snake meat, I don’t think there was any protest. Who would be protesting? The breeders, not to consumers. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Right. Very interesting. You mentioned the third use there was traditional medicine, and this is a big thing, we know Asian medicine uses various species of wildlife, in some cases, endangered species. And I noticed here on your book Animal Welfare in China, you’ve got a picture of an Asiatic black bear or at least in the copy that I’ve got, and I know the harvesting of bear bile is one of these very, very challenging areas, not just in China, there are other areas of the world where this is performed. But what, in your opinion, can be done to stop this particular phenomena, and it occurs to me that a country as scientifically and technologically advanced and sophisticated as China, should be able to develop alternatives to using actual bear bile, so where do you see traditional Asian medicine going and improvements that may come for animals in that space? 

Peter Li: 

That’s a great question, especially I like the way you make that a case that China being one of the top scientific technological innovator cannot come up with an alternative for all these wild animal ingredients. That’s excellent point. In Chinese politics today, sometimes I hope that China policymaking can be a little bit more authoritarian, but it is not. So the politics involved in the sustaining wildlife breeding for traditional Chinese medicine is very much like the politics involved in Canada supporting civil hunt; and like politics in the United States, like, in Texas, allowing rodeo to continue. So very similar, China in certain policy issues, the interest group has a lot of influence. So, China’s wildlife breeding business interest has oversized lobbying power, just like in the United States has [inaudible 00:36:40] has oversized lobbying power supporting against any gun restriction legislations. So this is the same situation in China. So there have been the business interest – wildlife business in China has been arguing that this is an income employment for how many people in the country. And also traditional Chinese medicine is a national treasure, like, if you question it, you are actually questioning Chinese culture. The Chinese government is very cautious. Anything that’s questioning Chinese tradition, Chinese culture is not politically correct in China. So the industry has been various, you know, what would I use that word, has been very fixed effectively utilizing culture, tradition against anyone who criticized the use of wild animal parts in traditional Chinese medicine. They would say, hey, sometimes they do know the tricks to fight back, don’t you respect the diversity, don’t you respect the cultural diversity, why you criticize our traditional Chinese medicine. It worked, right? They say that. Even though we know traditional Chinese medicine mostly has not gone through the same kind of clinical trial experimentation as other medicine, but they have been trying very hard to defend it. So the Chinese government has been in the awkward position, it is being put in two opposite directions by the wildlife farming interest group, and the society at large. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

It’s fascinating, the cultural arguments, and you’re quite right, they exist in a variety of contexts, whether it’s here in Canada, you’re right, there’s historical traditions associated with say something like the seal hunt, and I’d say this separate and apart from the indigenous cultures, the Inuit communities of Canada, where seal hunting is done in a much, traditionally in a much healthier, more humane, it’s not profit driven, it’s something different. But cultural arguments I find quite curious, if I look at my own culture, British, Irish, Scottish culture, I mean, we used to believe that women shouldn’t have the vote, and we supported slavery. I mean, at some point, every culture needs to be prepared to ask itself, whether its norms are still aligned or are they aligned with how the culture is now understanding itself. So I can appreciate that the same would be the case in China as it is, as you say, things like rodeos in Texas or in Calgary, here in Canada. 

Hi everyone. It’s Maureen, host of the Animal Guide. How are you enjoying the show so far? I’d love to hear from you, get your questions and comments and perhaps guest recommendations, if you have them. Please contact me at theanimalguide.com. And now, back to our interview. 

So let’s talk now about a [inaudible 00:40:46] which is COVID, of course, and I know you deal with this well in your book. We know the World Health Organization has concluded that the likely source of the COVID-19 pandemic was a wildlife wet market in Wuhan. Can you just describe a bit more of what are these markets exactly? I’m assuming they’re allowed to exist, in part, for the reasons you’ve just described that the wildlife trade and consumption is just embedded at the moment, but what are they, and how has China – what action has China taken since the outbreak of the pandemic in policy initiatives that affect wildlife markets that are good, both for human health, but also, obviously, for animal welfare? 

