Stroke or Stir-fry?

BY LEE HAN SHIH
May 17, 2009
*Special to asia!

Dog owners in China have become an economic and social force to be reckoned with nowadays. Therein lies the risk.

 

In today’s China, dog owners outnumber members of the Chinese Communist Party.

It has not always been so. In fact as recent as 40 years ago, owning a dog without a “good reason” – say, as a watchdog – could get you labelled as a bourgeoisie and deported to some faraway farms for “corrective education”.

It was only after Deng Xiaoping took over China in 1978 that public opinion began to change. In his reforms, Deng opened China to the outside world. Foreign cultures started creeping in. Some were eagerly embraced by the Chinese – one of them was keeping dogs for pleasure.

 

dog in takeout box

A dog in a takeout box in a parade

 

To cull or not to cull

By 1998, 5% of Chinese had become dog owners. The proportion tripled to 15%, or one out of six, in 2005. That year, the Chinese spent at least 1.5 billion yuan (now about US$196,992) on their pets, mostly dogs.

The proliferation of dogs created many problems, from hygiene to rabies. Last year China issued a controversial dog-culling policy, which was later retracted following outrage from both the public and abroad.

Such is one of the rare occasions China had changed a policy as a result of local and foreign pressure (although the non-political nature of the issue also helped).

But more than anything else, this incident shows that dog ownership has become a social issue, more than a mere lifestyle choice.

200 million owners

The Chinese have always had a love-hate relationship with dogs. For the ancient kings and aristocrats, dogs were playthings. For the peasants, they were food.

(The Chow Chow, which many believe to be the world’s oldest existing breed, was purportedly created more than 2,000 years ago by the Chinese as a source of food.)

Today, dog eating is still prevalent in China. Go around, say, Beijing and you’ll find restaurants specialising in dog meat. Some university canteens even offer it on their menus.

But dog eaters are increasingly being outnumbered by dog owners. Going by market estimates, perhaps 200 million Chinese are dog owners. Servicing their needs has created a huge and fast-growing industry.

 

Dog spas, anyone?

Most owners’ needs are basic, but there are others whose canine excesses will put Paris Hilton to shame, for example:

  • In Chengdu, professional dog groomers dye white poodles in spots of orange, fuchsia and chartreuse.
  • In Shanghai, fortune tellers who specialise in divining the future for dogs are in high demand.
  • In Guangdong, the part of the mainland closest to Hong Kong, luxuries for dogs extend to matchmakers (pedigree certificates optional), spas, personal trainers, jewellers, beauticians, fashion designers (the qibao, or cheongsam, is in; dungarees are out), hotels that come with exercise area and swimming pools, vitamin supplements, prosthetics…the end is endless.

Clearly, the dog industry is now worth billions of yuan yearly. That’s the price of companionship for China’s lonely. Dogs are the friends of the old who are childless or stay apart from their children. Others are playmates for the Chinese children, most of whom have no sibling as a result of the nation’s one-child policy.

Then there are those who show off their dogs as status symbols. These are the people who are giving dog owners a bad name. Unbeknownst to them, they could end up stirring social unrest.

 

City vs country

It is mostly the city folks who own dogs. To the farmers toiling day and night to fill their stomachs, dog owners are exploiters.

That’s unfair, of course. Most dog owners are your average worker; only a small number take pampering their dogs too far. But in China’s conditions, perception is key. It also doesn’t help that some dog owners have been shooting off their mouths to the press on how much they have spent on their pets.

By a strange coincidence, there are as many in China’s underclass – those living on or below the poverty line – as there are pet owners. That is, some 200 million of them.

The former are the ones left on the wayside by China’s economic progress. Many have given up hope of future improvement. They are the ones who are particularly prone to riots, especially when they face oppression from local corrupt officials or the bullying police. Last year, China saw more than 5,000 riots, mostly in rural areas.

But if a large-scale riot ever takes place in the city, those pet owners could be among the first to feel the rioters' wrath.

 

*Note: This story first appeared in asia!'s July 2007 print issue.

 

Related Stories:

A New Breed of Animal Lovers Oppose Beijing's Dog Cull

Deng Xiaoping: Lover of Dog Meat

lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.

 

Contact Han Shih