One of China's most controversial celebrations, the annual dog meat festival in southwest China's Yulin City, is underway.
The event inflames passions among the celebrants and their critics to such a degree that the local government seems to be in a bind, unable to placate either side. Activists say that this year, the government issued a ban on the sale of dog meat, only to reverse following an outcry from locals.
"It's really confusing," says Zhang Xiaohai, secretary general of the AITA Foundation for Animal Protection in Beijing.
The week-long festival, centered on the summer solstice each year, opens a window on changing — often conflicting — attitudes in China about animals, meat and humans.
Last month, dog meat vendors tipped off animal rights activists that the Yulin government had issued a verbal ban. Some groups hailed it as a victory. But state-run media on June 15 quoted officials as saying that festival is not an official event, and the government hadn't issued any ban.
"The people working in the government, they are not very skillful in terms of dealing with media and NGOs," Zhang adds. He says that officials are sensitive to domestic and international criticism of the festival. But they don't want to be seen by as knuckling under to outsiders.
Reached by phone on Wednesday, a man in the Yulin Food Safety Bureau said he was not clear on whether or not a ban on dog meat sales had been issued. He declined to give his name.
Yulin, in southwest Guangxi Province, is one of several regions in China where residents claim eating dog meat is a tradition. The same is true in parts of the country's northeast with large populations of ethnic Korean Chinese.
Precise figures are not available on the number of dogs killed and eaten in Yulin — or on the number of dog eaters, restaurants and slaughterhouses. What is clear is the government sees the tradition as a tourist draw and source of income for the city of roughly 7 million people.
Guangdong province-based animal rights activist Xiao Kaiwei has gone to Yulin on several occasions to try to rescue dogs bound for the slaughterhouses, and she is there this year as well.
She says that in years past, crowds of angry people surrounded, cursed, obstructed and assaulted her and other activists and journalists, accusing them of "trying to tarnish the reputation of Yulin."
Zhang Xiaohai doubts these assailants are ordinary Yulin residents. "It must be a government-organized method to stop the broadcasting of bad news about Yulin," he argues.
The dog meat issue has become so bitterly divisive in China that many animal rights activists choose to dodge the ethics of it and approach the issue from other angles.
First of all, there's the economics of it all. In China, dogs are typically fed meat so the cost of feeding a dog that will eventually be slaughtered would be more than the dog's market value.
Activists say Chinese police tend to put a low priority on investigating the abduction of pets.
They also note that food safety authorities must license every livestock farm and slaughterhouse in China. But there are no such licensed facilities for dog meat, meaning the entire business operates on the black market.
"These animals are completely off the grid," says Mary Peng, CEO and founder of the Beijing-based International Center for Veterinary Services. "Do you want to consume that?
"This is not 'dog or cat meat: should we eat it or not?' " she adds. "This is a public health issue." There are potential risks in slaughtering, handling and consuming meat from sick or drugged dogs.
But Zhang Xiaohai also admits that animal rights activists have contributed to the mess by unnecessarily antagonizing Yulin locals.
He advocates a less confrontational, longer-term approach. "We try to encourage pet owners," he explains, "veterinary hospitals and doctors to join together and speak up."
Activists have indeed found success by harnessing the power of changing attitudes of Chinese people toward animals.
In many parts of China, one often still hears the argument that the rights and welfare of human beings can't be guaranteed, and therefore worrying about animal rights is putting the carriage before the horse ... or in this case, the dog.
Under orthodox Maoism, keeping pets was condemned as a bourgeois pastime. In contrast to traditional Chinese Taoist ideas about harmony between man and nature, Chairman Mao himself extolled man's quest to subjugate and exploit nature.
Beijing banned dog ownership until 1994. Today, all dogs must be registered with the government, and dogs over 14 inches tall are banned for fear that they may threaten people's safety.
But after more than three decades of the "one-child policy," China is left with a huge cohort of only children and aging baby boomers, for many of whom pets are indispensable companions. And the cause of animal [protection] has become an important part of the country's burgeoning environmental awareness.
China's newly affluent residents, meanwhile, splurge on a growing array of services for their pets, from kennels, spas and schools to house, train and groom pets to bars and cafes, where dogs and humans can commune and imbibe. There are no indications, though, that such establishments will be opening up in Yulin any time soon.