Peter Li: 

I have to say this some people in the West, talking about the Wuhan lab and propagating the Wuhan lab theory, is very concerning and disturbing. And, of course, lab security is very important. Lab safety is so important, and I completely support the proposal that labs must be scrutinized. There is no problem about that one. But politicizing the origin search of COVID is totally unacceptable. Now, even a few days ago, one famous TV host continued to float the Wuhan lab theory. Now the thing is this, when I heard this, I’m very worried, because if you talk about a lab, lab, lab all the time, and not pay attention to the wildlife farming, the wildlife market, you are helping one group, in particular. Which group? The group in China that wants to continue wildlife farming, trades wildlife, because they have the business interest to defend. And if that industry is allowed to continue, especially the wildlife farming for the eating part, that’s the second part of China wildlife industry, we cannot avoid, we cannot avoid another outbreak or pandemic. Now, this is why China’s wildlife farming industry is world’s biggest one, it’s gigantic. Now, this industry, every part of that industry is a potential breeding ground of a pandemic or zoonotic diseases. When I say that, we visited wildlife farms in China, I personally and also my research teams in China. Those farms even though they are what I call intensive farming operation, but they also employ a lot of practices that are totally undercutting animal welfare. They use all kinds of makeshift housing. I think they can use older pig farms, and even backyard, you know, a peasant household or closed factory workshops to farm these animals. Now, when I say intensive, they’re using intensive practices like commercial feed and all those, but hugely crowded. And what is the most important – what’s worse in this, some of the snake farms, they breed snakes, they also go out to the wild to capture wild snakes, and bring the wild snakes into the captive population, and the problem is very apparent. When you mix wild snakes with captive bred snakes, disease from the wild can bring into the captive environment. And these animals are shipped long distance to the market in cages stacked one over another one, and different species on a huge truck. That’s ideal situation for cross infection. When these animals arrived at the market, only about 5% or 10% were on sale on the wet market, and slaughtered on the wet market, 90% either stay in a warehouse or go to the restroom directly. So either places, when these animals are being slaughtered, they may have already been infected with other viruses or diseases already. So if this industry is allowed to continue, we cannot prevent another outbreak of pandemic. Now people always are challenging it, say, hey, people in China, in ancient times day ate wild animals. I say yes, not just China, anyone. But the thing is this, there was no modern transportation. Diseases have been in local village, and happened then and died. No communication with outside. But today, everything is connected. China has very developed transportation. And it got spread very fast. And also, in ancient China, you hunt a bear, for example, you killed it, you eat it immediately. But today’s wildlife breeding, it’s a hoarding situation, large number, that allow the cross infection. So I want to say, yes, we should ask for any country, not just China’s labs to enhance security and safety measures, but we really have to be scientific. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Yeah, it’s great point that the sort of the lab conspiracy theory is detracting from the principal problem, and that does not bode well for the future, because what we would really want to see is a lot more regulation around these wildlife markets in China. Has there been much change, policy or legislative change since the pandemic first arose? 

Peter Li: 

