BEIJING – It might seem surprising that enforcement of a policy toward dogs would provoke a wave of public anger in China.

But a crackdown on dog ownership has led to a rare street protest, angry online postings and a sense of fear and disgruntlement among throngs of dog owners. The backlash has caught authorities flat-footed as they try to explain their reasons for the restrictions.

The rules, which limit households in the city and its suburbs to one dog and ban large dogs and certain breeds, have been around since 1995 but were widely ignored.

Many middle-class urban Beijing residents want a greater say in how they live their lives. Many also are angry about heavy-handed police tactics in confiscating unregistered dogs.

“All dog owners are worried. They feel threatened. They don’t know when their dogs will be taken away,” said Zi Jin, a veterinarian and member of a private group that takes in strays.

City officials said on Nov. 7 that they would enforce the rules, including a ban on any dog bigger than 35 centimeters (nearly 14 inches) at the shoulder. Only people who are blind or handicapped may register bigger dogs.

Police this month began snap inspections of people walking their dogs, demanding to see their credit card-sized annual registrations, which include the dogs’ photos. Those caught without registration cards face fines of up to 5,000 yuan ($636) and seizure of their pets.

Teams also began to round up stray dogs, sometimes beating them to death with sticks in public thoroughfares – something that’s not new in China but is now in the spotlight with the reinvigorated campaign to limit dog ownership. Dog-beating campaigns to reduce a spike in rabies have left tens of thousands of dogs dead in parts of Shandong, Yunnan and Zhejiang provinces since mid-summer.

Sun Hongwei, a sushi restaurant owner and animal activist in Beijing, said she took part in efforts to monitor government dog pounds and was shocked by what she saw.

“They treat the dogs cruelly. … They put big dogs and small dogs together and let them go hungry. The big dogs eat the smaller dogs. You can see blood in the cages,” Sun said.

After a covert organizational campaign, more than 100 people opposed to the restrictive policy and dog slaughters congregated in Tiananmen Square on Nov. 11 before they were dispersed by riot police. Later, several hundred protesters gathered outside the Beijing Zoo. Many carried placards saying, “Stop Killing Innocent Dogs!”

It’s illegal to hold such protests in Beijing, particularly in the city’s main square.

Since the protests, authorities have quashed efforts to organize new rallies. They’ve also talked more about rabies. In rural areas, rabies has accounted for more deaths in recent months than tuberculosis or AIDS, according to government data. China had 2,254 cases of rabies in the first nine months of this year, up 30 percent from the same period last year. Most of the cases were in the countryside, where health care is unaffordable for many people.

Capitalist luxury

In the early decades of Communist rule, officials reviled dogs as a capitalist luxury. Under economic reforms since the late 1970s, as living standards in Chinese cities greatly improved, ideas changed and owning a dog became fairly common.

Beijing has 550,000 registered dogs and perhaps 450,000 unregistered ones in a metropolis of 14 million people. Wealthy Beijingers can be seen with exotic breeds, and a pet industry has grown up, including a restaurant for dogs.

“In the past, people regarded dogs as toys. Now they treat them as part of the family,” said Sun Qiya, who owns a Samoyed and a Husky, both still pups.

“They are small, but what happens when they grow big? Maybe I’ll have to send my dogs outside of Beijing,” she said, before zipping away from a pet store in a chauffeured Audi.

Owners in many districts keep an eye out.

“We neighbors watch out for each other. We don’t mind if a dog doesn’t have a registration,” said Chen Yu, a 25-year-old walking his black dog Xiongxiong, or Little Bear.

Beijing officials relaxed their policies on dog ownership in 2003, reducing the annual fee from $625 with a more than $200 annual renewal fee, to the current $125 for the first year and $62.50 for each year after that.

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