In September 2014 Xinhua News Agency, the official press agency of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), reported that in the city of Baoshan, in southwestern Yunnan, 4,900 dogs were killed and 100,000 were vaccinated during an anti-rabies campaign. The authorities blamed dogs for the spread of the disease, which had caused five human deaths. Despite the protests of animal activists and dog owners, an order was issued to regulate dog ownership and kill stray dogs.
In 2009, as many as 37,000 dogs had been culled in Hanzhong, a city in Shaanxi Province, after a rabies outbreak. Over 5,000 people had been bitten by rabid dogs, causing 8 human deaths. The local authorities announced that they would hunt and kill both stray and household dogs. This measure was criticised by netizens, who called it an attempt to create mainland China’s first ‘dog-free county‘ (无狗县).
Anti-dog campaigns are not a new phenomenon in Communist China. In fact, the party’s mistrust of dogs and pets as vehicles of mortal diseases dates back to the early days of the regime.
From the Yan’an Years to the ‘Five Pests’ Campaign
During the Chinese Civil War (1946-1949) the journalist Roy Rowan travelled to the areas controlled by the Communists. He noted that “even hale and hearty canines were exterminated” because they were considered a delicacy and food was too precious to be wasted on pets. The aversion of the Communists towards dogs had also ideological reasons: they regarded pets as a ‘bourgeois pastime’, a vestige of the capitalist and feudal society.
In 1940s China, the sanitary conditions under which the majority of the population lived were miserable. Animals were only one component of the dreadful urban landscape in which the destitute masses lived. “There were thousands of homeless dogs in Peking,” wrote Esther Cheo Ying about early 1950s Beijing. “They wandered the streets, lanes and garbage dumps in packs, fighting with each other and with the pigs for any food scraps and excrement”.
According to Ralph and Nancy Lapwood, two missionaries returned to Britain after the Communist takeover:
Outside the East Gate of Yenching [燕京, pinyin: Yanjing] lay Ch’eng-fu village … Rubbish lay in its streets, odd corners and waste patches became public conveniences. Mangy dogs scrounged round the garbage dumps. A stream which ran between Ch’eng-fu and the university wall was a stinking open sewer, with broken-down banks. Whenever it rained the mud roads became ankle deep in sludge (quoted in: S.M. Hilier / Toney Jewell: Health Care and Traditional Medicine in China 1800-1982, p. 68).
After 1949 the Communist state sought to change people’s attitudes towards sports and to improve the overall sanitary situation of the country. Various campaigns were launched to clean up the streets and get rid of animals that could spread dangerous diseases. Clean piped water was made available, dumps were removed and streets were cleaned. Students were encouraged to play sports, casting away the old Confucian contempt for physical activities.
The Lapwoods witnessed first-hand the positive changes that the Communists brought about:
[A]s soon as the People’s Army came to be quartered on [Chengfu] village soldiers began to sweep the streets and build proper latrines. Then with the new administration came more basic changes. A system of refuse collection was started and the people became proud of the new appearance of the village. Our cook, who lived there, told us proudly that the village had won a red silk banner for civic responsibility.
Now that the Communist were masters of the country, their old anti-dog policies were adopted nation-wide as part of their attempt at improving public hygiene. By September 1949 dog owners had to register their pets and keep them indoors. In 1950 the culling of even registered dogs began. Some owners handed over their dogs voluntarily. Many others resisted. The police often broke into houses and took the pets away while the owners were absent.
While some of the measures adopted by the new regime undoubtedly had positive effects, the mass campaigns soon escalated. In the early days of the People’s Republic, when ideology, class struggle, denunciations and the killing of thousands of ‘capitalists’ and ‘counterrevolutionaries’ were part of everyday life, even hygiene policies became yet another battlefield of Mao’s permanent revolution.
In October 1950 the PRC entered the Korean War. The propaganda machine of the party worked relentlessly. The United States and its allies were depicted as the embodiment of imperialism, capitalism and counterrevolution. The regime even launched a ‘Hate America Campaign’.
One of the propaganda stratagems of the Communist state was to accuse the US of waging bacteriological warfare in China. American planes allegedly dropped infected flies, spiders, ants, fleas, lice, rats and other animals in order to kill civilians. State propaganda resonated with the public because the Japanese had experimented with germ warfare during the Second World War. Soon the authorities started a mass campaign to clean up the cities, find and exterminate the animals allegedly infected by the enemy. All over the country people were mobilised. In Tianjin, for example:
Insect elimination was carried out under the direction of the Tianjin Municipal Disinfection Team. Masses organized to assist in catching insects included 1,586 townspeople, 300 soldiers and 3,150 workers. Individual insects were collected and then burned, boiled or buried. Insect species included inchworms, snout moths, wasps, aphids, butterflies . . . giant mosquitoes, etc. Samples of the insects were sent to the Central Laboratory in Beijing, where they were found to be infected with typhoid bacilli, dysentery bacilli and paratyphoid.
In 1952 the state launched the ‘Five Pests’ campaign against flies, mosquitoes, fleas, bedbugs and rats. The campaign soon turned into a grotesque display of party loyalty and a carefully orchestrated demonstration of revolutionary fervour. People not only had to eliminate the ‘five pests’; they were also assigned ‘quotas’ of animals or animal parts they had to produce to the authorities as proofs of their revolutionary zeal.