Yes. Just one more point about the wet market. I’ve been to many wet markets in the past, regular wet markets with livestock, and wildlife wet market, I have to say this – the wet markets where wildlife animals are sold is a hellhole, it’s a traumatic experience for anyone who stepped into it. You see animals trapped in the wild with [inaudible 00:48:18] which was pangolin, and other injuries they are suffering, and are very sick. So these markets are huge public health threat, so it should be closed. Now, when COVID-19 broke out in November 2019, I have to give Chinese government credit, there is a lot of saying that, oh, you are not being transparent, you delay, you take slow action, and then you’re in danger. Now, I’m comparing with the SARS outbreak, SARS in 2002, also November 2002, it took the Chinese government five months to find out, to really take actions, to close all the wildlife in the markets in 2003, early 2003. In 2019, November outbreak, the Chinese government shut down the Wuhan market on January 1, one month and a half, quickly, and they quickly collected the samples on the markets and identified the viruses. So it was quite quick. Now, on January the 23rd, the entire City of Wuhan was locked down. And I believe around that time, the Chinese government already had notified the World Health Organization, even Xi Jinping talked to Donald Trump on the 28th, January 28 about the seriousness of the illness. And in February 24, February 24 2020, to our surprise, to my surprise, personally, China’s national legislature decided to outlaw wildlife consumption and the trade for the exotic food market. So in other words, I mentioned, there are five components of wildlife breeding operation. The second piece was the shutdown. So why this one was tremendous, because only a few of us who work on China’s wild animal policy issue proposed to Chinese government, you really need to shut that down, and I was one of them. So we sent recommendation to shut down, and I can tell you, we sent the recommendation towards the end of January, so the government took the action on February 24. But after we sent the recommendation, the few of us were criticized by other Chinese animal protection activists. They said, hey, you guys are ruining the opportunity of a Chinese government taking actions because you’re too progressive, you’re too radical, you can never ask for a shutdown of entire piece of the operation. But we did it. And you know what happened? I will not say that because we proposed that, that the Chinese government made that decision. No. Because of what we said happened to be in line with the thinking of the Chinese authorities. It’s not enough. So that piece has to be closed. So 24 February, China shut down, and then they started a process to phase out wildlife breeding for the exotic, for the market. So by September 2020, all the farming operations had been shut down for the market, and breeders were compensated, the legal ones were compensated to move to alternative livelihoods. And the illegal ones were just shut down. And, of course, millions of the farmed animals were culled. So I want to say this, when the Chinese government does something right, we should give it credit. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Agreed. 

Peter Li: 

If it did not do enough, we should criticize. Oftentimes, we hear a lot of criticism, some other criticism, we don’t see support from facts, then we are causing credibility problem on our part. So criticize when there is need to criticize, commend when you need to commend. So that’s the action by the Chinese government. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Yeah, it’s an interesting notation as well of the speed with which change can occur in China, when there’s an alignment of will, opinion, science, etc. In some respects, it may be much faster than many other nations of the world. I look nowadays how long it takes for a piece of legislation to get through Parliament here in Canada, and it’s way worse Congress in United States. Yeah, it’s a long haul. Thank you. Was there anything else you wanted to say about COVID and the wildlife markets before we move on to talking about factory farming? 

Peter Li: 

There’s one thing, yes. I think that the Chinese authority was really hurt because of the outbreak of the pandemic. Because in one of our proposals to the Chinese, relevant authorities, we said this – which is more important, the safety of the public, the national interest or public safety of the 1.4 billion people, or the profit interest of the small number of wildlife breeders. It is up to the Chinese government to make that decision – who is more important. Because if you succumb to the lobby or the wildlife [inaudible 00:54:28] interest, you’re going to make a huge mistake. In fact, China’s top scientist in 2010, he warmed the Chinese government, because he said his team found coronavirus again in wildlife markets in Wuhan and in Hong Kong. So he said, we cannot be complacent, that’s 2010, he said that, even though we had the SARS seven years ago. But we cannot avoid another pandemic, if we don’t do actions. So, now 2019, when this hit, the pandemic hit China again, so they were really shocked, the national government. Now, I want to say this, there’s a lot of things that China tried to hide, there is no – in this kind of pandemic, nothing can China do to hide it from the internet, especially when you locked down an entire city. Wuhan is a gigantic city, how can you hide anything, right? So I just said, let’s, you know, in the West, Canada, United States, we need to take action, we don’t waste the time, take immediate action. That’s what we should be doing, and not to blame. It doesn’t help. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Great. Thank you. Thank you. So farmed animals, a third sort of lens through which we look at relationships between humans and nonhumans. And I’ve talked, the last couple of episodes of this show have been about the factory farming phenomenon, production of meat, dairy, eggs, even fish and seafood. These days, in most industrialized countries, including China, have gone to these factory farming systems that are really very inhumane, very cruel, it’s not the traditional farming practices of years gone by. Can you tell us a little bit about what that industry looks like in China right now, and what are the regulations that are in place to try to help improve the conditions for farmed animals? Lots of talk and increasing sort of pressure, I would say, in a number of the Western nations, the EU, Canada, United States around farming practices. But where is that in China these days, and what kind of regulations are in place? 

