Silent Sufferers- Factory Farming in China and the Need for Legal Reform

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

Written by Denise Ho




Can they suffer?[1] That is the question presented by the English philosopher Bentham to justify the moral considerability of animals as sentient beings. The concern for animal welfare tethered with issues of environmental sustainability, economic growth and public health has incited backlash against factory farming. Despite this, with the elapsing of each year, the meat consumption of a regular Chinese citizen increases, with the average having quadrupled since 1980. To satisfy the overwhelming demand, the Chinese government took a loan of $93.5 million from the World Bank to develop and build farming facilities and slaughterhouses.[2] As of today, China produces 28% of the world’s meat.[3] Although solidifying itself as one of the factory farming capitals of the world, regulation regarding the welfare of the animals, which China has exploited to take such a podium on a global stage, is significantly lacking. Currently, there are two prominent sets of statutory protection. The first is established in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China and ensures the rational use of natural resources as well as the protection of rare plants and animals.[4] Such protection is extended towards farm animals in the second statute, the Provisional Regulation Concerning Slaughter Tax. However, this Act affords provincial governments the discretion to formulate the protective measures and dictates that any regulations drafted must be consistent with the economy and culture of the area.[5] Consequently, animal welfare is often relegated to the bottom of the hierarchy, kowtowing to all other priorities. With little to no legal protection, farm animals in China are left vulnerable to suffer cruel and abusive treatment.

Although animal farming is already exploitative enough in itself, the deficiency of animal rights in the Chinese legal system further perpetuates the notion that animals are but disposable commodities. Many methods banned across the world still find usage in China. An example of this is Farrowing Crates which were viewed as excessively brutal in America and subsequently prohibited. These crates restrict all movement and change in positions, only allowing the sows (female pigs) to sleep, eat and feed their young.[6] Another such device is the Veal Crate that after public outcry, was made illegal in the United Kingdom. Much like the aforementioned restrictive sow pen, the Veal Crate’s purpose is to inhibit all movements of a baby cow.[7] Other more conventional factory farming systems are also used in China, but due to the sheer scale of the industry, they have been taken to the extreme. Battery cages have become an anthesis for animal welfare and depictions of them are regularly used to highlight the cruelty of factory farming. China has mechanicalised the process, leaving 10,000 chickens under the care of a single individual operating a machine, creating an impossibility to ensure the safety and health of the animals in the manufacturing line.[8] The poor husbandry rampant throughout the Chinese factory farms causes both physical and psychological damage to the animals. It is evident that they are deprived of the five freedoms enshrined in animal ethics that are afforded to domestic house pets. However, the reason for such a legal divide is unclear.

Keeping farm animals healthy is not only humane but incredibly beneficial. Improving animal husbandry may have economic benefits. Research has shown that healthy animals produce meat of higher quality which can in turn be sold for a higher price. Furthermore, risk and loss can also be mitigated by reducing the need for medical treatment as well as lowering rates of mortality.[9] The health of factory farm animals also has a large impact on the public health as a whole. Unhealthy animals are more prone to carry diseases. Due to the lack of provisions stipulating waste disposal, animal faeces are frequently discarded in water bodies. Consumption of the contaminated water or the animal itself would lead to the spread of pathogens within communities. Such circumstances were held accountable for the spread of bird flu in China.[10] Moreover, Chinese farm animals are administered antibiotics indiscriminately. In fact, China is documented to use half of the world’s supply of antibiotics each year, with the amount set to grow by 120% by 2030.[11] Enforcing stringent rules onto factory farming can also be favourable towards the environment. Through factory farming, China releases 9% of the world’s greenhouse gases and the water it requires for feed ranks at the top of any other country.[12] Thus, it can be observed that ensuring the animals obtain the proper care, is not just an issue of animal welfare. Regulating factory farming is essential for the protection of the environment and public health, while, the current state of Chinese law poses a threat to the world at large.

This article must concede that there can be a case made for factory farming. As China developed, factory farming was seen as an innovative and cost-efficient way to make full use of space, achieving greater productivity per unit and allowing the true economic potential of the practise to be realised.[13] This was also to satiate the growing demand for meat within China and later, on a global scale.[14] More generally, there is the confinement argument. This purports that captivity protects animals from the elements and predators; thus, offsetting the distress caused by confinement by preventing the suffering that may be caused in the wild.[15] This is simply untrue in the current case. The adverse impact that the Chinese factory farming industry has cannot be justified by human enjoyment of animal products. It is simple unsustainable and will inevitably lead to the exhaustion of the environment.[16]

