I didn’t mean to become one of Beijing’s illegal dog-owners. For the first three years I lived there, I didn’t know such a concept even existed. Then one day, a friend asked me if I could dog-sit while he went on a business trip. He knew I liked dogs, or was at least dog-curious. I said yes in a heartbeat.
A few days later, my friend delivered a 35kg Alaskan Malamute named Haohao to my flat: long black-and-white fur, wolf-like snout, large brown eyes. He told me that Haohao was too big to live in central Beijing legally, but that it shouldn’t be a problem if I walked him in the early mornings and late evenings, when there weren’t so many people on the streets.
Haohao had been born in Beijing and sold to my friend by an old man sitting on a street corner hawking puppies in cardboard boxes. He came into my life in the depths of the city’s -10C winter, and the season suited him well. I walked him to the office every day, along the streets of Beijing’s embassy district, each time passing the office where the local government keeps its records for every resident.
A few months later, my friend left Beijing and Haohao became my permanent companion.
Back then, before Covid-19, I would re-register myself after international trips at the local police station, as every foreigner is required to do. This meant I was a regular there, and the staff there got to know me. “Be careful with your dog,” an officer, who noticed Haohao leashed to a post outside the station, told me. “It’s not such a good idea for him to live here.”
On the table where I filled out my paperwork was a pack of playing cards. Printed on the faces of the cards were the major dog species that are banned in Beijing for having a floor-to-shoulder height of more than 35cm. Collies, English bulldogs, German shepherds, Dalmatians, greyhounds, mastiffs, Akitas, chow chows and all manner of terriers looked out from the cards, all seemingly unaware of their crime of being within city limits.
As winter turned to spring, the WeChat dog-owner groups I’d joined turned into a frenzy of citizen journalism, reporting on the annual round-up of illegal dogs. This occurs on schedule every May. “Dog-catchers spotted around the west gate of this park,” somebody would write, attaching a map.
Then, others would corroborate by sending blurry photos of large vans with dog cages loaded in the back. Another person sent what he alleged was a photograph of the budget for one Beijing neighbourhood’s police force, commenting: “Look at how much they’re spending on outsourcing dog-catching services this year!”
This level of information-sharing impressed me. Still, I schemed what-if scenarios and rescue plans, just in case. “If a police officer tries to take him away, sit down on the pavement, hug your dog closely to you and start screaming,” one veteran dog-rescuer told me. “You’ll make a scene and that at least will buy you time.”
I joked with my diplomat friends about running to their embassies, Haohao in tow. They laughed along with me. But I was being serious. In my head, I’d rehearsed the lines I might say to the police: “He’s actually not my dog; he’s the dog of the British ambassador. I’m just the dog-walker.”
On an alleyway wall near my home, a government-painted mural describes “love of pets” as a “traditional Beijing cultural trait”. But over the past half-century, Beijingers’ shifting attitudes towards pet-keeping have echoed China’s broader transformations. During the cultural revolution, Mao’s student paramilitaries the Red Guard inveighed against “keeping crickets, fighting crickets, raising fish, cats, dogs. These capitalist habits cannot exist among the Chinese people.”
By the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping’s government was focused on creating modern cities and capitalist markets, the attention of Beijing’s city government turned to sanitation. Dogs were on a list of animals considered too dirty to be kept in the city, along with chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, sheep and pigs. Concerns about rabies led Beijing to ban all dog-raising in the city centre.
In the 1990s, more Beijingers started raising dogs. More dog-breeding meant more strays and more dog-related disputes and, in 1994, the government instituted a system of licences, charging Rmb5,000 (£600) per licence for the first year, the equivalent at the time of about four years’ salary for a university lecturer. Each household was limited to one dog.
By 2003, the old policy of “strictly limiting” dog-raising had evolved into one of “managing and regulating dog-raising”, an example of a subtle change in Chinese regulatory language that belied a broader change in attitudes. Dog-licence fees were reduced and the 35cm height restriction instigated. (Old media reports suggest that this limit was chosen based on residents’ fears of larger dogs.)
Officials sought to ease the risk posed by badly trained dogs biting humans. Every year, the city government designs a new tag that vets issue after administering an annual rabies shot, so that anyone can see at a glance whether a dog is up to date; for 2022, Haohao got a pink tag in the shape of a snowflake.
