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Once Banned, Dogs Reflect China’s Rise

Michael Wines
Thursday, 28 Oct 2010 | 9:00 AM ET

Xiangzi — Lucky, in English — is aptly named. A trim Siberian husky living in Beijing, his owner, a sports marketer named Qiu Hong, pampers him with two daily walks, a brace of imported American toys and grooming tools, $300 worth of monthly food and treats and his own sofa in her high-rise apartment.

When city life becomes too blasé, Ms. Qiu loads Xiangzi in the car and takes him out for a run — on the trackless steppes of Inner Mongolia, seven hours north.

A middle-aged Asian woman walking a dog
artparadigm | Digital Vision | Getty Images
A middle-aged Asian woman walking a dog

“It’s a huge grassland. Very far, but very pretty,” she said. “He really likes to scare the sheep and make them run all over the place.”

Metaphorically speaking, Xiangzi is not just a dog, but a social phenomenon — and, perhaps, a marker of how quickly this nation is hurtling through its transformation from impoverished peasant to first-world citizen.

Twenty years ago, there were hardly any dogs in Beijing, and the few that were here stood a chance of landing on a dinner plate. It remains possible even today to find dog-meat dishes here. But it is far easier to find dog-treat stores, dog Web sites, dog social networks, dog swimming pools — even, for a time recently, a bring-your-dog cinema and a bring-your-dog bar on Beijing’s downtown nightclub row.

All that and, Beijing officials say, 900,000 dogs as well, their numbers growing 10 percent a year. And those are the registered ones. Countless thousands of others are unlicensed.

How this came to be is, in some ways, the story of modern China as well. Centuries ago, China’s elite kept dogs as pets; the Pekingese is said to date to the 700s, when Chinese emperors made it the palace dog — and executed anyone who stole one.

But in the Communist era, dogs were more likely to be guards, herders or meals than companions. Both ideological dogma and necessity during China’s many lean years rendered pets a bourgeois luxury. Indeed, after dogs first began to appear in Beijing households, the government decreed in 1983 that they and seven other animals, including pigs and ducks, were banned from the city.

China’s economic renaissance changed all that, at least in the prosperous cities. “People used to be focused on improving their own lives, and they weren’t really acquainted with raising dogs,” Ms. Qiu said. “But with the improvement in the economy, people’s outlooks have changed. There’s a lot of stress in people’s lives, and having a dog is a way to relieve it.”

"But with the improvement in the economy, people’s outlooks have changed. There’s a lot of stress in people’s lives, and having a dog is a way to relieve it." -Chinese dog owner, Qiu Hong

But there are other factors in dogs’ newfound popularity: Many owners also say China’s one-child policy has fanned enthusiasm for dog ownership as a way to provide companionship to only children in young households and to fill empty nests in homes whose children have grown up.

Some say dogs have become a status symbol for upwardly mobile Beijingers. He Yan, 25, owner of two small mixed breeds named Guoguo and Tangtang, said young Beijingers like her are dubbed gouyou, or “dog friends.” Dogs, she said, have become a way to display one’s tastes and, not least of all, a way to meet people with similar interests.

And for a certain class with more money than sense, owning an especially prized breed has become the Chinese equivalent of driving a Lamborghini to the local supermarket. The pinnacle of pretension appears to be the Tibetan mastiff, a huge and reportedly fierce breed from the Himalayan plateau that, lore says, was organized by Genghis Khan into a 30,000-dog K-9 corps.

One woman from Xi’an, a city west of Beijing, was widely reported last year to have paid four million renminbi — roughly $600,000 — for a single dog that was escorted to its new home in a 30-Mercedes motorcade.

Mostly, though, it appears that Beijing dogs have, as in the West, become objects of affection — even devotion — by their owners. On a given weekend, hundreds of dog owners flock to Pet Park, a 29-acre canine spa east of Beijing that includes a dog-and-owner restaurant, a dog show ring, a dog agility course, a dog cemetery and chapel, a dog-owner motel, an immaculate 600-bay kennel — visitors must step in a disinfectant vat before entering — and two bone-shaped swimming pools.

Those who board their dogs are guaranteed an hour’s daily dog play, a weekly bath and a Web site where, every Monday, they can see fresh snapshots of their pet. The park, which opened last year, is the brainchild of a Beijing dog lover who amassed a fortune in the refrigerator business, according to Li Zixiao, the park’s sales manager.

“Everyone who brings his dog here considers his dog as a child,” he said.

To be sure, not all Beijingers are so inclined. A Beijing Internet blog, City Dog Forbidden, moderates a spirited debate between dog lovers and those who believe, as one wrote, that dogs “are seriously disturbing the normal lives of other people.”

“The birth of humans needs to be planned, but anyone can raise a dog?” asked one incredulous post. “The resources that you conserve from having less people, you give to dogs? This is a very serious problem. Are you saying that people are worth less than dogs?”

Yet the doglike devotion of pet owners here seems to have softened even the hardened city government heart. In 1994, Beijing officials relaxed their no-dog policy to “severely restrict” dogs; in 2003, it was changed again to allow anyone to own a dog, but to limit city dogs to no more than 35 centimeters — a bit less than 14 inches — in height.

The rule is widely sidestepped by dog lovers who say it is arbitrary and unfair. Daily, thousands of large-dog owners wait until midnight, when police officers are sparse, to walk the inner-city alleys with their beloved golden retrievers, Labradors and German shepherds. A July proposal to ease the restrictions once more, filed with a national legislative advisory body, has drawn nearly 30,000 Internet comments, compared with a few hundred for most other proposals.

The city has even opened its own tiny dog park, with a rudimentary kennel, an agility course and a kidney-shaped swimming pool that is as mobbed in summertime as any urban American beach.

As for stir-fried Pekingese — well, that dog, too, may have seen its day. A formal proposal to ban the eating of dogs has been submitted to China’s semi-independent legislature, the National People’s Congress. Nothing the legislature does becomes law without a nod from higher-ups, but the proposal has survived two rounds of public comment, which bodes well for its future.

The proposal’s sponsor, a law professor named Chang Jiwen, says he is not so much a dog lover as a China lover. “Other developed countries have animal protection laws,” he said in a telephone interview. “With China developing so quickly, and more and more people keeping pets, more people should know how to treat animals properly.”

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