Animal welfare is at the heart of the UK veterinary profession. We learn it, we take an oath on it, we honour it in practice. According to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), protecting and enhancing animal welfare is the duty of veterinarians in the UK, which guides our decisions for disease treatment and prevention. This advocacy for the welfare of individual animals contrasts with the growth of one collective community in China, where I am from. Rather than perceived as sentient beings with individual interests, animals in China are largely defined by their contributions to society.
Ironically, I have never heard of the term and concept of ‘animal welfare’ before I embarked on this journey to become a vet in the UK. All I knew was that animals (namely dogs and cats) get sick and vets treat them, followed by a large bill for the client and hopefully a bright future for me and my family. Even recognising farm animals as patients was a ‘great leap forward’ for me. Unsurprisingly, animals in a communist country like China are hardly perceived as individuals. They, like the citizens, are viewed more as components of a collective family/society rather than entities in themselves. A dog serves as a companion in a family (especially for people living alone), a pig is no more valuable than her production output in a factory farm. This lack of concern and intrinsic value are further reiterated in the Chinese language. Animal is 动物(dong wu) in Chinese, where 动means movement (sometimes may be translated to animation), and 物is object. Together, animals are merely moving objects and their interests or sentience are hardly acknowledged.
From this lack of individualism, it was difficult for me to conceptualise the idea of the ‘five freedoms’, as ‘freedom’ is a foreign ideology in China. Information is highly controlled and critical thinking is suppressed: we can’t access Facebook and google, nor do we have the autonomy to vote for the central government and leaders who dictate the country. Freedom of choice and speech are only available when one reaches the top of the hierarchy, yet the follower’s ideology would already be strictly moulded in favour of the China Communist Party (CCP) before one sets foot on the ladder.
People function as a coherent society in China: children follow adults, who thereby follow elders and chiefs. The leaders determine the values of the community, then the community determines the behaviours of the individuals. Our mindset and moral compass are more often family- or society-orientated, differing from the self-introspection and independent explorations encouraged in many Western cultures. The definitions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ therefore comes externally, such as grades and promotions, which contrasts a personal discovery and development of core values, such as honesty and compassion. This synchrony and unity of the citizens are the exact qualities that allow a country as large and populous as China to rise to world power extremely efficiently.
After I came to the UK, I embraced the diversity and numerous opportunities London has to offer. I began to look further than a cat with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, but how the diagnostic and treatment plan change if the cat is living in India rather than the UK, and why it’s important to acknowledge cultural differences when considering the value for companion animals. Speaking from experience, I’ve always been told what is ‘right’ in China, and often only offered one option, compared to being provided with a variety of ways to do things in the United Kingdom and encouraged to make the choice that feels ‘right’ to me.
This transition from dependence to independence provides me with a novel perspective on how animals are used and valued in different cultural settings, namely the UK and China.
In the light of a blooming middle class and the exponential economic growth in China, farm animals are among the most vulnerable populations that will suffer if their welfare is not addressed. Rapidly developing technology and increasing production scale will undeniably lead to further exploitations of these animals. Family farms are overtaken by factory farms, consumers are demanding more meat at lower prices. It is quite daunting to even imagine how production animals, as well as labour workers in those factories, are being treated, as their individual interests are often trumped by the ‘common interest’ of the country and economy to maximise profit and production.
As an individual with a deep passion in animal welfare, I cannot accept the severe lack of protection for farm animals in China, the world’s biggest livestock producer. Farm animal welfare is currently not recognised in legislations (the only animal law is appointed for wildlife, but even this is unfortunately flawed in many aspects), although many attempted in the past. It is crucial to address and rectify the issue now: legislation needs to change for the production and use of animals, education needs to incorporate animal welfare teaching (especially for training veterinarians), meat industries need to implement anti-cruelty policies, farmers and abattoir workers need to change their attitude and practices around animals, veterinarians need to advocate for good welfare, consumers need to buy less but better meat… Numerous stakeholders need to be considered and compromises/sacrifices need to be addressed. Unlike many bottom-up strategies used by western animal rights/welfare activists (ie focusing on individual-driven changes and public demonstrations), models utilising a top-down approach may be more effective in China, such that framing animal welfare issues in light of public health, food safety, and economic growth, would gain more acceptance by aligning with existing values, rather than triggering moral distress with undercover images in abattoirs.
Ultimately, a one health/welfare approach that appreciates the symbiotic connections between humans, animals, and the environment will, I believe, be the solution. Advocating for animals will be futile if the interests of the people (i.e. health and safety and food security) are not addressed or met. Stakeholders ranging from farm labour workers to the CCP will need to be reminded of the inherent qualities of respect, kindness, loyalty, and harmony imbedded deeply within Chinese culture and identities, and shall be reinforced to create a civilised future. Harmony, in particular, need to be strengthened in public morality not only between humans, but also between humans and animals, and humans and the environment.