In Beijing, for instance, each citizen had to hand over to party cadres the tail of one rat every week. Those who exceeded the quota were allowed to fly a red flag over the gate of their house. Those who failed, however, were publicly put to shame – they were forced to raise a black flag. As people struggled to fulfill their quota, a flourishing black market in rat tails burgeoned.
According to Rewi Alley, a New Zealand-born member of the Communist Party, every person who worked in the kitchens and lavatories of the Summer Palace had to produce at least thirty dead flies a day. Severe ‘criticism’ awaited those who did not kill and collected the required amount of insects. While dogs were not included in the list of the ‘five pests’, the campaign against them, which had already started in 1949, intensified.
The Death of Hsiao Mee
When Esther Cheo Ying arrived in Red China in 1949, she was full of enthusiasm and idealism. Half Chinese and half English, she had moved to England with her mother after her parents’ divorce. But she never got used to her new home. She was a ‘Eurasian’, an outsider in a society where racial stereotypes were strong. She wanted to return to the country of her birth. A cell of the Communist Party recruited her. The ideals of Communism gave her life a new purpose. She decided to go to China to serve the cause of the revolution.
Yet she soon became disillusioned. Instead of democracy, equality and solidarity, the Communists ruled through fear and violence. Society was more than ever hierarchical; only that the party cadres were now on top of the social ladder. In the midst of ideological campaigns and denunciations, people were afraid of each other and did not trust anyone. Friends, neighbours and even relatives could be tomorrow’s foes, accusing one of being a ‘counterrevolutionary’ or of harbouring ‘bourgeois’ thoughts. In this climate of terror, a stray dog became Esther’s best friend.
One day as I passed a sweet potato stall, I noticed one half-starved puppy eating the peel that customers were stripping off their hot sweet potatoes. It was not a pretty dog, its fur was matted, one ear looked as if it had been chewed off, but I watched in admiration as it deftly caught the potato peel in mid-air and lifted its lip as if grinning and waited for the skin to cool. That was one puppy I decided was not going to have the same starving existence as the others. I scooped it up in my arms where it struggled and snarled and took it back to my dormitory. I called her Hsiao Mee, named after the millet we ate … We grew inseparable. It was comforting to share with Hsiao Mee the sadness I felt at times. There was no need for words as she rested her head on my lap … She grew beautiful and sleek because she was the recipient of all my suppressed love, longings and sadness and a good part of my meagre rations.
But the increasingly pervasive intrusion of the party into citizens’ private sphere did not spare even her dog. Shortly after the Communists seized power, they began to restrict dog ownership and hunt stray dogs.
I had Hsiao Mee for nearly two years when, in 1951, without warning, there was a swoop on all wild dogs. Policemen armed with wire nooses strung through bamboo poles rounded them up and took them away. Dog owners thought they were safe. But two weeks after the dogs were cleared from streets, the police broke into houses and took away the household pets. I shut Hsiao Mee in, knowing the police would not enter an official organization. But one of the girls who disliked dogs opened the door and let her out; she was caught as she ran towards the main building where I was working. Dog owners coming back to their homes found their doors had been broken down and dogs taken.
Esther managed to find out where her dog had been taken. She borrowed a bicycle and rode to an “enormous compound where there were hundreds of dogs”.
[The dogs] were not fed but were either attacking or eating the weaker ones or starving to death … I walked up and down stumbling over dead or dying dogs, shouting out Hsiao Mee’s name, trying to drown out the barks and whines of hundreds of dogs. Eventually I found her. She was in a cage with several others. She jumped up and tried to lick my face, trembling with fear and perhaps excited, hoping that I had come to take her home … [W]hile I was there I saw one policeman put a wire noose over a pretty black and white collie-type dog and swing it round his head until it choked to death. Then he flung it down on the ground and skinned it, putting the hide still streaming from the body heat over a cage to dry with other dogs cowering underneath. He shouted across to another policeman: ‘That’s another winter cover for a car bonnet!’ There was no anti-freeze available in Peking in those days.
Eventually Wang Tao, the commander of the battalion to which Esther Cheo Ying belonged, told her that the authorities had ordered the elimination of all of Beijing’s dogs.
On the last day [Wang Tao] told me the official order had been given that there were to be no dogs in Peking. He went with me again and stood there while I sat and stroked my dog. I had managed to get some scraps of pork from the canteen and as Hsiao Mee … shivered and ate from the bowl, I held out my hand for Wang T’ao’s pistol. He took the safety catch off. I pressed the barrel against her ear and blew her head off.
In Communist China, dogs were considered a threat to public health. They were deemed symbols of a decadent, bourgeois lifestyle, and a luxury one could not afford at a time of food shortages. The long-term goal of the state was to clear them completely from the cities. But in the countryside, where peasants had been accustomed to keeping dogs to guard their homes, crops and livestock, the regime’s anti-dog campaign faced fierce resistance. The same people that the party claimed to represent were alienated by a policy that aimed at destroying a harmless century-old habit. Yet the peasants could do little against the powerful party machine. Arrests, threats and outright use of force soon crushed resistance.