Life on the veg: the rise of vegetarianism in China

Now home to around 50 million vegetarians, China's meat-free sector is booming

China has a long and complex relationship with meat. In the 20th century, it was a rare luxury for many during years of famine, and as the country grew wealthier, eating meat became a sign of prosperity. By 2017, China consumed considerably more meat than any other country, eating about 74 million tonnes of pork, beef and poultry every year – around twice as much as the United States.

But a growing number of health-conscious Chinese consumers are choosing to reject traditional meat-based diets, and according to Xinhua, there are now around 50 million people in China who are vegetarian.

Sales of pork have fallen for the past three years, says data from research firm Euro monitor, and last year hit three-year lows of 40.85 million tonnes.

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In cities like Shanghai and Beijing, concerns about obesity and heart health have been shaping broader lifestyle choices. ‘People are beginning to think more about what they eat and what they buy,’ says Sara Dominguez, from NGO Shanghai Vegan Society and founder of ohmyvegan cakery. ‘There has been a lack of understanding in China about the health issues involved with eating meat, the animal rights issues, and what we can do about it, and this is starting to change.’

Forrest Song is one of the founders of Shanghai-based Veggie Dorm, an active group of vegetarians and vegans who run around 100 events each year including cooking classes, workshops, and presentations in universities and schools about the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle. ‘In big cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, and especially for young people, veganism and vegetarianism are no longer strange. It’s becoming more popular as people realise it’s a nutritious, eco-friendly and animal-friendly way to live a happy and responsible life,’ he explains.

An increasing number of meat-free events include local fairs Plantopia and Vegan Fiesta, and events by environmental non-profit Green Initiatives, all looking to raise awareness about environment, animal protection, health and vegan issues.

As well as a growing awareness of health issues, the trend away from meat eating is also being led by an increasing concern for animal rights.

PETA anti fur ads exhibition Beijing2
PETA's anti fur ads exhibition at Beijing

‘There are definitely more people in China becoming vegetarian,’ says Keith Guo, of animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). ‘As more people learn that animals suffer daily on factory farms, the number of vegetarians continues to grow. And more cities are becoming vegan-friendly – last year, Shanghai, Taipei and Hong Kong landed spots on PETA’s list of the Top 10 Vegan-Friendly Cities in Asia.’

Guo says the group’s Asia animal rights videos have over a quarter billion views, and received endorsement from Chinese celebrities such as actors Wu Xiubo, Chen Bolin, Sun Li and Liu Xiaoqing.

There are signs the government is starting to give more priority to animal rights, too. In 2011, it issued a directive against animal performances across zoos, and in 2014 revoked a law that previously made animal testing mandatory for all cosmetics. They have also tightened regulations governing the protection of wildlife.

‘In 2016, after PETA Asia’s Suzhou circus report exposing cruel training methods went viral online, Suzhou police raided an unlicensed circus and rescued 22 bears,’ adds Guo. ‘Not only has the public become aware of animal rights, but authorities are taking animal issues seriously as well.’

bear tour in Beijing
PETA's 'Reject animal performances' ad in Beijing

But campaigners want tighter regulations around the treatment of animals, and more enforcement of existing laws. One particular point of criticism is the annual Yulin dog meat festival, which draws protests from campaigners worldwide. Animal-welfare groups claim 15,000 dogs are inhumanely slaughtered each year, most of them stolen pets or strays that are sedated with poison.

Last month the Mainland’s largest food delivery service eleme banned businesses that sell dog meat, citing food safety reasons. As a result, 294 vendors and 7,733 meal options were deleted from the app.

Pet ownership has also been growing hugely, with dog ownership in Beijing increasing 25 percent year on year since 2003, and with it, an awareness of animal rights and needs.

Religion has also played its part in the number of people becoming vegetarian, fuelled by a religious revival in recent years. The Pew Research Center estimates there are 245 million Buddhists in China, around 18 percent of the total national population. Another 21 percent of Chinese adhere to folk religions that often incorporate Buddhist beliefs, according to Pew.

Many of these Buddhists have chosen to eschew meat eating. A study this year from Dr Ampere Tseng of Arizona State University found that China’s Buddhists offset about 40 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year by eating vegetarian.

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For most vegetarians in China, though, health is an overwhelming concern in cutting out meat, and it fits with a growing concern over health safety. China’s middle class diners have also been turning towards organic food over health fears – in a Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 71 percent of Chinese respondents thought food safety was a big problem.

Food scandals have helped fuel concerns, like the 2008 scandal over melamine-tainted milk or the 16,000 rotting pig carcasses dumped in the Huangpu river in 2013. And a CCTV report in 2013 laid out how pigs that had died of disease or natural causes were still making their way into the food market, while in 2014 a scandal erupted after meat supplier Shanghai Husi Food was shown in a TV report re-using meat that had fallen on the floor, and mixing together fresh and expired meat.

‘After years and years of food safety scandals, people in China are changing to look for higher animal welfare standard products,’ says Fiona Wong, from non-profit organisation Mercy For Animals, which campaigns to raise awareness of animal rights across China.

‘The more I learned about the relationship between food, today’s health problems and the environment, the more I found there was no reason for not being a vegan,’ concludes Song.