| It's a dog's life in China: sold for £1m – or stolen and sold as meat|
|Yang Chun is exhausted. The 34-year-old businessman has just driven 1,550 miles back to Beijing from the Tibetan plateau, where he spent half a million pounds on two droopy-eyed, short-snouted dogs the size of small bears.|
Tibetan mastiffs have become a go-to luxury good for the country's moneyed elite, and Yang has been coasting on their popularity. He owns about 40 of the animals, which he breeds in a sprawling brick complex on the agrarian outskirts of Beijing. Last year he sold a puppy for £50,000. One from a rival breeder fetched £945,000 in 2011, making it the most expensive dog ever sold.
Yang said mastiffs are prized in China for their lush coats and intelligence, but most importantly for their size and ferocity, which deter thieves who kidnap dogs and sell them for their meat. "This is the only kind of dog that doesn't fear violence," said Yang. "You can hit one with a big stick and it won't back down."
China can be an unforgiving country for dogs: attitudes towards pets have become more progressive over the past decade – a product of growing wealth and exposure to foreign ideas – but large canines are outlawed in many cities; pet markets are poorly regulated, and puppies frequently die soon after being purchased.
In parts of the country, dogmeat makes a popular wintertime dish; animals kept as pets are frequently stolen and sold as meat.
"Pet ownership has risen dramatically, it's just gone through the roof," said Paul Littlefair, an expert on China's animal rights at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. But animal protection remains a grey area, he said. "The government doesn't speak very openly about it, but leaves space to debate the issue without laying out what the line should be."
Thanks to China's mass urbanisation, strict family planning laws and changing social norms, an increasing number of Chinese people live alone, and many of them keep dogs as company.
"People spend a ridiculous amount of money on their dogs – they love their dogs like they're family members," said filmmaker Wu Ming, who is making a documentary about dog ownership in China.
Wu said she became aware of China's often contradictory attitude towards dogs after her roommate bought a labrador retriever. "There were a lot of shocking reactions to the dog – if we got into an elevator with someone they'd start screaming and trying to climb the walls," she said.
Since the 2008 Olympics, dogs over 35cm tall have been banned within Beijing's fourth ring road. During the daytime, pensioners take their pekingese and poodles on strolls through Beijing's residential areas. Golden retrievers, labradors and huskies only appear late at night, when the city's police presence dwindles.
Earlier this year, protests broke out in the northern city of Harbin after municipal officials announced a new ordinance prohibiting "dangerous" breeds – including golden and labrador retrievers – forcing many of the city's dog owners to either move away or quickly relinquish their pets.
Zhang Luping, a former businesswoman who founded one of Beijing's only nonprofit dog shelters, said the city's pet dogs are frequently targeted by thieves. "That's the situation here – you can just take a dog from anywhere, kill it and eat it," she said. "There are no laws, so the government won't do anything about it."
Animal rights activists rescued 505 slaughterhouse-bound dogs from a lorry in south-western Yunnan province this spring. The animals were packed eight to a cage; many died in transit. The local animal inspection department had declared the shipment legal. In October, the only guide dog in Jinan city, Shandong province – a golden retriever named Betty – went missing. She has not yet been found.
The Beijing Morning Post reported in October that some Beijing pet store owners keep their dogs in crowded, filthy conditions, causing outbreaks of canine parvovirus, a highly contagious disease that can cause cardiovascular failure in unvaccinated puppies. They inject the puppies with drugs that make them appear lively for about a week, but many die within days of being sold.
Zhang said Chinese officials are too concerned with issues such as maintaining social stability and boosting GDP growth to introduce animal rights legislation – and that the country's civil society is too tightly controlled to enact any lasting change. She described running the shelter as an enormous struggle.
"The government won't oppose you, but they also won't support you," she said. "The real decision makers don't care about these kinds of things."