Earlier this year, the actress Yang Mi, who boasts no less than 35 million followers on Weibo, tweeted out the message, “Dogs are more loyal to people than I’d imagined – I think of dogs as friends, not meat. As a result, I oppose June 21st Yulin city’s Summer Solstice Lychee Dog Meat Festival!” She received 75,000 comments, most in support of the sentiment, and it was reposted many more times.

A nationwide campaign of sometimes carefully calibrated activist messages such as this one on China’s Internet culminated last week in a flurry of publicity for an annual dog-eating festival in the city of Yulin in southern China, where canine meat is considered a delicacy and eating it on the summer solstice has been thought for generations to confer luck and good health for the long winter months that follow.

Publicity, however, was exactly what organizers didn’t want. Faced with the spread of dog-friendly activist messages like Ms. Yang’s, those behind the festival had been working to lower, not raise, the event’s profile. But in the weeks before the summer solstice, lawyers, scholars and activists from more than 60 animal rights associations visited Yulin to investigate the festival and the behind-the-scenes operations that direct the acquisition, slaughter, and butchering of some 10,000 dogs. As the date neared and media attention focused more directly on the town and the event, local government authorities appeared to become increasingly anxious and threw tradition under the bus, claiming the “festival” had no official status as such, prohibiting civil servants from participating in it, and quietly pushing for the removal of the phrase “dog meat” from local restaurant menus and signage.

An online campaign to discourage the eating of dogs has reduced the sales of dog meat by a third, experts say.

An online campaign to discourage the eating of dogs in China has reduced the sale of dog meat by a third, experts say.

Local enthusiasts went ahead with Yulin’s annual gustatory tradition anyway, but did so a week before the summer solstice in hopes of preempting crowds of angry protesters and any further unflattering media coverage. They had their fill of dog meat, but whether it brings anyone in the town much luck in the coming year remains to be seen. There’s certainly no shortage of people watching: the event, and all the spectacle that attended it, was reported in international media outlets around the world, and they’ll surely be back next year.

The result of all this attention? “It has raised a nationwide debate on whether people should call for an end to the practice [of selling and eating dog meat], citing cruelty, local customs, the black market and food safety,” said Zhang Yuanyuan, China director of Act Asia, as reported in the South China Morning Post last week. In the past year, Zhang notes, dog meat sales in China have fallen by a third.

Hold on a minute. Online activist campaigns? Lawyers? Crowds of protesters? Nationwide debate? This doesn’t sound like the China you thought you knew. But in recent years, citizens there have become more and more comfortable expressing views similar to those of Yang Mi, on social media platforms and elsewhere, regarding animal welfare and wildlife conservation. They are even launching petitions and participating in online campaigns, not just on behalf of dogs but on a wide variety of animal-related issues — activity that would have been unthinkable in tradition-minded China just a few years ago. They range from campaigns to end the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn to efforts to ban the long-established practice of shark finning, “farming” caged bears for their bile and the trade in endangered species of all kinds, from sea turtles to tigers to pangolin. As China’s growing middle class has accumulated wealth, so too have they collected house pets — and the myriad pet causes that agglomerate to people with disposable time and income.

"Do you want to own ivory dripping with blood? When the buying stops, the killing can too."

“Do you want to own ivory dripping with blood? When the buying stops, the killing can too.”

In our first podcast, posted this week, guest Eric Olander of the China Africa Project observes that the Internet in China may be tightly restricted, but it’s also been “an incredibly useful tool for government at both the national and local level to do polling and trying to figure out what is the right direction to go.” The Chinese web and associated social media commentary, he says, have played a significant role in guiding public policy. Olander says that nowhere is this admittedly counterintuitive notion more evident than in the realm of animal welfare and wildlife conservation.

“Environmental activism online seems to have more space to move.”

“There’s a newly urbanized, middle class population that’s using the web to very great effect, in a non-threatening way to the government, to say ‘We want to express our voices,’” Olander explains, pointing to recent anti-PX demonstrations and  to air pollution demonstrations in Shanghai. Young people, particularly, are expressing themselves online on all this in a way that they couldn’t do on political or economic issues, where censors exert much more control. “Environmental activism online seems to have more space to move.”

But, says Olander, that space is not well defined and could shrink at any time without warning.

“It’s all within limits. When it’s small and it’s self-contained and it doesn’t have necessarily an attack on the system, then it’s ok. It’s permissible,” he says. “When it goes beyond that, there’s a fine line. With China and censorship, it’s kind of like the anaconda in the chandelier. You never know when it’s going to come down and strangle you.”

One particularly interesting point that Olander made in our conversation was that these are not large-scale, national-level movements but are instead tightly localized, yet they still manage to be effective.

“All of the activity we’re seeing on these fronts is very, very micro. There is no mass movement in China,” he says. “In other countries, we see local environmental movements that become national. That doesn’t happen in China, in part because the NGOs there cannot organize nationally. So what’s happening in Dalien is not the same thing that’s happening in Shanghai, which is not the same thing happening elsewhere. It’s very isolated, it’s not coordinated, but it’s happening in very large numbers.”

“With China and censorship, it’s kind of like the anaconda in the chandelier. You never know when it’s going to come down and strangle you.”

Olander says that in addition to the backlash on dog meat consumption and celebrity campaigns urging conservation of sharks and endangered species like sea turtles, China has seen a remarkable amount of online activity from the anti-elephant poaching movement — a movement that’s not only being tolerated but may soon yield a significant return.

“Young people are saying it’s not cool to own ivory anymore. And that’s pushing the government toward what we think may be an ultimate ban on the purchase and owning of ivory in China.” This is a generational shift as well as an urban-rural change, Olander adds. “It’s happening in part because of urbanization, a rising middle class, a more connected society, and all of those coming together are allowing people to express themselves in ways where they want to live a better life. And that’s what this is about.”