The Chinese criminal law on animal abuse reflects the attitude taken towards animals. It prohibits injuring or cruely slaughtering farm animals in the same breath as the destruction of machinery and equipment.[17] This confirms that animals are not protected as sentient beings but are instead given legal security as property. There is an attachment to humans that is required before an animal can gain respect in the eyes of the law and even so, not as a living creature but as a possession. This notion is prevalent in factory farms and contradictory to the concept of animal welfare. Singer emphasises that any being able to suffer should be taken into consideration.[18] An animal’s ability to suffer should obligate a change to that condition, similar to what one would undertake for another human.[19] Yet, despite this, animals in factory farms are still treated based on their usefulness to humans, showing a lack of respect for them as beings that encompass their own worth.[20] Reagan takes a absolutist position that states all beings have the right to live and should; thus, be treated equally in the eyes of the law.[21] Singer, on the other hand, makes a case for balancing the moral claims of animals against all other competing factors, taking a utilitarian stance.[22] When applied to Chinese factory farms, the middle ground between the two requires asking if the suffering of animals in said farms would morally justify abolishment, given that that too would frustrate the interests of humans. Regardless, both doctrines make the case that animals should be given protection under the law as sentient beings, in essence, granting them legal identity. This is not an impossibility and has been accomplished in Asia before. In Karnail Singh and Others v State of Haryana, all animals were recognised as individual legal entities protected by the Indian law.[23] Yet, such sentiments only flourish on the fringe of mass consciousness, and don’t offer enough incentive for actual legal reform.[24]

This article must once again concede that the very characteristic of farmed animals as tradable products poses as a difficultly. The World Trade Organisation prohibits placing bans or restrictions on imports and exports. This prevents countries from making distinctions between the way a product was produced; thus, acting as a deterrent to ban goods for the sake of animal welfare.[25] This can be evidenced in the EU’s efforts aimed for the benefit of animals. Due to the Articles set down by the WTO, the EU had to make compromises to stay on the trade market. For example, a provision in the EU Cosmetic Directive that stipulated production cannot involve animal testing, had to be removed. This is problematic as regulations aimed at animal rights protection should control process.[26] It is difficult to imagine China would forgo the economic benefit of the trade market as well as cheaper methodology to protect animals in factory farms, considering the current apathetic legal attitude towards animals. With that in mind, it cannot be hoped that change comes naturally from the government. Instead, international and individual action should be more effective.

On a global scale, the World Society for the Protection of Animals has issued a Universal Declaration for the Welfare of Animals in 2000. It mirrors the viewpoint of the English philosopher, Bentham, mentioned at the start of this article, requiring only one prerequisite for an animal to be afforded special consideration and respect - suffering.[27] It then goes further to define ‘welfare’ as the fulfilment of an animal’s physical and psychological needs.[28] If implemented in China, this would ensure that factory farmed animals are treated as humanely as such an industry allows. However, the Declaration holds no authority to create legislative modifications. The ratification would only act as a promise to uphold the contained values. No legal ramifications exist for breaching the Declaration and its authority lies in political accountability.[29] Despite that, if China merely added its signature to the list, it would already be a large improvement to the current state of Chinese animal law as it would suggest the acknowledgement of the necessity of animal welfare. However, as previously mentioned, the WSPA is not a legal entity; thus, for the Declaration to be recognised by the Chinese government, the citizens of China must lobby for it, placing political pressure on their government. To accomplish this, action on an individual level must be taken.

In China, the attitude of the people parallels that of the legal system. There is generally a lack of awareness on issues surrounding animals. This makes it essential for both international and local animal protection groups to hold campaigns which connect humans and animals, aiding the change of the widespread perception of animals as disposable commodities.[30] To drastically change the beliefs of a nation, mass educational campaigns need to be held to humanise the plight of animals, appealing to consumers and pressuring both the factory farming industries and the government.[31] However, with the lack of economic pressure, it would be unlikely that the Chinese government be swayed to adopt animal welfare laws at its own cost. This issue could be potentially solved by a meat tax which would discourage meat consumption as well as offset additional costs taken on by increasing welfare standards.[32] To accomplish this, the Chinese citizens must be aware of the lack of animal protection and be willing to make individualised lifestyle changes. Only if the citizens are accepting of a need to make legal change, can public outcry be prevented; thus, demonstrating the importance of lobbying at a national level and the power held by the masses.

