In China, owning an oversized dog is the newest form of political dissent

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
A big dog in China
Furry disobedience. 
Image: AP Photo/ Gemunu Amarasinghe

Most Americans will likely have a preconceived notion of the Chinese relationship with dogs. When a developing country can barely take care of all its own people, animal rights tend to sit very low on the totem pole. But the reality is much more complicated, especially with a burgeoning dog culture associated with the rise of young urban elites with disposable income.

That complex reality is being captured in a soon-to-be-released documentary on China and dogs. The film, Oversized Dogs: Chinese Dog Laws and the People Who Break Them,is ostensibly about what the title suggests. It follows several Beijing residents who own dogs that are technically illegal because they are above the size limit stipulated in an antiquated Beijing law. It’s not just the Chinese capital — these size limitation rules have popped up in other parts of China, yet Chinese dog owners seem to be flouting them with impunity. Beyond the legal issue, dog ownership in China turns out to be an interesting examination of evolving attitudes in Chinese society today. In particular, it indirectly reflects the rise of rights consciousness among the growing legion of Chinese who count themselves among the middle class.

Although the film shoot is still in progress, I had the chance to catch up with the director, an American who prefers to remain anonymous for now. The following is a lightly edited Q&A:

Why dogs as the topic for a China documentary? What prompted the idea?

The idea about dogs came from my personal experiences living in China. One of my (Chinese) roommates at the time bought a Labrador from a dog market in northern Beijing, but the puppy died of Canine parvovirus a few weeks later. Later he bought an an Olde English Sheepdog. Both dogs were clearly violating Beijing’s 1994 ordinance on raising dogs within the city, but that didn’t seem to really register with him. We would walk the English Sheepdog at night in the xiaoqu (residential neighborhood) and discovered that other large dog owners did a similar thing. Labradors, Siberian Huskies and Golden Retrievers were appearing all over the place at night. I consider these groups, which formed at night organically by people instinctively walking their dogs discreetly, informal “secret dog societies.” From this, I realized that Chinese individuals casually break laws everyday, and this constitutes a very subtle and interesting side of dissent.

China is not typically known as a dog ownership culture. Has that changed and how so?

Dog ownership is not a priority when the basic needs of people — food, housing, education –are not met. I doubt that pre-Mao China had much of a dog ownership culture apart from those in the wealthy classes. During the early Mao-era, dog ownership was probably considered extraneous and bourgeoisie, something the upper classes did that was wasteful. China’s burgeoning middle class is almost certainly a prerequisite for dog ownership culture to develop. I think in the past twenty years especially, people have more disposable income to spend on pets, leisure, fashion, travel and so on. Things we take for granted — immunizations, rules for breeders, et cetera — are still in the process of being developed alongside this boom in pet ownership.

How can a growing dog ownership culture be reconciled with the co-existence of dog smuggling on the black market?

If your question refers to meat, I think that brings up two issues. The first relates to animal protection, and the second is dog meat. Many Chinese feel that the needs of the poor are not being met and so animal protection laws are not high on the list of things to do. Yet on the other hand, many other vocal Chinese feel that animal protection laws are very important. Since such laws do not exist, they sometimes take the law into their own hands. One of my subjects helped stop a truck transporting hundreds of dogs for meat while another subject hand delivered a letter explaining animal rights to a neighbor who reportedly killed a cat.

As for eating dog meat, China (and some other countries like Korea and Vietnam) have a tradition of eating dog meat. While many Chinese dog owners think there is a contradiction between eating dog meat and owning a dog, others do not. Another one of my subjects has a small dog he adores, but at the same time he owns a Korean-Chinese restaurant where he serves dog meat on occasion. He tells me that dog meat is three times as expensive as beef but three times as delicious — he doesn’t see the contradiction. However, I think that ultimately dog meat will fade from the culture in the future. There is a lot of Western pressure on the issue, and younger Chinese have changing attitudes towards animals.

Can they be reconciled? In a way, they are united by a common factor: the development of the middle class. People want to pursue their own dreams and enjoy their lives–for some that is owning a pet, for others that is eating exotic meat. Add the culture factor to this issue, and it is quite complicated.

A central theme of the documentary is about this unfair and perhaps nonsensical law in Beijing that prohibits ownership of dogs larger than a certain size. How are the characters in your film fighting to overturn this law?

Some of my subjects try to use protests, petitions and Weibo activism to affect change. I am not sure how effective that is in China’s political climate. A few animal rights groups/NGOs ask people to avoid protests because marches and protests cause issues with the government. They would prefer that individuals wait for them to lobby directly. In any case, I think that just by owning and raising their oversized dogs, my subjects are effecting change. If dog ownership can hit critical mass, the Chinese government will have to reconsider the law. As it is now, those numbers are huge but not enough to make the government change. In addition, too many people are still scared of dogs, so that has been used as justification for the large dog ban.

What do you think the dog ownership issue says about the larger trend of a Chinese middle class more willing to defend their rights?

Yes, people are more willing to defend their rights, and the dog issue is one part of a growing trend. With more wealth and education, people want more freedom and space. Many Chinese routinely break “smaller” laws because they want to do what they want to do, rules or not. I am not sure if it is only limited to the middle class, though increasing wealth is a big factor.

If the film is shown in China, do you think it will be controversial? 

Some of my criticisms of the system regulating dogs and some of the people I hope to interview will be considered controversial, but I doubt that the film will be considered as controversial as, say, a film on Ai Weiwei or Liu Xiaobo. That said, since I am filming several “average” Chinese people who nonchalantly break laws pretty regularly, in a way I think it is far more incendiary. It shows how many cracks there are in the system and how widespread this kind of “quiet dissent” is.

Throughout your research and interview for this documentary, what struck you as the most surprising or something you didn’t expect to learn?

I was surprised to discover just how bad the rabies issue is in China–the laws governing these animals are probably the misguided attempt of an ineffective bureaucracy to get the rabies issue under control. The real reason they have such a terrible rabies problem is a non-existent system for immunizing these animals.

What do you hope the audience to take away from this documentary? 

I have two goals. First, I want audiences to see the human face of China through these dog owners. The sometimes shocking lengths people go to for their pets is heartwarming, funny, and sometimes tragic. Second, I want to show that while raising a big dog in defiance of these rules might seem like a small thing, it is in fact an important part of Chinese dissent.

This originally appeared on The Atlantic. Also on our sister site: