Spousal Distancing: The Chinese Couples Divorcing Over COVID-19


Zhang Ning will soon be reunited with her husband. He left the couple’s hometown of Wuhan to visit relatives in late January, and just days later the central Chinese city suddenly went into lockdown, leaving him unable to return for over two months. But China is now easing travel restrictions as its COVID-19 epidemic subsides, allowing him to finally come home.

Zhang couldn’t be less excited.

“I’ve told him I’ve decided to divorce him,” the 34-year-old tells Sixth Tone.

Rather than making their hearts grow fonder, the prolonged separation has exposed deep fissures in the couple’s relationship that they’d previously ignored, according to Zhang. She was left alone taking care of her elderly parents-in-law and 8-year-old son in a city at the heart of a global pandemic — and her husband was less than sympathetic.

“When I called him wanting to release my emotions, at first he comforted me a bit, but then he became impatient,” says Zhang. One day, he snapped at her: “Aren’t you supposed to do all this?”

For Zhang, it was the final straw. For years, she’d stayed with her husband for the sake of their child, but from that moment on, she decided she was better off without him.

“I’ve never felt that determined in my life,” says Zhang. “The pandemic helped me make up my mind.”

Many Chinese couples have had similar realizations during the past few months. As cities began relaxing their virus-control policies in early March, registry offices across the country were swamped by an unprecedented number of divorce appointments.

The northwestern city of Xi’an saw a surge in divorces, while a district in the southwestern city of Dazhou also reported a sharp increase in divorce applications between Feb. 24 and March 11.

Lan Zi, a divorce counselor at a marriage registry office in the southern city of Shenzhen, says she’s been overwhelmed by the growing number of couples seeking her services since the start of the pandemic.

“Couples are having to make reservations a month in advance before they can get a divorce,” Lan tells Sixth Tone.

The recent spike follows years of rapid increases in China’s divorce rate, fueled by economic and societal changes that are empowering the nation’s women and undermining traditional taboos against dissolving marriages.

Nearly 4.5 million couples got divorced in 2018, a 2% year-over-year increase. Over a longer time frame, the increase is even more striking. China’s divorce rate in 2018 — 3.2 for every 1,000 people — is nearly six times higher than the rate for 1987. In the United States, by contrast, the divorce rate has been falling over the past decade and now stands at 2.9 per 1,000.

The Chinese government has even felt the need to introduce policies designed to discourage couples from splitting. Getting a divorce in China is easy and cheap, with the formalities often taking less than an hour and costing as little as 9 yuan ($1.25), but legislators in December of last year proposed requiring couples to observe a 30-day “cool-off” period before officially ending their marriages.

Local registry offices have also started offering free premarital and divorce counseling in recent years. Lan, the Shenzhen-based counselor, says she’s helped 115 couples reconcile with each other and cancel their divorce appointments during the past two months.

The recent crisis, however, has been unlike anything Lan has seen before. For many couples, being locked up at home together for weeks created new tensions in their relationships and exacerbated old ones — and even counseling is not enough to resolve them.

“Home isolation can cause many family conflicts to erupt,” Lan tells Sixth Tone. “A lot of ordinary little things may cause divides, or even become more intense — directly affecting the intimate relationship between husband and wife or leading to a marital crisis.”

Hong Lanzhen, a divorce lawyer based in the southern city of Dongguan, says she’s already handled multiple cases in which her clients have emerged from lockdowns determined to get divorced as quickly as possible.

“One thing these couples have in common is that their relationships were fragile before the outbreak,” says Hong. “Quarantine forced them to stay together. The longer they were locked down, the more problems they had and the more disagreeable they were with each other.”

Xiao Mei, a 32-year-old from Beijing, moved out of the apartment she used to share with her husband and filed for divorce soon after life in the city started to return to normal. She tells Sixth Tone the crisis revealed her husband’s “true face.”

According to Xiao, her husband always used to tell her he was too busy with work to help with housework and child care. “But this time (during the lockdown) he had plenty of time, yet he still did nothing,” says Xiao. “I finally realized my husband is a giant baby, and I don’t want to carry on with this widow-like existence anymore.”

“The pandemic has been like the final straw to break marriages,” says Li Hua, a psychologist based in Zibo, East China’s Shandong province. “The small spears and shields that could be ignored or tolerated get suddenly exposed and pile up one on top of each other like a sharp knife, cutting mercilessly at the relationship.”

The lockdowns came as a particular shock to the huge number of Chinese couples in long-distance relationships. The country has an estimated 288 million migrant workers as of 2018, with many living apart from their spouses and children for large chunks of the year as they work long hours in the big cities.

Until the pandemic, Zheng Rujun only saw her husband once a month, as the pair had jobs in cities a three-hour drive apart in the southern Guangdong province. Their relationship was stable, and the couple treated each other with respect during their monthly visits, according to Zheng. Things quickly changed, however, once they found themselves living together for the first time since their wedding in 2017.

“He throws dirty clothes and smelly socks all over the house; he plays video games on his phone all day long; and when I share with him my worries about the virus, he mocks me for making a fuss,” Zheng tells Sixth Tone.

After a few weeks, Zheng couldn’t take it anymore and told her husband she wanted to break up. He was against the idea, telling her things would go back to normal once the lockdowns were over. But Zheng’s mind was made up. “Since I’ve already uncovered these problems I can’t bear, why waste time?” the 27-year-old says.

For others, it was the stress of being separated during the lockdowns that opened up new marital rifts, according to Li, the psychologist. “Women especially often feel anxious and insecure about their relationships,” says Li. “They worry about their husbands’ safety and whether they’re cheating.”

According to Li, many of her female clients repeatedly asked their partners to send photos and videos of themselves to prove they were where they said they were. “I’ll help them … understand that their behavior will only push their husbands away,” she says. “When you feel inferior, you’ll be afraid of others abandoning you.”

Financial pressures have been another source of strife, with firms cutting staff and the self-employed sometimes suffering drastic reductions in income as a result of the pandemic. The added stress has sometimes pushed marriages to their breaking point, according to Lan, the divorce counselor.

“The outbreak cuts off household incomes and the stress that comes with it triggers emotional crises,” says Lan. “We’ve seen this a lot during our daily work during the pandemic.”

Not every relationship has been damaged by the crisis, however. Some couples have emerged from the lockdowns closer than ever. According to a survey by LoveMatters China, a platform for sex and intimacy education, nearly 300 of 1,500 respondents said they’d “stuck together” with their partners 24/7 during the lockdowns. Of those that had done so, 55% agreed that the daily super-close contact helped them communicate better and improved their relationships.

Although disasters bring huge trauma and loss, researchers have found that they often also push survivors to move forward: People who are afraid and lonely marry earlier; those in the wrong relationships end them faster; and families considering having children stop hesitating.

Chinese regions that experience earthquakes typically see their divorce and marriage rates rise by 6.1% and 1.9% respectively the following year, a study published in 2016 found. In the United States, the marriage, divorce, and fertility rates in South Carolina also increased following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, another study showed.

“The disaster may simply act as an accelerator or catalyst for people’s actions,” explains Li. “They come to recognize the status of their marriages during the pandemic — this special life-or-death period — and make firmer decisions.”

Wang Liting, 35, says COVID-19 helped her understand what truly mattered to her. She’d been thinking about divorcing her husband of nearly 10 years before the pandemic struck.

“I felt like he didn’t get me,” says Wang. “And I had a really bad relationship with my mother-in-law, who was always pushing me to have kids.”

Wang had a change of heart, though, after the couple was confined to their home in Shenzhen. She started to feel unwell and panicked, fearing she’d been infected with the coronavirus.

But then her husband stepped up, according to Wang. He took her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with just a regular flu bug. He cooked for her, did all the housework, and watched comedy shows with her to help her relax.

“I felt so loved in our marriage for the first time,” says Wang. “That’s when I knew he was the one I could rely on.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

 

Meet China’s Ace Ventura, Pet Detective Sun Jinrong


SHANGHAI — On a freezing December night, three men rush into a downtown residential complex carrying a ladder, flashlights, and backpacks loaded with high-tech detection equipment.

The black-clad figures are here to meet their latest client, who called the team in distress just hours before. The woman, a Shanghai native in her 20s, says her loved one has been missing for days and she doesn’t know what to do.

Sun Jinrong, the lead detective, quickly establishes the target’s details: white, less than half a meter tall, around 4 kilograms in weight. Then, he begins sweeping the woman’s home for clues.

Sixth Tone spent an evening tailing lost pets with Shanghai-based pet detective, Sun Jinrong. By Daniel Holmes and Zhou Zhen/Sixth Tone

Within minutes, Sun spots a half-open window — the most likely escape route, he deduces. He heads to the complex’s security room to view surveillance footage of the building.

Just as he suspected, the recording shows a white cat dropping down from the window. Moments later, a couple from the same building carries it away.

Sun finds out which apartment belongs to the couple and heads straight there. Taking out his cat-hair detector, he bangs on the door. The suspects are caught red-handed.

The client repeatedly thanks Sun as he hands over her rescued pet and transfers 2,000 yuan ($285) to his bank account. The whole job has taken about 30 minutes.

For Sun, it’s all in a night’s work. Since 2013, the man who styles himself as China’s first pet detective has helped more than 1,000 pet owners track down missing cats and dogs.

Sun’s business has boomed in recent years as China has emerged as a nation of animal lovers. Nearly 100 million Chinese households now have a pet — up 44% since 2014 — and the country’s pet market grew over 18% year-over-year to reach 200 billion yuan last year.

In a 2019 survey, nearly 60% of Chinese pet owners said they viewed their pets as their children, and they’re increasingly willing to spend large sums to pamper their little four-legged emperors. High-end pet accessories, lavish pet funerals, and even pet cloning are all growing in popularity.

From his base in suburban Shanghai, where he lives in a rented house with his crew of 10 assistants, Sun now serves around 30 clients per month in cities across China. His fee for a Shanghai-based job starts from 800 yuan, while Beijing pet owners pay at least 8,500 yuan — including airfare and accommodation.

His fame has spread through word-of-mouth and a clever social media game. Each time he rescues an animal, Sun asks the owner to record a short video for his TikTok and Weibo social media channels. He now has 150,000 and 76,000 followers on the platforms, respectively.

The son of an air force mechanic, Sun grew up on a Chinese military base — an experience that taught him rigor and discipline, he says. In person, he exudes a poker-faced professionalism that helps him calm down often-emotional clients.

“Some cry on the phone and are still crying when they see me,” Sun tells Sixth Tone. “They regard me as their savior and place all their hopes on me.”

The 38-year-old moved to Shanghai with his parents from the neighboring Anhui province over a decade ago. He started his career working in a printing factory, volunteering at a pet fostering agency in his spare time.

At the agency, Sun’s role was to rescue strays and then arrange for them to be adopted. Occasionally, newly adopted cats and dogs would go missing, and Sun would help the owners search for them. He soon found he had a knack for it.

“It’s like they (the animals) are playing hide-and-seek with me,” says Sun. “I have to think about how to win the game.”

Owners began approaching Sun directly, offering to pay him to find their lost pets. In 2013, he decided to quit his factory job and become a full-time pet detective.

Success didn’t come overnight, however. Pets were still relatively rare in many parts of China at the time, and owners didn’t cherish their animals in quite the same way. “People hadn’t yet reached the point of being willing to pay to recover their lost pets,” says Sun.

For a long time, Sun couldn’t support himself financially and had to eat at his parents’ house to save money. His family, with their military background, struggled to accept his choice of profession. “They’re of a generation that doesn’t think anything to do with pets and animals is a real job,” says Sun.

In the early days, Sun had a hard time convincing potential clients to trust him. Many accused him of being a fraud, he says. But as he cracked more and more cases, he gradually built up a reputation.

“When the owners are reunited with their pets, they thank me with tears, laughter, and inarticulate exclamations,” says Sun. “Some have even gotten down on their knees.”

The detective takes his career extremely seriously. Over the years, he’s witnessed how the loss of a pet can deeply affect people’s lives: Clients have quit their jobs to search for missing dogs, while couples have started fighting and eventually divorced, he says.

He invests heavily in equipment that might be useful during a case. His minivan is stuffed with cat traps, night vision devices, monitors, and alarms with wireless transmission functions. The most expensive gadget — a life detector used by disaster rescue teams to locate survivors — cost over 20,000 yuan.

The former factory worker is also a devoted autodidact. He spent two years learning to imitate the calls of young birds to lure out hidden cats. When he’s not on duty, he reads books on psychology and zoology.

“Since I’m a pet detective, I have to learn more about animal behavior and the mentality of pet owners,” says Sun.

For Sun, the key to a pet detective’s success is learning the art of deduction. Whenever he arrives at a client’s home, his first move is to get a description of the animal, including its age, gender, breed, and whether it’s been neutered. “If it’s a senior husky, we know it won’t have run too far away,” he says.

Pet owners often fail to find their pets because they’re blinded by emotion, according to Sun.

“They say, ‘my baby is so smart; he’d never fall into a river or trap,’ or, ‘there’s no way my timid dog would cross the road by himself,’” says Sun. “It limits their search.”