Nowadays, the Red Guards’ warning that dog-raising is a capitalist habit has statistics to support it. As disposable income has grown, so have the number of dogs and the amount of money spent on them.
In the 2010s, China’s pet-food market grew at an average rate of more than 30 per cent a year, far above the global average of 3.6 per cent, according to Guolian Securities. By 2020, it was worth more than Rmb200bn (£24bn).
Still, I’d rehearsed the lines I might say: ‘He’s the dog of the British ambassador. I’m just his walker’
All sorts of people have dogs, but they have become particularly associated with the rise of the single urban professional, the post-1990s generation, many of whom refuse to marry and have children as early as the government wishes they would. When I take Haohao to the kind of café that serves oat milk, I know the clientele will adore him.
“More and more people in Beijing have changed their ideas of what raising a dog means,” says Danny Zhu, a Beijing-born dog-trainer and kennel-keeper. “People used to give them the leftovers; now they buy scientifically developed dog food. People used to keep them tied up in the courtyard; now they let them into the house, or even on to the bed. Dogs are being treated more and more like family members.”
Beijing’s dog community has thrived. The promotional photos for dog-friendly restaurants in the Sanlitun shopping district show fluffy lanky Irish wolfhounds and bright-eyed huskies, breeds that are illegal in the city centre. At the entrance to one dog-friendly café stands a floor-to-ceiling display asking guests to abide by Beijing’s dog regulations. Inside, the café’s resident golden retriever is a testament to the way Beijingers combine talking the talk with skirting the rules.
“If the people don’t complain, the officials don’t pursue,” says Amanda Chen, quoting an ancient idiom.
Chen is the owner of one of Beijing’s oldest dog-friendly cafés, Buona, which is located in the central business district. “If you don’t inconvenience anyone, nobody cares about your big dog,” she explains, adding that many patrolling police officers own big dogs themselves. In the past decade, she hasn’t heard of one case of someone running into a dogcatcher on the street. The dog community’s fear may in part be a collective trauma left over from previous eras. “Complaints are really about the owner, not the dog,” Zhu tells me. “The dog is collateral damage.”
Most complaints come from neighbours fed up with barking or similar behavioural issues. China’s urbanites live in densely packed apartments in walled-off residential compounds. In mine, the number of illegal dogs made me feel relatively safe with Haohao. There are at least two Samoyeds — possibly more, as the white giants look alike to me — whose owners walk them within the walls of the compound during dog-catching season.
I realised early on that I needed to get the compound guards on my and Haohao’s side. They would be the ones potentially asked by police about illegal pets and would be the early arbiters for any residential disputes. I made a point of always letting them pet Haohao or play with him. I think it worked: the guards started talking about Haohao as a friendly dog, unlike one of the less well-liked Samoyeds in the building. If the compound needed to give up an illegal dog to fill some police officer’s quota, I thought, at least Haohao would not be top of the list. Callous, yes, but it’s also how things often work in the dog-eat-dog world of regulatory self-defence. In China, laws sometimes go unenforced for years until, suddenly, they are.
Both Chen and Zhu have lived through many fluctuations in Beijing’s dog culture. Chen remembers the 2000s and early 2010s as being more relaxed, when a smaller number of dogs created fewer public nuisances. As a trainer, Zhu believes the problems caused by dogs are really problems caused by humans. Aggressive behaviour is often a result of poor training or separating a puppy from its mother too early, a common practice in commercial breeding in China.
Chen tells me about central Beijing’s biggest park, Chaoyang Park, which in the 2000s had a dog-friendly area. The owners she met there were often fantastically rich, and had chauffeurs and assistants to look after their pets all day. Nowadays, living with a dog has become mainstream, and no central parks admit dogs.
Dog-lovers have found ways around the lack of open space. Next to the iconic Workers’ Stadium, a short walk from where I lived, there was, for a time, a small green fenced-off area. Someone had pried apart one of the fence railings, creating an opening large enough for dogs and their humans to sneak through. There was an unwritten schedule too: afternoons, the space was filled with small dogs; evenings, the big dogs played.
The only time I’ve been in trouble with Haohao occurred one afternoon in March 2020. It was the beginning of the pandemic, and I was walking him on one of our habitual routes, while speaking to a colleague in London on the phone. At the time, domestic cases outside of Wuhan had subsided but were surging internationally, and anti-foreigner sentiment was brewing. Chatting away in English, I saw a police officer running towards me.