In the past, China has made efforts, albeit meagre, to attempt to establish some animal welfare legislation. In 2000, the Chinese government agreed to rescue 500 bears from bile farms and pledged to abolish the practise. However, as of today, only 67 bears have been taken out of these farms and the practise still remains legal in China, with an estimated 70 farms in operation to date.[33] In 2020, China has began drafting legislation to prevent the consumption of canines as a source of meat, citing that dogs should be given the status of a ‘special companion animal’. In conjecture with this, Shenzhen placed a blanket ban on all consumption of dog and cat meat.[34] Two decades later, it seems that China has intentions to try to improve its animal regulations. However, it should be noted that in the former case, the bears were granted protection due to their status as an endangered species, while, in the latter, the dogs and cats were given the unique title of ‘companion’. It shows the creation of a hierarchy of rights based on the animals’ perceived worth to humans. This still highlights an issue of the lack of respect for animals as sentient beings and instead judges their value based on public outrage and aesthetics. Unfortunately, if based on those standards, it seems unlikely that protection will ever be extended to farm animals. This is contrary to the very concept of animal welfare and rights but, it does show that when the abuse of animals is sensationalised, the government reacts; therefore, showing the power held by public perception and further emphasises the need to change it. The issue of animal welfare in China is complicated and multifaceted. Although attempting to ban the consumption of dog and cat meat, one can only remain sceptical to the true intentions of the government. It can only be hoped that this new policy aims to genuinely improve the lives of these animals instead of simply being a farce. However, regardless of the intention, it is essential that the public holds the government accountable. The state of the environment, their own health and animal welfare depends on a very necessary paradigm shift.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the authors, and do not reflect the views or opinions of the Durham Asian Law Journal.

[1] Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principals of Morals and Legalisation (Athlone Press 1988) [2] Betsy Tao, ‘A Snitch in Time: Addressing the Environmental, Health and Animal Welfare Effect’s of China’s Expanding Meat Industry’ (2003) 15 GIELR 321 [3] Rui Lui, ‘International Perspectives: What is Meat in China?’ (2017) 4 AF 7 [4] Constitution of the People’s Republic of China [5] Provisional Regulation Concerning Slaughter Tax 1950 [6] Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (2nd ed NYRB 1985) [7] Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (2nd ed NYRB 1985) [8] Tim O’Brien, Factory Farming: The Global Threat (CWF 1998) [9] Michelle Sinclair, et al, ‘The Benefits of Improving Animal Welfare from the Perspective of Livestock Stakeholders across Asia’ (2019) QLD 4343 [10] Yuanan Hu, et al, ‘Environmental and Human Health Challenged of Livestock and Poultry Farming in China and their Mitigation’ (2017) EI 107 [11] FAIRR Report 2020 [12] WWF Report 2017 [13] Michael W. Fox, ‘Factory Farming’ (1980) ASR 2 [14] Betsy Tao, ‘A Snitch in Time: Addressing the Environmental, Health and Animal Welfare Effects of China’s Expanding Meat Industry’ (2003) 15 GIELR 321 [15] Dennis T. Avery, ‘Intensive Farming and Biotechnology: Saving People and Wildlife in the 21st Century’, in Geoff Tansey and Joyce D’Silvas’, The Meat Busines: Devouring a Hungry Planet [16] Yuanan Hu, et al, ‘Environmental and Human Health Challenged of Livestock and Poultry Farming in China and their Mitigation’ (2017) EI 107 [17] The Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China 1979 [18] Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (2nd ed NYRB 1985) [19] Christine M. Korsgaard, The Sources of Nomalivity (Cambridge University Press 1996) [20] Tom Reagan, ‘The Case for Animal Rights’, in Peter Singer’s, In Defence of Animals (Basil Blackwell 1985) [21] Tom Reagan, ‘The Case for Animal Rights’, in Peter Singer’s, In Defence of Animals (Basil Blackwell 1985) [22] Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (2nd ed NYRB 1985) [23] Karnail Singh and Others v State of Haryana [2013] CRR 533 [24] Betsy Tao, ‘A Snitch in Time: Addressing the Environmental, Health and Animal Welfare Effects of China’s Expanding Meat Industry’ (2003) 15 GIELR 321 [25] General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade 1994 [26] Peter Stevenson, ‘Trade Rules, Animal Welfare, and the EU’, in Geoff Tansey and Joyce D’Silvas’, The Meat Business: Devouring A Hungry Planet [27] Preamble of the Universal Declaration for the Welfare of Animals 2000 [28] Art 1 of the Universal Declaration for the Welfare of Animals 2000 [29] Betsy Tao, ‘A Snitch in Time: Addressing the Environmental, Health and Animal Welfare Effects of China’s Expanding Meat Industry’ (2003) 15 GIELR 321 [30] Corey Wrenn, A Rational Approach to Animal Rights: Extensions in Abolitionist Theory, ( Springer 2015) [31] Daniel Zwerdling, ‘Fast Food and Animal Rights: McDonald’s New Farm’, (2002) 1 AR [32] Lester Brown, ‘The Worldwatch Institute, and the Dilemmas of Technocratic Revolution, (1997) 10 OE 2 [33] Simon Denyer, ‘China’s Bear Bile Industry Persists Despite Growing Awareness of the Cruelty Involved’, The Washington Post (03/06/2018) [34] Michael Standaert, ‘China Signals End to Dog Meat Consumption by Humans’, The Guardian (09/04/2020)

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