When asked about his success rate, Sun says it depends on the specifics of each case. “If the dog is lost in a region where people have the tradition of eating dog meat, the chances of finding it are close to zero,” he says.

He’s learned to manage his clients’ expectations and stress that the outcome is always uncertain. “For the pet owners, it makes no difference if the odds of success are 40% or 80%,” he says. “To them, the pet is either found or it isn’t.”

The joy of success has faded over the years as it’s become routine, says Sun. But the memories of failed cases are still “painful.” If he isn’t able to locate a client’s pet, Sun will normally never speak with them again.

“We tend to let the owner heal by themselves, rather than bring back unpleasant memories,” says Sun. “We can’t and dare not offer any follow-up service, unlike other industries.”

Sometimes, however, cases resolve themselves naturally. The same December night that found Sun retrieving the white cat, the team failed to locate the feline of a Taiwanese resident nearby, despite looking for three hours.

Sun had tried everything to lure out the animal — which he sensed was hiding somewhere near the man’s apartment building — setting up a cage full of dried squid with two cameras trained on it. The cat, however, failed to appear, and the team finally gave up at 2 a.m.

Two days later, the man informed Sun he’d found the cat wandering around just outside the building’s entrance.

“A happy ending,” says Sun. “I hope my industry will disappear one day, because it’ll mean no more pets will be lost.”

Contributions: Zhou Zhen; editor: Dominic Morgan.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Dogs’ Lives: Rescuing China’s Growing Pack of Strays


SHANGHAI — The dogs running around Qin Kong’s downtown office couldn’t appear more at home. Clean, curious, and obedient, the two pooches behave as if they’ve lived with the 33-year-old for years. Yet just three weeks ago, the animals were in a rescue center.

“They were trembling on the way here,” says Qin. “When we were holding them, they wet themselves in fear.”

Qin and his friend, Zhao Baiyang, picked up the dogs from a shelter in southern Fengxian District on Nov. 19, and since then they’ve spent hours each day training them. But Qin and Zhao don’t plan to keep the former strays; they’re simply preparing the animals to start new lives as family pets.

“Many adopters, especially first-time dog owners, end up returning the animal to the rescue center after the dog attacks someone or damages their home,” says Qin. “What we need to do is to make the dogs behave better so that people find it easier to be pet owners.”

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A Petform dog trainer plays with two pooches in Shanghai, Dec. 11, 2019. Fan Yiying

The two dogs are the first pupils of a program Qin and Zhao’s pet services company, Petform, set up in July to train and rehome abandoned animals. It’s a solution to a rising problem in China: Millions of newly middle-class city-dwellers are becoming pet owners for the first time, but they’re often completely unprepared for the challenges of caring for domestic animals.

The result has been a huge rise in the number of abandoned pets roaming the streets of China’s cities. The country now has nearly 100 million pet dogs and cats, up 8.4% compared with 2018, according to an industry report published in August. But it also has 40 million stray dogs — around one-fifth of the world’s total.

The spike in abandonments not only causes untold suffering for the animals, it’s also fueling public health concerns. Each year, Chinese doctors administer 60 million to 80 million doses of rabies vaccines, mainly to treat dog-bite victims.

There have been signs in 2019, however, that public awareness of the problem is rising, as a growing number of social organizations, companies, and government-led projects have emerged to promote adoption and provide support for first-time pet owners.

For Petform’s co-founders, education is the key to reducing the number of abandoned pets. The firm can only train up a couple dogs per month, Zhao says, but he believes they can make a greater impact by changing the owners’ mindsets. Zhao continually tries to teach people that getting a dog — like getting married — is not simply a matter of money and impulse.

“It’s like sex and marriage,” says Zhao. “Sex can happen quickly, but marriage can’t. There’s a series of follow-up issues that need to be solved.”

Another challenge is convincing more people to adopt an animal, rather than buy directly from a pet store. Only 11.8% of China’s pet dogs and 19.9% of the country’s pet cats were adopted, according to a 2018 report — far below the average adoption rates in developed countries. But here, too, campaigners are starting to make progress.

“The adoption rate is increasing year by year, especially for cats,” says Yang Yang, founder of Beijing Pet Adoption Day, a group that has helped nearly 10,000 rescued dogs and cats find new homes in 24 Chinese cities over the past eight years. “It’s very gratifying.”

In October, the animal welfare movement received a boost with the opening of the Animal Welfare Training and Education Center — an enormous new complex built on a former air base 30 kilometers northeast of central Beijing.

