It's true to say that China has more than its fair share of animal abuse issues - from rabbits and racoon dogs being skinned alive for fur; dogs and cats brutally beaten, boiled alive or butchered in the street for meat; to bears, monkeys and other wild animals routinely degraded for entertainment in zoos and circuses.
But with the list of animal atrocities out of China so compelling, it can easily overshadow the animal welfare revolution taking place in the country precisely at a time when progressive policy makers and animal campaigners alike need our support.
Humane Society International's Be Cruelty-Free China campaign is a case in point. For more than 20 years, China's cosmetics regulations have required mandatory animal tests in which rabbits and rodents have cosmetic chemicals applied to their eyes and skin, or forced down their throat. The tests are scientifically discredited and undeniably cruel, but for years they have remained the familiar yet fallible cornerstone of testing requirements - until now.
From 30 June, exactly two years since Humane Society International launched its Be Cruelty-Free campaign, Chinese cosmetic companies will no longer be legally required to test on animals. Instead, they can provide product safety data based on existing ingredient information, including results of internationally recognised non-animal tests.
The rule change has caveats -- it only applies to domestically-produced ordinary cosmetics, not foreign imports -- so the vast majority of global brands selling in China will continue animal testing. While Chinese companies will be free to take advantage of in vitro (i.e. non-animal) tests, they will equally be free to eschew them. Most importantly, making the change to non-animal testing is only a realistic option if Chinese scientists know about these modern tests and risk assessment approaches and how to use them, which many don't.
And then there's the issue of post-market animal testing, whereby the Chinese government removes cosmetics from shop shelves at random for "confirmatory" testing with or without the manufacturer's knowledge. This extra layer of testing can be applied to any product in mainland China, including those sold at duty free shops in airports, and HSI understands that post-market testing is likely to increase.
So while cruelty-free cosmetics companies shouldn't rush to sell in China yet, the 30 June rule change is nonetheless an extremely important indication that China is willing to move in the right direction. Change - especially in China - is almost never a simple one-step process and, caveats aside, this is still a considerable turning point. For the first time ever, Chinese cosmetic companies can start along the road to becoming cruelty-free, and once confidence in non-animal approaches to safety assurance is established, we could begin to see a real transformation in the speed with which China embraces non-animal science.
HSI is making a substantial investment of time, funding and expertise in China to assist with this transition. Only last month HSI, with funding help from The Humane Society of the United States and the Human Toxicology Project Consortium, teamed up with in vitro test experts at the Institute for In Vitro Sciences to provide hands-on laboratory-based training in non-animal eye and skin irritation tests.
Chinese scientists receive IIVS training with funding help from Be Cruelty-Free China
The attendees came from government regulatory agencies, Chinese cosmetic companies and universities, and their thirst for knowledge of these new tests was really encouraging. With our help, and their new found freedom to choose, non-animal tests are becoming a viable option for Chinese cosmetics manufacturers like never before.
Since HSI first launched Be Cruelty-Free China, we've put the issue of cosmetics animal testing on the public and policy radar. Our team in Beijing, working alongside local animal campaigners, launched eye-catching public demonstrations and awareness-raising street events. Recently, at the Dalian Medical Science University, a Be Cruelty-Free ball attracted more than a thousand students who staged dances wearing animal masks to inspire lively debate about ending China's cosmetics animal testing. Our Be Cruelty-Free representative described the atmosphere as "a sea of happiness" as the students motivated themselves and others to end the cruelty.
Dancers at the Be Cruelty-Free China Ball
The number of Chinese citizens living with companion animals has increased dramatically in recent years, and this has provided a boost to the animal welfare movement because an entire generation of Chinese are now connecting with animals on a personal, emotional level. We capitalised on this new appreciation for the value of animals by holding a Be Cruelty-Free promotion at the Fuzhou International Pet Fair where more than two thousand people visited our stand to learn about cruelty in the beauty industry.
Back in Beijing, campaigners from 'Don't Eat Friends' adopted Be Cruelty-Free as one of the themes for their annual animal welfare event, and in Nanjing we joined with an animal sanctuary and local dog owners to climb the 447 metre high Zijin Mountain. When we reached the top, a Be Cruelty-Free banner was unfurled.
Most recently, we launched China's first ever advertising campaign to end cosmetics animal testing. Starring popular Chinese film actress Zhu Zhu--our Be Cruelty-Free China Ambassador - and rescued rabbit Blizzard, the poster is running at the Beijing metro station. This is the first time any Chinese celebrity has spoken about cosmetics cruelty.
Zhu Zhu launches her Be Cruelty-Free China poster campaign. Credit: Xie Zheng
China's burgeoning interest in animal welfare is exciting and holds promise not just for ending cosmetics animal suffering but for other areas of animal exploitation too. But we must not forget that for many, particularly the elderly, even the concept of animal welfare is new. The older generation of Chinese people have lived through one of the harshest and most challenging periods of Chinese history where even compassion towards fellow humans was often a scarce commodity. Such a brutal experience can be desensitising, but China's new generation of animal lovers who are eager for change offer real hope for greater animal protection in the future.
So let's celebrate this milestone in our Be Cruelty-Free China campaign. We have a long road ahead of us but a growing community of activists on the ground are embracing the opportunity it offers.
And meanwhile, let's not forget that cosmetics animal testing is still legal in around 80 per cent of countries, which is why Be Cruelty-Free is busy campaigning worldwide. And we're making progress for animals in laboratories. Already cosmetics animal testing is banned throughout the 28 countries of the European Union, as well as Norway, Israel and India. In Brazil we've been able to welcome a ban on such testing in the state of Sao Paulo, as well as aid legislative bills introduced for a national ban. The End Cruel Cosmetics Bill was introduced in Australia this past March, and likewise the Humane Cosmetics Act in the United States is gaining momentum thanks to tireless campaigning by our affiliates The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society Legislative Fund. Additionally, the governments of New Zealand and Taiwan are also considering legislative bans on animal testing for cosmetics.
So as we roll up our sleeves for the work ahead of us, let's take a moment to celebrate how far we've come. The future is bright, the future is cruelty-free!