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Research project

Negotiating post-Mao natures: a recent history of NGO Involvement in improving farm animal husbandry in China

Project overview

This project mapped international animal welfare (AW) non-governmental organisations (INGOs) collaboratory practices with the Chinese meat and farming industry to explore how existing and emergent human/farm animal relations are shaping and being shaped though INGO activity. We can understand these processes and practices as central to the geo-spatial ‘translation’ (Latour 2004) of the concept of animal welfare. The fieldwork data provides an account of the process of translating existing meanings and practices of ‘animal welfare’ from the West to China which necessarily involved working with existing Chinese practices. At this stage it is hard to say how effective the installation of translated Western practices has been at re-territorialising small sectors of the Chinese agro-food industry and instigating the generation of what we could call a hybridised culture of farm-animal well-being, where Chinese animal cultures are fused with meanings and practices originating in the West.

The emphasis of AW INGO activity with sectors of the Chinese agro-food industry is towards nurturing environmentally sustainable food supply chains and ensuring agricultural and food safety standards are met in the production of meat and dairy products – an objective which complements Chinese Government objectives. In this sense, the farm animal as a sentient subject is not evoked rather we see NGOs actively assembling the figure of an edible, industrial-scale ‘farm animal’, whose improved care can lead to a healthier animal, safer to eat and more agriculturally sustainable. In this respect the term ‘sentience’ was almost entirely absent in discussion with the Chinese, and in many circumstances also the term ‘animal welfare’ (a neologism in Mandarin).

During the research period, AW INGO activities in China were three-fold. Their actualisation depended upon the support of existing networks of social connections, activities and conversations with Chinese individuals and organisations (Gold, Duthrie and Wank 2002; Yang 1994). The NGO had contracted employees who had established social networks with members of the Chinese community, acquired through business. These activities were as follows.

Firstly, disseminating Western agro-food knowledges of farm animal suffering by:

a) sponsoring and organising events where international animal welfare scientists have a platform;

b) sponsoring western sustainable farming experts to work with Chinese farmers to create local food supply chains within a regional food retail market.

c) sponsoring and devising training in humane slaughter practices in collaboration with the Chinese Government’s Meat Hygiene department.

Secondly, the international NGOs placed food and animal welfare science at the forefront of an interest in animal welfare, rather than compassion or empathy for the sentient, suffering non-human animal subject. Does this avoid accusations of trying to ‘civilise’ Chinese society through the dissemination of Western values, since scientific knowledges are perceived as culturally de-sensitised? ‘Civilising’ is an activity that has been connected to these organisations in their early history in 18th and 19th century Britain (Ritvo 1988). Instead we can understand their efforts as supporting the Chinese government’s objectives to draw upon Western science and technology to advance Chinese modern society towards a more sustainable, harmonious relationship with the environment (Keping and Herberer 2008). These activities strongly orientate nature-society relations around farm animals towards technocratic notions of the productivity of the farm animal, an ideological legacy of the agro-industrial modernisations of the mid to late 20th century (Brambell 1966; Rushen 2007) in Europe and America. This way of thinking has become increasingly familiar to China since 1979. Yet, additionally (see next point), we are also witnessing a push towards an interest in food product quality, a drive that can, but not always, embrace indirectly and directly increased care for the sentient animal.

Thirdly, the NGO is active in utilising contemporary capitalisms drive towards Corporate Governance within the Chinese food industry. It is making purposeful interventions within food retail supply chains, for example with large-scale suppliers, such as advising on improved pig-handling techniques in abattoirs of Chinese-owned pork processing company Shineway. Or the establishment of small-scale, local, sustainable quality-driven supply chains that will form part of the INGOs own food quality assurance scheme that meets their animal welfare requirements.

Are these INGO activities examples of the development of a ‘Chinese civil society’ (Ma 2008; Crossick et al 2008)? If they are, then they indicate how the sphere of governance is broadening to include commercial activities, and yet an important component in the West has been public campaigning about farm animal welfare to encourage consumer behaviour choice for higher-welfare products, an activity that in China has to be left to the State-run media (Turner and D’Silva 2005). The partnership between Chinese commercial partners and INGOs is not well documented in the Chinese literature on environmental INGOs in China, and is a distinctive element of this research study.

Methodologically, it is unusual for a multi-sited ethnographic approach to be used to study development INGOs, encouraged by Bebbington and Kohari (2006), and even more unusual in the area of AW as opposed to human welfare. Cultural geography’s post-structural concerns with the body, practice and non-human agency are central to the ethnographic narrative of how new meanings and practices around farm animals are embedding within (post)-socialist (Hann 2007) Chinese everyday cultures.


Bebbington, A. and Kohari, U, (2006) Transnational development networks. Environment and Planning A. 38, 849-866

Crossick, S; Reuter, E. (2008) (edited) China-EU. A Common Future. World Scientific

Gold,T.; Duthrie, D.; and Wank, D. (2002) Social connections in China. Institutions, culture, and the Changing Nature of Guanxi. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Hann, C. (ed) (2007) Postsocialism. Ideas, ideologies and practices in Eurasia. Routledge, London.

Keping, Y. and Herberer, T. (2008) Developing a Chinese Civil Society in China-EU. A common future edited by S. Crossick and E. Reuter. World Scientific.

Ma, Q. (2008) Non-governmental organisations in Contemporary China. Paving the way to civil society? Routledge Contemporary China Series. Abingdon Oxon.

Latour, B (2004) Reassembling the Social. An introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Ritvo, R (1989) The Animal Estate. Harvard University Press. Boston.

Turner J. and D’Silva, J. (2005) Animals, ethics and trade. The challenge of animal sentience. Earthscan, London.

Yang, M. M. (1994) Gifts, favours and banquets. The art of social relationships in China. Cornell University Press, Cornell.


Lead researcher

Professor Emma Roe

Professor of More-Than-Human Geographies

Research outputs

Henry Buller,
, 2018
Type: book
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