Founded by the nongovernmental Capital Animal Welfare Association, the center can house up to 130 strays and will also serve as a platform for promoting adoption, providing medical treatment for strays, and educating the public on animal welfare issues. It has already rehomed more than 60 animals, received around 1,000 visitors, and partnered with dozens of livestreamers to encourage young people to take part in adoption events.

“Before, Chinese people thought that they had to buy a pet to own one,” says Yang, of Beijing Pet Adoption Day. “We now tell young people that adoption is an attitude in life. When they choose to adopt a stray, they not only get companionship and fun, but they also demonstrate their personal values at the same time.”

Until recently, animal welfare groups received little support in their attempts to find new homes for stray animals. Now, however, local governments across China are setting up animal shelters and organizing adoption events.

In August, Shanghai’s public security bureau partnered with French pet food company Royal Canin to capture street cats and dogs, provide them with shelter and vaccinations, and then rehome them through local adoption organizations. Importantly, the program will also ensure the strays are neutered, preventing the animals from multiplying to the point that local security officials are forced to cull them — a common issue in Chinese cities.

China’s central government, meanwhile, gave the clearest indication in years that it is moving forward with plans to pass a national law to protect all animals from abuse. A draft version of an animal protection law was first submitted for public comment in 2010, but was never implemented. In September, however, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs announced it would work with the National Forestry and Grassland Administration on new legislation, which it called “difficult and long-term work.”

More than 100 countries have a comprehensive animal protection law, according to Yang, and the introduction of such legislation could be a game-changer for China’s animal welfare campaigners.

“(At the moment,) activists can only use other laws and regulations, such as food safety and illegal transportation rules, to rescue animals, which puts us in an awkward situation,” says Yang.

“We hope that through our efforts we can achieve an 80% adoption rate in China in 80 or 100 years,” says Yang. “It’s not impossible; it’s just a matter of time, because we’re dealing with the natural laws of human development.”

Back in Shanghai, Qin and Zhao hope it won’t take so long to find homes for their two rescues. They have decided to call the dogs Melon Seed and Peanut, after popular Chinese Lunar New Year snacks. The names express their hope that the dogs can be adopted before the festival in late January and also that they can become an integral part of their new family.

“I’m not worried about whether they’ll find a new home,” says Qin. “We’ve already had so many people asking about adoption after seeing how well-behaved they are on social media.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Meet China’s ‘Pet Wheelchair King’


SHANGHAI — Wei Lijun was distraught after her 19-year-old dog Fufu had a stroke earlier this year. The mongrel was fully paralyzed and often cried out in pain during the night. “We’d have to carry her outside to someplace quiet to avoid disturbing the neighbors,” Wei tells Sixth Tone.

The 56-year-old worried that Fufu would never walk again, but she refused to contemplate having her beloved pet put down. Finally, a vet suggested a solution: Why not try ordering a wheelchair for Fufu?

Wei searched online and found a business offering customized pet mobility aids for just 630 yuan ($90). A few days later, the new wheelchair arrived, and the effect was almost immediate: Within hours, Fufu was zooming around the streets near Wei’s home in Shanghai.

“It’s magical,” says Wei. “She seems so happy and relaxed when she’s ‘walking’ outside.”

Wei is just one of thousands of Chinese pet owners who have called on the services of Gao Xiaodong, a former migrant worker from Huludao, northeastern Liaoning province, who has helped give countless animals a new lease of life.

A dog walks outside with a wheelchair that Gao Xiaodong made in Beijing, Sept. 16, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

A dog walks outside with a wheelchair that Gao Xiaodong made in Beijing, Sept. 16, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

The 44-year-old claims to have been the first person in China to sell animal mobility aids commercially, opening a small workshop in 2006. What started as a niche venture has since grown into a thriving business, thanks to the explosion in pet ownership in China.

Today, just under 100 million Chinese households have a pet, up 44% since 2014, and the country’s pet industry is worth an estimated 200 billion yuan. Owners are increasingly willing to spend large sums to give their animals a more comfortable life: The market for pet travel products — which includes carriers and mobility solutions — increased by 40% in the past year.

Gao now runs a 300-square-meter factory employing eight people, which churns out more than 4,000 wheelchairs each year. The firm is responsible for nearly all the pet mobility aids sold on e-commerce platforms Taobao and JD.com. The vast majority of other vendors are either agents or business partners of the firm, Gao says.

