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Column: Chinese Bureaucrats Bite Man’s Best Friend

For as long as I can recall, a three-legged miniature poodle and her owners have lived several floors above my Shanghai apartment. Despite her disability, she’s much beloved by everyone in my 25-story building, and always elicits coos and smiles in the elevator, or when she’s out strolling with her owners. Who, I’ve often asked myself, could hate this three-legged dog?

Dog-hating Chinese bureaucrats, that’s who. The other day, a group of them — heirs to Cultural Revolution-era laws that banned dogs as bourgeois affectations — sat down in Beijing and established the National Companion Animal Standardization Committee. The goal, as outlined in a brief story syndicated by Xinhua, the state news wire, is to establish strict national guidelines on which animal breeds are suitable as house pets. Those standards will then be forwarded to China’s National Standardization Management Committee, a body whose work typically concerns standardizing things like electrical transmission grids and Velcro.

Why would they bother? In part, they need to clean up the mess that was created last June when — with no warning — Beijing’s Public Security Bureau announced that dogs taller than 35 cm (13.78 inches) were henceforth banned from the city, along with 41 breeds it designated as dangerous and violent, including collies.

That is, potentially, a lot of dogs. In 2012, Beijing, a city of more than 20 million people, was home to 1 million registered dogs (and probably many more unregistered ones). What were these dog owners supposed to do with their suddenly outlawed pets? The Public Security Bureau helpfully suggested that the offending pooches be given away to shelters. Beijing’s dog owners, no less committed to their pets than pet owners in the United States, unsurprisingly did not take the advice. Despite making noises about a crackdown, Beijing authorities let the issue fade from public consciousness.

But it did not fade from the consciousness of Chinese regulators determined to devise solutions to issues that only they see as problems. So, last week, the National Companion Animal Standardization Committee explained it would test various breeds to ascertain how they measured up in specific categories, including “body-type, disposition, disease resistance, and ease of training.” After that, an analysis will take place and the various breeds will be slotted into categories that include “aggressive dogs, working dogs, active dogs, hunting dogs, sheep dogs” — all supposedly to help families and governments choose pets. “New standards are more scientific and meet actual demands of family dog owners,” explained Wei Haitao, secretary general of the committee. In other words: cute and “likes to fetch” are out, disease resistance and body type are in.

Is there room for three-legged poodles (beloved by their neighbors) in this brave new world of scientific pet ownership? Arguably, yes, if only because the new classification will be by breed and not by any specific physical characteristic. But it’s not so difficult to imagine the dog classifiers, with their interest in “disease resistance,” taking a dim view of pets that don’t score appropriately on the physical vigor metric.

Whatever the case, government-mediated pet ownership is unlikely to endear China’s regulators to the country’s millions of dog owners. In fact, it’ll likely just serve to make them seem as they are: out-of-touch meddlers reluctant to let Chinese people enjoy the perks of their hard-earned middle-class lifestyles.

Adam Minter is a regular contributor to Bloomberg View based in Shanghai and the author of Junkyard Planet about the global recycling industry.