Last Friday an animal-rights activist spotted a truck full of dogs on a highway outside of Beijing. He swerved his car in front of the truck, stopping the truck driver and highway traffic; at the same time, he alerted his thousands of followers on Weibo, a Chinese Twitter clone, of the hundreds of dogs languishing in the back, bound for restaurant tables in Northeast China. Within an hour, more than 300 supporters had arrived at the scene. "When I saw this on Weibo I was very angry," says A Gui, a 22-year-old snowboard seller, who rushed over after hearing the news. After determining the truck driver's papers were in order, the original activist sent out more posts, and 15 hours later, had raised almost $20,000 to purchase the dogs and deliver them to locations all around Beijing; many ending up at Dongxing Veterinary Hospital in a narrow alley in the center of the city. It was Beijing's first reported citizen's arrest for legal dog trafficking.
This burgeoning animal-rights activism, aided by the ease of Weibo communication, coexists not only with the braised dog stew found on menus across China but also with China's "take many prisoners" attitude toward human-rights activists. Over the past few months, dozens of outspoken lawyers, artists, and underground church pastors have been harassed, detained, or arrested; some activists say it's the most stifling environment since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. These arrests rarely make it into China's muzzled media. The dog saving, however, has been a very big story. "Weibo is really quick," says Tang Yitong, one of the volunteers. "We wouldn't have been able to do this a few years ago, where you can send a message and suddenly everyone knows." At the same time, on many levels Chinese civil society is flourishing. Some in the domestic NGO world believe 2010 and 2011 have been two of the best years for domestic philanthropy, social innovation, and grassroots NGO growth, especially for those organizations without foreign involvement or politically sensitive agendas. There are almost a million registered dogs in Beijing, and their owners and advocates have a voice.
“I think those who eat dog meat are sons of bitches.”
The scene today at the Dongxing Veterinary Hospital revealed a flourishing civil society tinged with the possibility of repression. At any one time about 30 volunteers, mostly young, white-collar, sleep-deprived women, hustled about the two-story building, carrying dogs, mopping the floors, and arranging the donations of dog food, blankets, and bottled water. A student studying animal law introduced me to some of the more than 50 convalescing dogs. "Although some volunteers write long notes about the dogs because they love them, we're very standardized: The doctors take care of their feeding and medical needs." Representatives from various government bureaus flitted in and out. The volunteers showed around the curmudgeonly, 85-year-old director of China's Small Animal Protection Bureau and made a big scene to show how important she was. "There always has to be an official side in China," grumbled one activist.
For those who pay attention, the specter of the arrest of artist and provocateur Ai Weiwei hangs in the air. Carted away more than two weeks ago without charge, he's the highest profile person to disappear in this recent crackdown. "The dog problem is something we can fix," says one woman, who wanted to be quoted as her Weibo handle, The Thousand Year Small Rabbit, where her posts on beauty tips and animal rights have earned her 30,000 followers. "We can't use our car to bar the road" if they capture an activist, she added. Mao Mao owns a small clothing store and has been volunteering at the hospital every other day. "A lot of human-rights problems we common people can't solve," she said.
In a China that too often looks conformist from the outside, the hospital is a refreshingly quirky place, where people are united by their love of dogs. Tattoos cover almost half of A Gui's body, and a ring earring hangs deep from his ear. "I'm one of those… I like pain," he admits. He leans over conspiratorially and whispers to me "I think those who eat dog meat are sons of bitches." Tang tells me, "I've been to America many times, and when they talk about Chinese and say 'Chinese people eat dogs,' it really hurts." She used to work in hotel public relations, and when she went on domestic business trips, she'd take the train and fly her two dogs to meet her.
One of the neighbors yells, and a heavyset volunteer runs out to mediate, carrying a cigarette and wearing an English language shirt which claims that she's jailbait. Mao Mao wears a dress with white clouds and blue patches of sky; she has "Come as You Are" tattooed on her arm in German, from the Nirvana song. "Even though they said taking these dogs affected social order, we actually saved a lot of dogs. What we're doing shows results."