The Huludao native recalls first seeing a dog wheelchair around 15 years ago, while he was working a door-to-door sales job in Beijing. One of his clients had made a makeshift frame for his paralyzed Pekingese. “He could walk using this device made with a board and four bearings,” says Gao.

Two years later, Gao returned to his hometown to try his luck as an entrepreneur. After a couple of failed ventures selling health care and computer products, he came across the websites of some overseas pet wheelchair makers while searching for new business ideas online. The image of the Pekingese popped into Gao’s head, and he was sure he’d found a winning project. “It just hit me,” he says.

Gao and his wife, Fu Lijuan, made their first prototype for a disabled stray that often begged for food near their home. The “simple car” — which they fashioned from some discarded wood, wire, and roller skate wheels — didn’t look great, but the dog didn’t seem to mind, according to Gao. “He was so eager to try it and was running so fast,” he says.

Gao Xiaodong (left) and his wife Fu Lijuan look at a client’s dog on their phone in Huludao, Liaoning province, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

Gao Xiaodong (left) and his wife Fu Lijuan look at a client’s dog on their phone in Huludao, Liaoning province, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

After this early success, Gao was confident enough to quit his job at a local zinc factory to devote all his energy to the pet wheelchairs business. His parents, however, didn’t take the news well.

“They looked at me with a shocked expression,” says Gao. “They couldn’t believe I’d given up a stable job at a state-owned company for disabled animals.”

At the time, keeping a domestic pet was still a luxury for most people in China. Families had little disposable income, and animals incapacitated by disease or old age were normally put down. Gao and Fu’s neighbors frequently questioned whether the couple had lost their minds.

“None of them had heard of this business, and they didn’t believe that people would actually buy wheelchairs for animals,” says Fu.

During the early years, Gao sometimes wondered if they were right. In 2008, he remembers only selling a handful of wheelchairs each month. Over time, however, his sales figures gradually climbed into the dozens and then the hundreds.

Gao puts the change down to a dramatic shift in social attitudes toward animals. Though China has yet to pass an animal protection law for domestic animals, cities have become much more pet-friendlyand a huge number of animal welfare projects have launched across the country.

“Animals often accompany their owners for many years and emotionally become part of the family,” says Gao. “It’s just like when people are terminally ill — the family will do anything to prolong their lives.”

Wang Jinyu bought a customized wheelchair from Gao for her Yorkshire terrier, Gin, in 2015. Her father had accidentally stepped on Gin when he was only 8 months old, and the puppy had gradually lost the use of his legs. The vet said Gin was only likely to live another five years, but Wang was determined to do whatever she could to help him.

She massaged Gin every day and looked for a wheelchair to help the dog stay active. The first one she bought was far too big and heavy for Gin, who weighs only 2.5 kilograms, but Gao’s work was an instant hit. Four years on from the accident, Gin still goes out for walkies at least twice per day.

Gin enjoys some walkies on a wheelchair in Shanghai, Oct. 23, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Gin enjoys some walkies on a wheelchair in Shanghai, Oct. 23, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

“With the wheels, he can walk much faster than before,” says Wang. “And he always sticks his tongue out, which shows he’s happy.”

According to Wang, at least a dozen people have asked her where they could buy a similar wheelchair while she’s been out walking Gin over the years. “One of our neighbors ordered a wheelchair for his old golden retriever so that he could enjoy the outdoors,” says Wang. “The dog passed away a few months later, but it’s all worth it.”

As Gao’s fame has spread, the factory in Huludao has found itself receiving an ever-greater variety of orders. The business now produces around 1,000 wheelchairs for export each month, according to Gao. He says 90% of his wheelchairs are for dogs, while 9% are for cats. The remaining 1% are made for a range of animals, including rabbits, tortoises, and pigs. The company has also created wheelchairs for horses at a Chinese zoo, as well as goats on an overseas ranch, he adds.

A GIF shows a cat walking with a wheelchair made by Gao Xiaodong. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

A GIF shows a cat walking with a wheelchair made by Gao Xiaodong. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

“We’re so happy to see a growing number of Chinese pet owners willing to help their disabled or elderly dogs enjoy a new life,” says Gao. “Dogs can usually adapt to wheelchairs very quickly.”

Sadly, some dogs pass away before their new mobility aids can be delivered. “Our customers will still pay for the wheelchair,” says Gao. “They often bury it with their beloved dogs, hoping they can run free in another world.”