Peter Li: 

China’s livestock industry is gigantic, the world’s biggest one, the way that comes to China. A lot of things are number one, number one, biggest one. Of course, China has the world’s biggest population, it’s continental sized nation. Now, one thing I want to talk about is meat consumption in China. I don’t know if you know, when people in China, they great each other, they have a unique way to greet each other. I don’t know if you know that. When we say, I got up in the morning, I walk out of my house, when I see my neighbor, I say hi, how you doing, that’s how we greet each other. Have you heard about how Chinese greet each other traditionally? 

Maureen Armstrong: 

No. 

Peter Li: 

Okay. Now this is how Chinese people, my parents’ generation, when they walk out, see the neighbors, they say, have you eaten, have you eaten. And the neighbor would say, oh yeah, I have, not yet. Right? So have you eaten is really not asking about whether you have eaten your food or not. No. That’s a way, it’s like, how are you doing, are you okay, what’s… Why China has that kind of greeting? People are not really asking people whether they’ve eaten or what you ate [inaudible 00:58:33] that’s just the way. This passed down from China’s history. In China, there is a scholar in China, who did a study of China’s 2000 years of history, and he came up with more than 800 major famines during the 2000-year history. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Wow. 

Peter Li: 

So that means that hunger is in the collective memory of the Chinese, and food is so important. If you want to curse somebody or cuss somebody, you say, when you die, you’ll become a hungry ghost. But even a ghost, hungry ghost, that’s the worst punishment. So now during Mao Zedong’s time in China, during the pre-reform era, between 1949 to 1978, everything was rationed, life’s necessity was rationed. I was a teenager at that time, so I remember, we were entitled to only one pound, about two pounds of pork the whole month, that’s all the meat you could have. Cooking oil, three ounces or five ounces per month. And food grain is also based on male or female, whether you work or not. Right? So people were living on the verge of starvation. That’s why people were very skinny in China at that time, not because they were health conscious, not by choice. Right? It’s because of food deprivation. So when Deng Xiaoping took power, one of the first things he said was, we need to feed our people or the Communist Party was going to be overthrown by the people. So China had a massive starvation early 1960s, 30 million people starved to death, because of failed economic policy of Mao Zedong. And over the years, there were people escaping to Hong Kong, that’s why Hong Kong is a 6 million people today, at least a half of them were descendants of people from mainland, because of hunger. So anyway, so to feed the people, so one of the, you know, for the security strategy of the Deng Xiaoping government, since Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform was to diversify agricultural production to encourage livestock industry, that’s why China’s livestock industry is becoming more and more intensified today, even though there’s still small farmers, but they utilize factory farming techniques like gestation crates that do these battery cage farming. So it’s a huge issue. Now, in terms of legislation or laws and regulations, and, of course, China has a livestock law adopted in 2006, saying that you have to provide basic conditions for living conditions for this livestock, but because of the enormity, the great stacking of animals, so a lot of these articles in the livestock law are not really followed. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Okay. So the law may be there in paper, but in practice it’s not really being enforced. 

