Days after the Chinese government announced a crackdown on dogs in the capital, dog lovers here are quietly walking their pets after midnight and avoiding nosy neighbors. They're also fighting back.
A campaign to protect people from a sharp rise in rabies cases led officials to announce last week that they would limit each household to one dog and ban dogs taller than 14 inches. Since then, pet owners have expressed resentment, as well as fear about what might happen to their animals.
While the rules are not new, they were not previously uniformly enforced, either. Now some Beijing residents have alleged that police have gone through neighborhoods, seizing unregistered animals and killing them, an accusation police have denied.
Over the weekend, as many as 500 protesters gathered near the Beijing Zoo for more than three hours, surrounded by three cordons of police. They carried stuffed animals and signs saying: "Stop the Indiscriminate Killing." About 18 people were detained for questioning, dog owners said; all but one was reportedly released.
"More and more people own dogs. It is pointless to restrict dog-raising. The stricter the government is, the more people will love to own a dog," said Liu Tao, 26, who was at the unauthorized protest Saturday. "We are not blocked from the outside now. With the Internet, we can see how Western countries treat dogs well. It's hard to stop us from communicating with the outside."
Old vs. new attitudes
While the rules have outraged pet owners, the face-off has also exposed fault lines between older bureaucrats with a mandate to keep public order and a growing middle class that no longer takes the traditional Chinese view of dogs as dishonorable or corrupt.
During China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, people who kept dogs were accused of bourgeois tendencies. There is an idiom, "gou guan," or dog official, that connotes corruption, mercilessness and stupidity.
"Most of the officials are over 60 and they have gone through hard times. They will say we can barely afford to feed ourselves, how can we spend money to raise a dog?" Liu said.
Even before the protest, sources said, officers from the Internet unit of the police began visiting operators of pet-related Web sites. Several officers showed up at the offices of Chinapet.com, which runs dozens of chat rooms, and ordered that posts containing the words "protest" or "gathering" be deleted.
"They wanted to delete messages calling on people to be together and take to the streets to oppose the big dog ban. We could do nothing but obey," said Zhou Hongsheng, 22, a programmer at the Web site.
"We've never had this situation before. Usually we're not supposed to intervene. Normally, pets are not controversial," Zhou added.
There are about 550,000 registered dog owners in Beijing and perhaps just as many unregistered dogs, according to Chinese news agencies.
Bao Suixian, an official at the Public Security Ministry, defended the one-dog-per-household rule, saying Beijing's policy must take into account citizens with dogs and those without them.
A spokesman for the administrative office of the Agriculture Bureau, which helped draft the rules, said the height limit was the result of input from dog owners, the public and academics. Dogs higher than 14 inches "make those who don't own dogs psychologically afraid," said the spokesman, who identified himself only as Mr. Lu.
The ban on large dogs previously applied to the city center, but it has been extended to the surrounding suburbs, including several wealthy residential compounds. Fines for keeping an oversize dog or more than one dog now run about $650.
'Like my own children'
Moves to curb dog ownership and prevent rabies have led to draconian action in other parts of China in the past. In August, tens of thousands of dogs were killed in Yunnan province in southwestern China after three people died of the disease.
Guo Yibing, 32, a freelance Web site designer in Beijing and owner of nine dogs, seven of them registered, said he had to move his pets to a neighborhood near the airport where the law is less strictly enforced.
"We just hope to change the restrictions and get many people to pay attention to this issue," he said. "Dog owners have stable jobs and stable income, and we don't want to disturb the social order."
As a result of the crackdown, business has dropped off at the Pet Honey store, in one of Beijing's first neighborhoods to develop luxury real estate.
"In June and July, I bathed five to 10 dogs a day, up to 20 a day on weekends. Now in one week, I only bathe 20 dogs," said the store owner, Zhao Yun, 35. "Customers ask me, is it safe to bathe my dogs in your store, will anybody come to check?"
Zhao said government officials were simply ignorant and inexperienced about managing larger dogs.
"I treat my dogs like my own children," he said. "If someone tried to take them away from me, I cannot accept that."
Researcher Li Jie in Beijing and news researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.