Gao’s next project is to start making pet houses, tapping into Chinese owners’ desire to pamper their pooches. There still appears to be enormous room for growth in the pet market, with U.S. pet food giant Mars predicting it could more than double in size within the next five years.

Mainly, though, Gao just wants to make sure the country’s animals are as comfortable as possible, he says. “We were all born equal,” says Gao. “Animals, whether they can walk or not, all deserve to be respected.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

China’s Newest Cram School Craze: Sex Ed Camps


SHANDONG, East China — “What are the differences between men’s and women’s bodies?” asks Jiang Lingling. The 11 young children huddled around her look thoughtful for a moment. “Girls’ chests are bigger than boys’,” says one boy. “But Captain America’s chest is also big,” counters another.

At the back of the room, the children’s parents start to giggle. But Jiang isn’t fazed. She’s used to this kind of reaction. “This is a desensitization process,” she tells Sixth Tone.

The 38-year-old is one of a small group of specialists bringing a new, franker style of sex education to families across China who are tired of the conservative approach taken by most Chinese schools.

Though the State Council, China’s Cabinet, made sexual and reproductive health education compulsory in all schools in 2011, the subject remains poorly taught. Lessons still often focus on preaching abstinence rather than providing practical information about contraception, and this has left shocking numbers of young adults clueless about how to stop unwanted pregnancies.

Many parents are turning to extracurricular cram schools to give their kids a more thorough grounding in the facts of life, and this is opening the door for lecturers like Jiang who advocate a radically different approach. Last year, the national government began issuing certifications to sex education lecturers, and it has already issued more than 330 licenses.

Jiang is in Qingdao, eastern Shandong province’s coastal city of 9 million people, to teach a three-day course in empowerment sex education — a curriculum developed by the renowned Chinese sexologist Fang Gang in 2013. The approach is based on Fang’s belief that teaching children as much as possible about their bodies from a young age — the younger, the better — not only benefits their physical safety, but also their mental health.

“It empowers children to know, understand, judge, choose, and learn to be responsible,” Fang tells Sixth Tone.

The event, held at a local hotel in early August, is Qingdao’s first-ever empowerment sex ed camp. Until this year, Fang only organized courses in relatively liberal metropolises like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, but now he’s starting to spread the gospel across the country. He expects to hold camps in 20 different provinces and regions in 2019.

The Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou summer camps sold out in just a few days, but sales in Qingdao have been slower. Eleven children aged between 7 and 11 have arrived with their parents — just over half the maximum 20 spots. Jiang says demand is sure to pick up in the future.

“People from provinces like Shandong are still relatively conservative,” says Jiang. “But the parents who attend are open-minded and understand the importance of such education for young children.”

Sex education lecturers Wang Yi (left) and Jiang Lingling (right) show children male and female organs on dolls during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 2, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Sex education lecturers Wang Yi (left) and Jiang Lingling (right) show children male and female organs on dolls during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 2, 2019. Fan Yiying

One of those parents is Wang Yanhua, who has spent more than 5,000 yuan ($700) on accommodation, food, and the booking fee to travel over 300 kilometers from her hometown Weihai and make sure her 9-year-old son Luoyuan could attend. She says it was worth it.

“It’s not cheap for anyone,” says Wang. “But the real problem is, even if you have money, it’s so rare to find good sex education opportunities like this.”

The 43-year-old tried to convince her friends to also bring their kids, but they told her they did not consider sex education that important. This is especially true of parents with young boys, according to Wang. “Some parents of sons think that boys don’t lose anything if they get a girl pregnant, or that sexual assault doesn’t happen to boys,” she says.

For many of the parents, the camp is a learning opportunity for them as well as their children. Several confess being unsure of how to respond to sex-related questions, though they dislike the traditional Chinese dodge of telling their children that they were found in a dustbin.

Luoyuan first asked where he came from at 5 years old. Wang told him: “Mom has a seed, Dad has a seed, and the two seeds grow together in Mom’s belly.” But now he is growing evermore curious and confused. “So, I told him there’s a summer camp in Qingdao where you can learn all about it,” says Wang.

Jiang starts the first day of activities by playing a set of cartoons showing how a couple falls in love and gives birth to a baby. When the pictures of male and female sexual organs appear on the screen, the children begin to laugh. But Jiang insists they treat them matter-of-factly.

“This is called a penis, not a wee-wee,” she tells the children, none of whom have ever heard the word before. “This is a vagina.” Jiang does not use any nicknames or pronouns. “The idea we want to convey is that every organ is equal and noble,” she says.