Peter Li: 

Yes. And also humane slaughter has been introduced to China, but it’s very hard to say, like, whether a high percentage of the pigs or cows or sheep slaughter has been based on humane slaughter [inaudible 01:02:42]. So it’s very hard to say. Now, another thing, livestock industry is most protected in the area. So campaign work in China is relatively weak in this area, because every time you talk to people about animal welfare, they would always fight back or they say, they are just foot animals. And for the West, for countries like Canada, United States to tell to China, hey, reduce meat consumption, they would always fight back, but your per capita meat consumption is way higher, and you are talking to us to eat less. So that’s it. But the thing is this, China’s dietary structure is different. Even though we, in the West, we really need to reduce consumption, I’m not saying that we don’t, okay? But China’s dietary structure really should not copy Western diet. I would say there is a better example, even though the model country have a lot to improve. Japan consumes, on average per person, about 48 kilograms of meat per person. China already passed Japanese per capita meat consumption. Now, Chinese are trying to catch up with the West. I think that’s the wrong. That’s wrong target. Japan probably is a better model. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Right. Completely agree. In fact, everyone, all over the world needs to be going in the opposite direction in declining, in reducing their meat consumption. There’s just not too many of us. There’s no – the conditions are so inhumane for the animals. If you’re going to continue to consume animal products, it’s got to be done on a much more humane scale. And that means therefore it’s a much smaller scale. 

Peter Li: 

Yes. No, actually, just one more point, actually when people come to me and ask how can we promote meat reduction in China one other suggestion I said was that instead of telling or advocating meat reduction in China, sometimes you can say something more positive about China used to have a very developed plant based protein production like tofu. Right? People in China eat a lot of tofu. So instead of saying, oh, eat less meat, let’s say, let’s eat more plant based protein products like tofu, because China definitely is the creator of the technology of making tofu, and it’s much healthier. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Yeah, that’s a great point. So with those subjects kind of behind us, I’m curious of your views on, you’ve touched on it already a bit, but how the rest of the world and China can work better together for animal welfare purposes – so first, is there a particular animal welfare policy or law, say, that China has that you think other nations should be considering adopting and, vice versa, whether it’s in Canada, the United States or some other country, are there particular approaches and laws that you’d like to see China consider, and as an international community, what’s the best way for there to be good collaboration between China and other nations on the subject of animal welfare? 

Peter Li: 

That’s a good question. If there’s anything that China can offer for the rest of the world, I would go back to ancient China. Now, coming back to you very early, your question about Chinese culture, in fact, in ancient China, the dominant core value or the civilization of China is compassion. I’d just give you a few examples, China had a national policy of slaughter suspension. We never heard that in any other country, except in China. And of course, the surrounding countries influenced by China, countries like Japan and Korea and possibly Vietnam, so slaughters especially, in Kong Dynasty, just give you one example, the Imperial Court can issue an order across the Empire to stop slaughter animals for up to 180 days for the year. Why? There were occasions that the Imperial Court would issue that order. When the imperial family is having wedding or birthday celebration or any other celebrations or happy times, then the Emperor decided it is not fair for animals to suffer when we are happy, so slaughter has to be suspended. And second situation, when there’s natural disasters, when earthquakes strike, when typhoons happened, so the emperor would issue an order to suspend the slaughter. And this practice continued till early 1930s. When Wuhan, the famous city, had a flood, the biggest flood, so the Wuhan city government suspended the slaughter, because that’s not the time when we are suffering, we don’t bring sorrow to the non-human animals. So that’s the practice. And also, China had in ancient times, had a policy advocating, even emperor, Chinese emperors advocating vegetarianism, eat less meat, eat plant. So if anything that other countries should copy, those are things that other countries consider, well, of course, China should revive all these good traditions. And also, one thing, Chinese ancient philosophy, Chinese men of letters in ancient times, they wrote letters back to him, saying that don’t kill snakes; don’t keep birds in the cage, birds belong to the sky; snakes may look ugly in your eyes but that’s not their fault; we humans don’t look alike, we should respect each other. So all these ideas in ancient times that can be copied – of course, today’s China has a lot to learn from its own history, from its own past, and, of course, learn from other countries. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Right. I personally would love to see international recognition of the sentience of animals, I think a lot could come just from that, and whether that’s through some kind of an international law instrument, like a universal declaration for animal welfare, or nations do it individually, as many are, that is growing as a phenomenon, I think a lot of good comes from just embedding and recognizing formally as a principle that animals are sentient beings. And so therefore, they have particular needs and wants, and so how we interact with them, it needs to recognize that reality. That would be my – I could retire from my life happy if we ever get to that particular place in the world. 

