As the annual festival sparks unprecedented backlash, here’s what you need to know beyond the howling protests
1. It’s real.
In Yulin, summer solstice marks the coming of the hottest days for the Chinese city. The remote, woody city (literally “jade forest”) celebrates the astronomical event—this year, June 21 in the Northern Hemisphere—with its annual dog-eating festival. The local tradition reportedly began in the 1990s, but the local practice of eating dog meat outdates written history.
According to Chinese lore, eating dog meat stimulates internal heat, making it a food that wards off winters’ cold. But on this inaugural day of summer, it’s a superstition that’s driving dog consumption: the meat is believed to bring good luck and health. At the festival, hotpots are fired up, lychees peeled and liquors poured. Animal activists estimate over 10,000 dogs are killed for the festival, according to China Daily, the government’s English-language mouthpiece.
2. China doesn’t have an animal protection law, but experts still claim the festival is illegal.
A draft law was proposed in 2009 to punish animal abusers with a 6000 yuan (over $900) fine and two weeks of detention. It also proposed that organizations found guilty of selling dog or cat meat be charged with a fine between 10,000 yuan ($1600) and 500,000 yuan ($80,000). To date, the National People’s Congress has not signed the law; it has yet to issue a statement on it.
Still, some legal experts argue the festival is illegal under regulations passed by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2013 which require laboratory quarantine for animals before transportation, a practice that’s “rare to see,” animal rights lawyer An Xiang told China Daily. Even more, many dogs are stolen, abducted, raised in households, making dog trade difficult to document (there are also dog farms, too). In 2011, though, Chinese activists stopped a truck transporting dogs to a restaurant and paid 115,000 yuan (then, around $17,000) to free the animals.
3. Outrage on social media over this year’s festival is unprecedented.
For years, hundreds of thousands of Chinese netizens have been vocal in opposing dog-eating festivals. Though keeping dogs as pets was banned during the Cultural Revolution, dog ownership has become popular among China’s growing middle-class.
This year, in addition to a petition, puppy rescues and editorials, many celebrities have joined in protesting Yulin’s festival on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. Actress Sun Li uploaded photos of her son with their adopted stray dog, and singer-actress Yang Mi posted a plea to end dog eating with an anti-Yulin festival poster that’s flooding Chinese social media. In the poster, a dog sheds a red tear, saying, “Please don’t eat us. We’re your friends.”
4. The festival may have begun early to avoid protestors.
Yulin locals have reportedly kicked-off the celebrations a week early to avoid activists and journalists, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency. Street vendors and restaurants selling dog meat have covered up the Chinese character for dog, too, in an effort to mitigate controversy.
5. Dog-eating festivals have been banned in the past, but Yulin officials claim the festival does not exist.
In 2011, Chinese authorities banned the Jinhua Hutou Dog Meat Festival after a widespread social media campaign launched by animal rights activists. The 600-year tradition, held annually in September, commemorated a fourteenth-century battle victory when a rebel leader ordered dogs in Jinhua to be slaughtered because their barking warned the city of his army’s approach.
In contrast, the Yulin Municipal People’s Government issued a statement on June 7 in response to the social media outrage, stating that while locals in recent years have hosted small gatherings to consume dog meat and lychees, a widespread festival for these activities has never existed.
“The so-called summer solstice lychee dog meat festival does not exist,” it reads. “Neither Yulin government nor social organizations have ever held such activities.”