China has a long and complex relationship with meat. In the 20th
century, it was a rare luxury for many during years of famine, and as
the country grew wealthier, eating meat became a sign of prosperity. By
2017, China consumed considerably more meat than any other country,
eating about 74 million tonnes of pork, beef and poultry every year –
around twice as much as the United States.
growing number of health-conscious Chinese consumers are choosing to
reject traditional meat-based diets, and according to Xinhua, there are now around 50 million people in China who are vegetarian.
of pork have fallen for the past three years, says data from research
firm Euro monitor, and last year hit three-year lows of 40.85 million
In cities like Shanghai and Beijing, concerns
about obesity and heart health have been shaping broader lifestyle
choices. ‘People are beginning to think more about what they eat and
what they buy,’ says Sara Dominguez, from NGO Shanghai Vegan Society and
founder of ohmyvegan cakery. ‘There has been a lack of understanding in
China about the health issues involved with eating meat, the animal
rights issues, and what we can do about it, and this is starting to
Forrest Song is one of the founders of
Shanghai-based Veggie Dorm, an active group of vegetarians and vegans
who run around 100 events each year including cooking classes,
workshops, and presentations in universities and schools about the
benefits of a plant-based lifestyle. ‘In big cities like Beijing,
Shanghai or Guangzhou, and especially for young people, veganism and
vegetarianism are no longer strange. It’s becoming more popular as
people realise it’s a nutritious, eco-friendly and animal-friendly way
to live a happy and responsible life,’ he explains.
increasing number of meat-free events include local fairs Plantopia and
Vegan Fiesta, and events by environmental non-profit Green Initiatives,
all looking to raise awareness about environment, animal protection,
health and vegan issues.
As well as a growing awareness
of health issues, the trend away from meat eating is also being led by
an increasing concern for animal rights.
PETA's anti-fur ad exhibition in Beijing.
‘There are definitely more people in China
becoming vegetarian,’ says Keith Guo, of animal rights group People for
the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). ‘As more people learn that
animals suffer daily on factory farms, the number of vegetarians
continues to grow. And more cities are becoming vegan-friendly – last
year, Shanghai, Taipei and Hong Kong landed spots on PETA’s list of the
Top 10 Vegan-Friendly Cities in Asia.’
Guo says the
group’s Asia animal rights videos have over a quarter billion views, and
received endorsement from Chinese celebrities such as actors Wu Xiubo,
Chen Bolin, Sun Li and Liu Xiaoqing.
There are signs
the government is starting to give more priority to animal rights, too.
In 2011, it issued a directive against animal performances across zoos,
and in 2014 revoked a law that previously made animal testing mandatory
for all cosmetics. They have also tightened regulations governing the
protection of wildlife.
‘In 2016, after PETA Asia’s
Suzhou circus report exposing cruel training methods went viral online,
Suzhou police raided an unlicensed circus and rescued 22 bears,’ adds
Guo. ‘Not only has the public become aware of animal rights, but
authorities are taking animal issues seriously as well.’
PETA's 'eject animal performances' ad in Beijing.
But campaigners want tighter regulations around the treatment of
animals, and more enforcement of existing laws. One particular point of
criticism is the annual Yulin dog meat festival, which draws protests
from campaigners worldwide. Animal-welfare groups claim 15,000 dogs are
inhumanely slaughtered each year, most of them stolen pets or strays
that are sedated with poison.
The Mainland’s largest
food delivery service ele.me recently banned businesses that sell dog
meat, citing food safety reasons. As a result, 294 vendors and 7,733
meal options were deleted from the app.
has also been growing hugely, with dog ownership in Beijing increasing
25 percent year on year since 2003, and with it, an awareness of animal
rights and needs.
Religion has also played its part in
the number of people becoming vegetarian, fuelled by a religious revival
in recent years. The Pew Research Center estimates there are 245
million Buddhists in China, around 18 percent of the total national
population. Another 21 percent of Chinese adhere to folk religions that
often incorporate Buddhist beliefs, according to Pew.
of these Buddhists have chosen to eschew meat eating. A study this year
from Dr Ampere Tseng of Arizona State University found that China’s
Buddhists offset about 40 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions
each year by eating vegetarian.
For most vegetarians in
China, though, health is an overwhelming concern in cutting out meat,
and it fits with a growing concern over health safety. China’s middle
class diners have also been turning towards organic food over health
fears – in a Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 71 percent of Chinese
respondents thought food safety was a big problem.
scandals have helped fuel concerns, like the 2008 scandal over
melamine-tainted milk or the 16,000 rotting pig carcasses dumped in the
Huangpu river in 2013. And a CCTV report in 2013 laid out how pigs that
had died of disease or natural causes were still making their way into
the food market, while in 2014 a scandal erupted after meat supplier
Shanghai Husi Food was shown in a TV report re-using meat that had
fallen on the floor, and mixing together fresh and expired meat.
years and years of food safety scandals, people in China are changing
to look for higher animal welfare standard products,’ says Fiona Wong,
from non-profit organisation Mercy For Animals, which campaigns to raise
awareness of animal rights across China.
‘The more I
learned about the relationship between food, today’s health problems and
the environment, the more I found there was no reason for not being a
vegan,’ concludes Song.
By Helen Roxburgh