SHANGHAI, Aug. 9 -- It was late last month, the boy said, his voice still tinged with emotion, when he and his father were forced to march their two German shepherds to a public square and hang them from a tree.
The boy, Xia Shaoli, was not alone in his pain. Officials in Mouding County in southwestern Yunnan Province had ordered the mass extermination of dogs, pets as well as strays, after three people died in a rabies outbreak. And as a crowd gathered around a large tree in the village of Xiajiashan, owners complied one after another with commands to string their dogs up.
According to official figures, 54,429 dogs were killed during the Yunnan campaign. Reports in the Chinese news media say that some people out walking their dogs had the animals seized by gangs of vigilantes, who clubbed the dogs to death on the spot.
The events in Yunnan have been quickly followed by rabies scares in other parts of China. On Wednesday, the Chinese news media reported the killings of 280 dogs in Wuxi, a city near Shanghai, and 13 in the city of Fuzhou in southern Fujian Province.
Earlier this week, a cluster of 16 villages in the southwestern part of Shandong Province declared a rabies alert, and county officials have drafted a dog extermination plan that would call for the killing of any dog found within a three-mile radius of any known rabies case.
There are half a million dogs in the city of Jining, which encompasses the 16 villages, the official New China News Agency says. Officials there said their extermination plan was scheduled to begin later this month. There have also been reports of smaller extermination schemes in other parts of the country, notably in Sichuan Province.
As remarkable as the killings themselves, however, has been the response. With its rising prosperity, China is developing a pet-owning culture, with dogs standing out as a particular favorite. As word of the killings has spread here, pet owners have begun to mobilize -- speaking out online and circulating petitions -- to try to stop the killings.
In fact, discussion of the issue has surpassed the bounds of a simple conversation about pets' rights, with many commentators sharply questioning a system that could order the mass extermination of dogs, whether or not they are licensed and vaccinated. The reaction of groups and individuals, often through the Internet, also provides a striking illustration of the emergence of true public opinion in China, unmediated by the official press or censors.