BEIJING - Crowds flocked to China's most notorious dog meat festival to buy butchered canines as it opened Tuesday, activists on the scene said, as the annual slaughter proceeded despite international outrage.
More than 10,000 dogs are killed at the event in conditions activists describe as brutal, with dogs beaten and boiled alive in the belief that the more terrified they are, the tastier the meat.
"It's very crowded in the Dongkou dog meat market," Peter Li, China specialist for the Humane Society International (HSI) told AFP.
The local government has dispatched extra plainclothes police to monitor outside groups and prevent scuffles between butchers and animal lovers, Li said, adding that a dog meat trader brandished a knife at journalists on the eve of the festival.
"There are plainclothes police everywhere," he said. "They watch outsiders, from outside the city and the country."
The summer solstice event proceeded despite a 11 million signature petition sent by HSI to President Xi Jinping demanding an end to the festival and video appeals from celebrities such as Matt Damon and Rooney Mara.
State-run Chinese media have defended the festival, with an editorial in the Global Times newspaper criticising foreign activism as a kind of "cultural extremism".
"Now Westerners are demanding non-Westerners change their eating habits, because they think their cultures and feelings deserve more respect than others," it said last week.
"Some Western media and animal rights protection groups have hyped up the festival to be a blot on China's national image. This is no more than a kind of cultural extremism."
Dogs are eaten year round in Yulin, as in many parts of southern China that do not attract international outrage.
Some locals say that protests have had the perverse effect of spurring more people to eat canines, but other activists said there were fewer dog meat vendors than in years past.
"There are basically two groups of people eating dog meat," Li said. "One group are people who really love dog meat. The second group are political eaters," who eat to show local pride and to spite outsiders, rather than out of taste.
Authorities installed checkpoints on the highway to stop stolen or unregistered dogs from coming into the city, he said, but added: "We don't know if that's window dressing or a permanent institution."
Asked about international opposition to the festival, China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Tuesday denied it was an official event, saying that the city government of Yulin "has never supported, organised or held a so-called Yulin dog meat festival".
"It is a personal dietary preference", she added. "There does not exist a festival that goes by the name 'dog meat'."