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A pork vendor takes a nap in an open market on May 16, 2022, in Wuhan, China. Chinese people consumed about 90 million tonnes of meat in 2021, twice the U.S. total.Getty Images/Getty Images

Blame Barack Obama. In 2010, the then-U.S. president warned that if “over a billion Chinese citizens have the same living patterns” as people in the West, “then all of us are in for a very miserable time – the planet just can’t sustain it.”

Mr. Obama was speaking about Beijing’s efforts to reduce China’s dependency on carbon. But his comments were seized upon by Chinese nationalists as evidence that the West was using environmentalism as just another excuse to keep China down.

Even today, more than a decade later, his comments come up in Chinese conversations about reducing meat consumption, seen by many as an important step to reaching the ambitious emissions targets that Beijing and other governments have set. Vegetarians or vegans in China are often accused of promoting a “foreign” ideology – despite the fact Chinese Buddhists and others have abstained from meat for centuries – or preventing Chinese from enjoying the lifestyle seen in the West.

“There’s a lot of pushback when it comes to eating less meat,” said Peter Li, a China policy specialist at Humane Society International. “China still looks to Western meat consumption as a goal to catch up to.”

This is despite the fact China has already outpaced the U.S. on that front. According to research by McKinsey & Co., Chinese people consumed about 90 million tonnes of meat in 2021, twice the U.S. total. But Americans still eat twice as much per capita, and poorer Chinese eat it only rarely.

“For many Chinese, when we were poor, we had to be vegetarian, and therefore meat is seen as a symbol of a happy life,” said Jiang Jinsong, an assistant professor at Tsinghua University and co-founder of Voice for the Voiceless, an animal-rights charity.

While traditionally people ate fish as their main animal protein, with pork on special occasions, today that meat dominates the Chinese diet more than any other, though as the country has grown richer people are eating more and more beef and chicken as well.

The government places huge importance on ensuring meat supply, even maintaining a strategic pork reserve to keep prices stable. After new regulations were passed to promote factory farming, the world’s largest pig farm opened in Hubei last year – a 26-storey building designed to hold more than a million animals.

Intensive agriculture does not necessarily correlate with cruelty, but the abuse of pigs – a highly intelligent, social animal – within the factory farming system has been well documented. Having huge numbers of animals in close proximity also raises concerns about the spread of swine flu and other diseases.

But if environmental concerns are a hard sell in China, animal welfare is almost a non-starter.

Among Chinese consumers who eat less meat, McKinsey found that most did so for health or cost reasons, with only 9 per cent citing cruelty concerns. Similar research by Faunalytics, a U.S.-based advocacy organization, found that Chinese consumers were more concerned about food safety and health than animal welfare.

Some animal advocacy groups have had success by leaning into these concerns. Compassion in World Farming, in co-operation with Chinese partners, certifies producers and hands out “good animal production awards” to farms with strong welfare standards.

“When we talk about animal welfare, the majority of people will still say we are in a stage of worrying about people’s welfare,” said Jeff Zhou, chief China representative for CWF. “We have to use different points to attract people, and food safety is one of the most important. We’re not misleading them when we say animal welfare will improve food safety.”

For Jian Yi, the founder of the China Vegan Society, advocating for less meat consumption is often about educating people about more traditional Chinese diets and connecting to the country’s history and culture.

“As far as meat is concerned, I live in the United States, the diet here is really problematic,” he said. “Chinese have a much better diet in terms of eating more vegetables and have access to a healthier way of cooking their food. In most meals, the meat is used as more of a condiment than the main dish.”

There is also a long history in China of using alternative proteins, most notably soy but also various glutens and mushrooms that are marketed as meat substitutes and predate products such as Impossible Beef or Beyond Meat by centuries.

“Some of the ultranationalist groups that oppose vegetarianism actually don’t understand the history and circumstances,” Prof. Jiang said.

Carrie Davies, a Canadian who works for the China Vegan Society out of Dali, in Yunnan province, said the “sudden influx of all these Western plant-based meats and the message that if you want to save the planet you have to eat this and be vegan, I think that contributed to the idea that this was a cultural intrusion – people in China already know how to eat this stuff.”

If anything, she said, the more “foreign” idea was the drive to eat American levels of meat. “The traditional Chinese diet is extremely plant-forward.”

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