Within 15 minutes, the children are able to say the names of the body parts naturally, without laughter or awkwardness. This is easiest with young children, Jiang says. “That is why we emphasize the importance of early sex education,” she adds.

A girl in the sex education summer camp experiments with “blood” on a pad in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A girl in the sex education summer camp experiments with “blood” on a pad in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying

After the knowing your body course, parents are most keen for their children to experience the lesson on preventing sexual assault. The number of reported cases of sexual assault against children has risen in China, from 2,962 recorded cases in 2017 to 3,567 last year. While much of this increase can be attributed to growing awareness of child protection issues and timelier reporting of cases, parents are still concerned.

Jiang asks the children to draw small figures on a piece of paper, then mark up the body with colored pencils — green for where it’s OK for others to touch, red for where they don’t want to be touched, and yellow for where they’re not sure. Then, she invites them to show their cards. They accurately use the words “breasts,” “buttocks,” and “penis” — which they have just learned — to describe their drawings. “If the child can accurately use these terms, it could greatly help a police investigation,” says Jiang.

But as the first day comes to a close, some parents express concern that their children will be mocked by their peers for using formal terms like “penis” rather than “wee-wee.” “You need to know that what your children have learned today is the most accurate and scientific knowledge, and you — the parents — should be proud of that,” Jiang tells them. “If they are teased because of that, then that is due to others’ ignorance.”
The parents are also forced to grapple with their own views during the second day of classes, which focuses on sexuality and gender issues.

After learning about the effects of gender stereotypes, Wang feels guilty about making her son play with toy cars and water pistols rather than buying him the Barbie doll he has always wanted.

“I was so worried that he might be gay or transgender,” says Wang. “But now I understand that hobbies and good traits have nothing to do with gender or sexuality.” During the break between classes, Wang apologizes to Luoyuan, who looks surprised. “It’s OK, Mom,” he says quickly, before rushing back to his seat.

The lecture about gender stereotypes also makes an impression on 10-year-old Yaya. Her father Wang Tong — no relation to Wang Yanhua — often says that her grandparents describe her as a tomboy when she misbehaves. “Dad, I thought I was doing something wrong, but now I know boys and girls are equal,” Yaya whispers to Wang Tong, the only father attending the event.

As a pediatrician, Wang Tong, 38, understands the importance of sex education. “It’s easier to cure physical diseases; mental illnesses are difficult to cure, as they’re largely impacted by the family and a lack of sex education,” he tells Sixth Tone after the entire camp is done. He says he can do a better job of teaching Yaya about physiology and reproduction but believes it’s better to have professional experts teach her about these psychosocial issues.

Yaya has not received any sex education at school, according to Wang Tong. “Many parents can’t accept it, and schools don’t want to get in trouble,” he says. In 2017, when a school in the eastern city of Hangzhou tried to introduce a more detailed sex education curriculum, it faced backlash from some parents arguing that second grade was too young to learn about intercourse, gender equality, and sexual orientation.

Sex education lecturer Wang Yi shows children how to use a tampon on a doll during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Sex education lecturer Wang Yi shows children how to use a tampon on a doll during a sex education summer camp in Qingdao, Shandong province, Aug. 4, 2019. Fan Yiying

On the last day of the summer camp, Wang Yi — who runs the event alongside Jiang and has no relation to Wang Yanhua or Wang Tong — shows all the children how to use cups, sanitary pads, and tampons on a doll. She then hands out disposable underwear and pads for the children to practice on their own.

“For girls, having their first period is something we should celebrate,” says Wang Yi. “For boys, the earlier they know about how pads work, the better they’ll learn to respect women. It’s an education in responsible intimacy.”

Since 2008, Chinese law has stated that fifth and sixth graders should learn about menstruation and wet dreams, but the children in Qingdao have received no education about this. They fall over each other to ask questions. “What color is sperm?” “Do we need a pad for the sperm?” “Would a tampon grow as big as a penis that might hurt the vagina?”

The parents look at each other, slack-jawed. Wang Yi suggests that fathers and mothers share their experiences with their children. “I always avoided answering when Luoyuan asked me about pads,” Wang Yanhua says. “But now I feel more comfortable talking about it with him.”

When asked how his family has been influenced by the summer camp, Wang Tong says it’s hard to say how much Yaya could learn in just three days, but he is sure she has learned some valuable principles. “It’s more important for the parents to accept these principles and apply them in daily life,” he says. “The lecturers only plant seeds; whether they grow depends on us.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.