Peter Li: 

Exactly. You know, about recognizing animal sentience, in fact, of course, I talk about it in my book, chapter two, about ancient China. In fact, China, ancient Chinese were perhaps one of the first groups of people in the world recognizing animal sentience. The Taoist, Chinese Taoist in ancient times, they tell people we humans are not superior, don’t pretend that we are superior. The only difference we have from our birth or from other animals, because we don’t have a feather, we cannot fly, don’t think that you are more, you are smarter, no, they are smarter as well, we don’t understand their language. So what I’m trying to say is also this, there is a lot of misperception about Chinese culture being a culture of cruelty. But if we understand that that’s not the case, probably we are in a better position to communicate with them. And, of course, China should dig inside so that they can revive the traditional thoughts, and help China progress. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Excellent. Peter, is there something, for those of us who don’t live in China, wherever we are, we may be outside of China listening to this, do you have a suggestion of what we could do to try to further help animal welfare in that country? 

Peter Li: 

Yes, it is really a complicated matter when we want to respond to situations in China. On the one hand, emotionally, we often want to express our feelings when we see animal cruelty over there, but sometimes we have to understand, whether our expression, our reaction can positively produce a result. So that’s very important. I want to say this, when we encounter a situation in China, we first have to understand what’s behind it. If we have to express concerns, say, if we want to write a letter to our congressman or to our ambassador to China, or even if we want to drop the letter to Chinese President, Chinese Prime Minister, we have to understand that the way we communicate our frustration, sometimes can mean impact in the right direction or not. So let’s not overly accusatory, let’s just put down the issue, the problem, and what we believe, and what would be the best for China to act in certain way, and I think that the Chinese is listening. If we present the case in the right method, like, when I was working for Humane Society International, I would review most of the literature as a press release regarding China. I tried to make sure we don’t use certain words, for example, barbaric, right? These kind of words is really not helpful. Right? So we want to send the message that we want to talk as equals, not talking down. Because the Chinese nowadays are very reactive, right? So every time we want to share something, certain group of people in China, they would react very quickly and say, hey, are you trying to put us down again, are you trying to tell us what we are supposed to do. So I would say, when the overall political atmosphere or the relationship between Canada and China, United States and China, it can be on the right track, I don’t think on the right track at the moment. People are more willing to listen, as President Obama achieved. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Right. Peter, thank you so, so much for this. Can you tell our listeners a bit about where do they find out more about you, where can they buy your book, what are your social media handles, if you want to let people know that stuff? 

Peter Li: 

People can find me very easily. You just Google, put Peter Li and put University of Houston and put the China animals, those are keywords, you’re going to pull up a lot of what I write about in different media. And if you go to YouTube, you do COVID Wuhan and Peter Li, you’re going to pull up videos, which I was interviewed. If you are interested in my book, Animal Welfare in China: Culture, Politics and Crisis, I talk a lot about Chinese culture not being the problem, but China’s economic modernization today is a source of the problem. So you can see the book in – if you go to amazon.com search, just put in my name, Peter Li, Animal Welfare in China, you can pull up the entry. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

That’s where I got my copy from, and it came quickly, I must say. Thank you again. 

Peter Li: 

Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. 

Maureen Armstrong: 

Thanks again to Professor Li for that fascinating discussion. I just got so much out of that. I highly recommend his book, Animal Welfare in China, it is an absolutely fascinating read, and he delves into the issues that we discussed plus many more, so pick yourself up a copy of that book. 

As always, thanks to the folks at podmotion.co for their assistance in the production of this episode. And our title music is Umlungu by John Bartmann. Until next time, all the best to you and the animals in your life. 

[01:18:19]

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