To attain a better future for animals, concern for them needs to expand internationally, not just in a few regions. A key country in this regard is China.
China is the most populous country in the world: over 18% of the world’s population. Its economy is the second largest in the world, equivalent to over 9% of the global economy. China is also a powerful investor in other parts of the world, as well as an influential political actor in world politics. Its growing economy and development in key technologies mean there is a high probability it will become the next world superpower.
China is also the world’s fourth largest country, occupying more than 6% of the world’s landmass. Even though a large part of it is desert, the country’s sheer size means many wild animals live there. In recent decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of animals used as resources in the country.
For these reasons, people who want a better future for all animals, including those concerned about wild animal suffering, would be wise to investigate ways to work effectively in China. This requires paying close attention to the attitudes and sensitivities of the Chinese public, whose cultural background should be considered, as well as those of the authorities.
Organizations trying to work in China need to adjust their activities in accordance with these crucial points. Ignoring them may have very negative consequences not only for those organizations (that may be mocked by the public and banned by the authorities), but also for other organizations defending animals, both Chinese and foreign ones.
Concern for animals could develop differently in China than it has in other countries. For example, concern for wild animal suffering could be incorporated into China’s growing animal advocacy movement at a relatively earlier stage than it has in other countries. In Europe and North America, concern for wild animal suffering not caused directly by humans has emerged only recently, despite the animal advocacy movements there having existed for a long time. Although some initiatives to reduce wild animal suffering have been implemented, such as rescues, centers for orphaned or sick wild animals, and wild animal vaccination programs, helping wild animals is still in many cases wrongly confused with conservationism or environmentalism. This happens in China too.
Due to this, Animal Ethics has published our website in Chinese. In addition, we have been researching what could the best ways to spread concern about animals in China, and to incorporate interest in wild animal suffering among such concerns.
To study this, we have done an interview study where we asked experts on this topic about the perspectives for animal advocacy in China. Below is a summary of this study. This can be useful to people working on expanding concern in China and internationally for animals, and wild animals in particular.
The study considers the question of how to effectively work in defense of animals in China considering the Chinese authorities’ and general public’s attitudes. It also considers the potential effects the COVID-19 pandemic could have on people’s concern for animals in the country, especially wild animals.
Given the kind of knowledge that we wanted to gain with the study, we used a qualitative methodology. We conducted in-depth interviews with 18 experts on animal issues in China to gather responses to several research questions that were not answered in the existing literature. Thematic analysis was conducted using MAXQDA (VERBI software) and manual inspection of source data. Grounded theory was used to engage with the data set via systematic thematic analysis (coding) of interviews.
The dominant themes that emerged in accordance with the objectives of the study are (1) the legal framework and the authorities’ views, (2) NGO approaches and operations and (3) risks. Given when most of the interviews were conducted, a section on themes relating to COVID-19 is also included.
The Chinese government is not hostile to greater concern for animals, but the government doesn’t necessarily support it either. Rather, it lacks an overarching viewpoint on the issue. It has a low regard of the importance of animal issues compared to other priorities, most of all the economy.
In fact, the economic agenda underpins the government’s attitudes towards different categories of animals. Greater attention is paid to issues surrounding animals used for human use and wild animals because of the key industries built around them, such as the animal farming industry and wild animal trade. As a result, people interested in the protection of animals need to be careful when promoting greater concern for animals or more protective legislation, especially as the government also prefers gradual reform. Conversely, the keeping of animals as companions receives less attention from the government because it does not impact the economy as much: the authorities think of it as trivial.
In the case of wild animals, the government welcomes and promotes conservation efforts, which reflects an international trend. This should not be misinterpreted, however, as an interest in the protection of animals as sentient individuals rather than as members of certain species. China’s main law affecting the protection of wild animals, typically translated into English as the PRC Wildlife Protection Law (中华人民共和国野生动物保护法), affirms wild animals as “property” and “natural resources” to be managed.
International NGOs in China may be best placed for work where foreign expertise and experience might be called upon, including conferences. Having said this, to be able to work effectively in China, organizations should register locally as an official NGO. This is a demanding process with long processing times and lots of required paperwork. For this reason, organizations should instead consider establishing partnerships with local people and organizations who understand how to operate in China.
The difficulties of partnering as a mode of operation include, among several others, finding an aligned partner organization. This appears to be especially so in the case of wild animal suffering work.
Alternatively, depending on the kind of work they do, organizations may want to work with local academics instead of organizations.
Various animal-related conferences taking place in China are very positive for animal advocacy in the country, with examples recently of high-ranking government officials expressing support for animal welfare at such events.
There are several major risks for work in China in defense of animals. These include:
· A failure to be sensitive to the Chinese culture and not adequately considering public resistance to “Western” models of animal protection and ethics.
· A failure to be clear about your organization’s values, methods, and goals.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have a negative effect on public perceptions of wild animals. On the other hand, it may also lead to increased public awareness of animal issues.
Based on the study results, it is clearly important that messages are framed in the right ways to be respectful to Chinese attitudes and beliefs. In addition, it is important to bear in mind that, similar to what happens in other places, the Chinese public seems to be more open to messages delivered by Chinese people rather than foreigners.
This is one reason why working with Chinese people could be crucial. Not only can they advise on what the right messages are and what the right framing of those messages should be, but they may also be better placed to be the messengers. Tapping into Chinese philosophical traditions may also be key.
Finally, in the case of wild animal suffering, interest in the topic is just beginning in China and, as is the case in other places, is often confused with environmentalism. Unfortunately, China’s legal framework may be too difficult to navigate for international organizations interested in wild animal suffering in China today, even if not for other animal organizations.
The study proposes various recommendations for how international animal organizations can best work in China, covering the short term, medium term, and long-term horizons.
Organizations focused on wild animal suffering are unlikely to be able to work in China or partner with Chinese groups until there is interest in at least some wild animal suffering issues among local animal groups. This study has not found any such groups. However, there is no reason to believe that the issue will not grow in popularity in China in the future.
The unfamiliarity of wild animal suffering might make messaging even more difficult because there is a higher risk of public backlash. On the other hand, the common confusion of concern for wild animals and conservationism may have a silver lining, as there is potential for interventions aiming to reduce wild animal suffering to be viewed positively in the same way conservation activities are.
In any case, as China has strict requirements for international animal organizations that want to work in the country, organizations must expect to devote high levels of time and resources to meet these requirements on a continuous basis. Organizations lacking such resources are advised not to start working in the country until they have sufficient resources.
Organizations that currently have the resources needed to work in China must also be very careful with the way they frame their messages to be respectful to Chinese attitudes and beliefs. They should not assume that what works elsewhere will work in China.
The main takeaway therefore is that research and careful planning informed by local knowledge are necessary for any organizations that want to work in China. The issues that these organizations must face are complicated, but we hope this study will serve as a helpful starting point for exploring them.
This research was possible thanks to the support of Animal Charity Evaluators, which funded this work through its Animal Advocacy Research Fund. We also want to express our gratitude to the interviewees who participated in this study.
People working on expanding concern for animals internationally interested in reading the full report of our study can request it from us here.