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Here’s a story from the New York Times [online Sunday edition, print Monday edition] “Once Banned, Dogs Reflect China’s Rise.”

Xiangzi — Lucky, in English — is aptly named. A trim Siberian husky, his owner, a sports marketer named Qiu Hong, pampers him with two daily walks, a brace of imported American toys and grooming tools, $300 worth of monthly food and treats and his own sofa in her high-rise apartment.

[…]

Metaphorically speaking, Xiangzi is not just a dog, but a social phenomenon — and, perhaps, a marker of how quickly this nation is hurtling through its transformation from impoverished peasant to first-world citizen.

Twenty years ago, there were hardly any dogs in Beijing, and the few that were here stood a chance of landing on a dinner plate. It remains possible even today to find dog-meat dishes here. But it is far easier to find dog-treat stores, dog Web sites, dog social networks, dog swimming pools — even, for a time recently, a bring-your-dog cinema and a bring-your-dog bar on Beijing’s downtown nightclub row.

There’s a lot about this article that bugs me. For starters they appear to misidentify a bunch of puppymill Shiba Inu as “Akita” puppies, with no comment on their “caretaker” or the deplorable breeding practices this woman undoubtedly stands for (euphemistically described as “industries”). Make no mistake that when a social phenomenon is framed largely in terms of dollars, revenue, and status points, just as this article begins, it is being driven not by those with humane agendas in mind, but by profiteers more interested in a quick financial turnaround. This article might as well have appeared in the Business section, for all I know.

Secondly, don’t even get me started on my rant about dog-eating in China. I’m going to bracket that thought for now. Suffice to say, that whole line about dogs going from the wok to walks is typical boilerplate text that’s all too easy to slip into superficial reports on contemporary China. I hate how often dog-eating is recycled as shorthand for the persistent “primitivism” or “anachronism” of so-called “modern” Chinese society, even as I recognize that Chinese dog-eaters exist and they disturb me on some deep, unspeakable level.

Nevertheless the article doesn’t get to what I find to be most interesting about dogs in Beijing until halfway through: “Mostly, though, it appears that Beijing dogs have, as in the West, become objects of affection — even devotion — by their owners.” Even then, the article tries so damn hard to keep Chinese pet owners at arm’s length from the rest of the world, specifically the Western world, by emphasizing all the extremes and seemingly arbitrary legislation that converges on dog owners in China.

— Or rather, Beijing, as a city unto its own. If there’s one thing the article is clear about, despite its title, it’s that the phenomenon described is specifically a Beijing thing. One cannot generalize from the densely-populated, monied, well-trafficked and internationally-spotlit urban capitol to the rest of China. I don’t think the author is trying to overreach the geographic limits of his research, even if he gestures somewhat halfassedly towards historical breadth with those perfunctory factoids about imperial Chinese dogs. The few details offered from more contemporary times are more germane to the discussion, but still tantalizingly sparse.

As long as dog ownership in China continues to be framed as a “novel,” “curious” fad, driven largely by economic growth and market factors, writers will never get to the more interesting and enriching stories that explain the human-canine bond on a more genuine, significant, and enduring level.

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Photo taken 11 July 2006. Puppy on a doorstep in Yunnan province, China.

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