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China's History of Exotic Meat and Deadly Diseases

China does have a tradition of compassion for nonhumans. So the daunting question is: what went so awry that in the name of economic development, both farm and wild animals are now being treated ruthlessly, even as they're being driven to the brink of extinction? What is the root cause of the animal welfare crisis, especially in mainland China?
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Ten years after a global pandemic of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak spread from China in 2003, global leaders have failed to tackle the root cause of the deadly disease that seems to have originated from consuming exotic meat. Although it never reached pandemic proportions, globally it infected 8,000 people, and killed almost 800 people including 44 in Canada. In September 2012 a new SARS virus was first reported when a Qatari man and woman from Saudi Arabia were found to be suffering from a strain of Coronavirus, which has claimed 23 lives as of April 28 2013, as the Chinese Premier urges vigilance against the new viral strain.

Tracing back the source of SARS reveals, the Coronavirus made the leap from a nocturnal animal -- Civet Cat -- to humans in the Guangdong (or Canton) province of China in late 2002. A closer look into the evolution of SARS suggests the Chinese Horseshoe Bat, the primary carrier, transmitted the virus to Civet Cats, and these infected cats were sold in the Chinese markets for human consumption.

It's not only wild Civet Cats, but also domestic dogs and cats that are consumed in South China's Canton or Guangdong province, according to Dr. Peter Li, an associate professor of political science at the University of Houston--Downtown. In an email interview he said every year tens of millions of dogs and cats, most of them stolen household pets, are shipped to Guangdong on a daily basis, and of the estimated 130 million dogs in China, at least one third of them could be slaughtered for human consumption.

"The backyards of many of them are butcher sites with blood streams flowing aimlessly into and contaminating the nearby rivers, ponds, and even wells. Since the slaughtering is often conducted in the open space, young children are exposed to dogs and cats whining at the sight of the butcher knife."

Guangdong (or Canton), the fastest growing province renowned for Cantonese Cuisine in China, boasts "exquisite presentation, palatable taste, outrageous and often distorted 'creativity.'" And according to Dr. Li,

"It is this last trait that is troubling people in other parts of China and the outside world. In being creative, some local chefs go out of their way to prepare the most exotic and shocking banquet with "delicacies from the mountains and the sea. The 'creativity' of the Cantonese cuisine is not only ruining China's wildlife, but the impact is also rippling across our planet."

Indeed, China does have a tradition of compassion for nonhumans. Daoism calls for human respect of all life forms, Buddhism detests killing and even Confucianism admonishes against excessive cruelty. So the daunting question is: what went so awry that in the name of economic development, both farm and wild animals are now being treated ruthlessly, even as they're being driven to the brink of extinction? What is the root cause of the animal welfare crisis, especially in mainland China?

Well, it dates back to the pre-reform era between 1949 and 1978, according to Dr. Li and Gareth Davis, in a published article in a peer-reviewed print journal "Animals and Society." Chinese over the age of 50 were subjected to harsh days when each urban resident received just over a pound of meat per month. Furthermore, nearly 30 million people starved to death between 1959 and 1961 resulting from the government's mismanagement of the national economy. Dr. Li says since that era Chinese authorities have been tormented by so much guilt that they've become paralyzed by inaction, and failed to reduce meat consumption.

"What the authorities are obsessed with is political/regime stability. It fears that meat supply disruption could lead to unrest. It believes that people will be quiet if they have meat in their rice bowl. The Chinese government therefore created a system of "strategic pork reserve" to ensure a stable meat supply in the country, like the "strategic oil reserve" in the US to prepare for a temporary shortage of oil supply."

A key aspect of the pre-reform era was loyalty to the party, which was far more important than love for their own parents, as people had to stand by their party against "class enemies". Any sympathy towards the members of the "class enemies" was considered a sign of ideological weakness, and made that person untrustworthy.

"People who went through the pre-reform era have lost sensitivity to the physical and emotional suffering of the disadvantaged group members, i.e., class enemies in the past and nonhuman animals today, besides other disadvantaged humans. I would say loss of sensitivity to cruelty can explain the widespread unethical and cruel treatment of animals in China," asserts Dr. Li.

Meantime, when the People's Republic of China was established in 1949, the first generation of Communist leaders, veteran revolutionaries led by Mao Zedong, went through a bitter war with Japan, and their conception of a prosperous China was purely based on materialism and wealth. Human rights, environmental protection, and compassion for animals were not even on the radar screen of policy-making. Mao launched the most brutal "mass killing sparrows" campaign in 1958. He believed that sparrows consumed grain that belonged to people so they deserved death. The entire nation was mobilized into a frenzied sparrow killing madness, as billions of sparrows died under gunshots, fling shots, bamboo poles, or out of sheer exhaustion.

And finally when the reform era dawned between 1978 and 2008, technological advancement took center stage, with technocratic leaders trained in science and technology at national and provincial levels taking over the Chinese government. They were immersed in data, statistics, and growth rate, but hardly concerned about the side-effects of industrialization. Along the way, food became an obsession for the entire nation, and as it stands right now, unprecedented meat consumption of wild and farm animals continues to dominate China.

"SARS should have been a wake-up call for more people. Although it did change the attitude of many in China, it has failed to wake up the majority whose levels of education and awareness was relatively lower. Wildlife eating has continued unabated across the country and in South China in particular. The Chinese authorities have not made efforts to ban wildlife eating out of concern for the businesses dealing in wildlife trade, wildlife farming, and catering businesses."

Clearly, global leaders from all walks of life need to pay close attention to the animal welfare crisis in China that is spiraling out of control, and take steps towards creating stringent international policies to prevent the emergence of fatal diseases like SARS, and protect our natural resources and wildlife before they become obliterated.


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