“What country are you from?” he barked.
In hindsight, my response was not the most considered: “What does it matter to you?”
As a foreigner in China, the police have the right to check my passport — which I am meant to carry at all times — at any point. But I was annoyed at the question of where I was from.
If I told him I was British rather than, say, a New Zealander, would he start treating me as a vector of disease?
In any case, my response clearly violated Zhu’s “don’t make enemies” rule. The officer took out his phone and scanned my face with an app. My visa details and address came up immediately. “I’ll send an officer round to yours tonight,” he said, and nodded at my dog. “If he’s not out of there by then, we’ll take him away.”
I took Haohao to the FT’s bureau in the embassy district. We’d often spend our days there together, me working, him sprawling on the floor of my office or, during summer months, on the cool tiles of the corridor outside.
The FT bureau sits in what’s called a “diplomatic residence compound”, a vestige of regulations requiring that foreign media locate their offices in special quarters. Diplomatic residence compounds are home to many large dogs, and there is a sense among the residents that inside them, dogs are safe from the police. I decided to leave him there overnight.
A video went viral in April of a Covid worker in a white hazmat suit beating a corgi to death on a street in Shanghai
The next morning, I returned to find Haohao had done no worse than rip up a copy of the previous week’s newspaper, which I thought was proportionate to my crime of leaving him alone. Luckily, a colleague who lived in the same compound as the FT office allowed us to stay for as long as we needed.
About three weeks later, after I’d taken many walks around my old neighbourhood and seen that the police officer I’d bumped into was not around, I felt safe enough to move back.
In recent months, government killings of dogs have become a cultural flashpoint, as highly contagious variants led to widespread emergency lockdowns. A video went viral in April of a Covid worker in a white hazmat suit beating a corgi to death on a street in Shanghai; its owner had gone into quarantine. In another province, one owner shared an account of Covid workers bludgeoning her dog to death in her apartment. Unsurprisingly, quarantine-related concerns and strategies have lit up the WeChat groups for pet-owners.
The barbarities in Shanghai were all the more shocking because the city is China’s richest and, with its international influence, has the most welcoming attitudes to dogs. Beijing, by contrast, is the country’s toughest megacity for dog-keeping. Of the country’s first-tier cities, Shanghai and Shenzhen do not restrict height, but each list over 20 forbidden breeds. Guangzhou restricts dogs above 71cm in shoulder height. Starbucks has 11 dog-friendly cafés in Shanghai; in Beijing, just one. Shanghai has also been mulling passing local pet-protection laws.
In 2020, the city issued the first fine for abandoning a dog.
Things pad along more slowly in the capital, where all government enforcement is stricter, from pets to Covid restrictions. In southern China, one can say, “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.” Not so much on the doorstep of the Forbidden City.
Beijing’s dog-lovers hope that the city will operate much more like Shenzhen or even Shanghai. Some groups are pushing for legislative change. Others are creating cultural change: Zhu hopes his large-group dog-training sessions can create a new generation of well-behaved animals and responsible owners. Chen’s café presents a model of how to balance canine and human needs for socialising.
“We are trying to create a civilised dog-owning space in Beijing,” Chen says. Her phrasing makes me think of the various early 20th-century political movements calling for a more “modern and civilised” China, as the country emerged from the colonial injustices of the Qing dynasty.
Leaving China with a dog has got trickier. Flights are cancelled all the time, and spaces for pets in cabin holds are in high demand. Many pets have been stranded, while their owners were locked down abroad, leading to a backlog of dogs stuck in Beijing kennels, awaiting flight volunteers.
When I finally left in April, I flew from Beijing to Paris with Haohao, along with two extra dogs from a long waiting list at Kevin’s Home Pet Express, a pet-travel company based in Beijing.
After landing at Charles de Gaulle, Haohao was back to his normal self as soon as I let him out of his cage. At the Eurotunnel check-in, a “Pet Reception” quickly dealt with his veterinary papers. A sign in the canteen read “We love pets”. Haohao sat upright in the front seat of my father’s car as we drove back to the UK. I watched him sitting there, on his way to a new life, a new home, with nothing to hide.
Yuan Yang is the FT’s deputy Beijing bureau chief. Additional reporting by Nian Liu
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022