An animal rights activist buys a dog from a vendor who threatens to beat the animals if the activists don't buy them in Yulin, China, on June 20. (Li Ke/EPA)

The town of Yulin, near China's border with Vietnam, is like a lot of the country's other bustling regional cities, except for one thing: Every year at the summer solstice, it holds a festival where town residents quaff copious amounts of alcohol, slurp the juicy fruit of lychees and, yes, eat dog meat.

The Yulin dog-eating festival is supposed to take place tomorrow — activists say as many as 10,000 dogs are slaughtered for the occasion every year. Growing international and domestic opprobrium, though, has made the annual event a controversy.

Tens of thousands of vociferous netizens have launched petitions and online campaigns to get the event banned and the dogs rescued. Similar pressure has led to dog-eating festivals in other parts of China being canceled.

The festival in Yulin is, as state news agency Xinhua puts it, "only a local folk custom, without official sanction." According to traditional lore, the consumption of dog meat yields good health and luck. But activists have pointed out how decidedly untrue those superstitions may be, citing a "black chain" of unethical, unsanitary practices that may mean that those eating dog meat are at risk of contracting rabies or other diseases.

According to animal rights groups, many of the dogs netted for these festivals are strays and stolen pets, drugged or poisoned before being kept in ghastly conditions in pens and then later prepared for consumption. Rights group AnimalsAsia says local tradition can't be invoked as an excuse for these practices:

The progression of civilisation requires culture and tradition to be continuously reviewed. Traditions and customs inconsistent with modern civilisation cannot be maintained. Looking back at history, we see that many inhumane “traditions” — slavery and foot-binding, for example, have been protested and outlawed by society. Their elimination encourages a harmonious and healthy society, and a positive national image, without causing harm to our rich culture. This way we can keep alive the valuable traditions that actually benefit society. “Traditional culture” should not be an excuse for corruption and cruelty.

Beyond matters of public health, there's also the question of the treatment of the animals. China's legislature has yet to enact a proposed animal protection law. But a vocal lobby of animal rights advocates exists, aided by the support of tens of thousands online. Anti-dog eating activists journeyed to Yulin this week and bought dogs at dog markets.

According to social media reports, at least three dog lovers bought 10 dogs each. When they attempted to bargain with the vendor, he angrily warned that he would beat the animals to death if the activists didn't meet his price., a major news portal, reported that a group of activists and a Buddhist monk went to Yulin and set up a memorial for slain dogs.

The attention has irked others, though, with some locals in Yulin — including dog meat traders — staging counter protests and sitting down to their dog-meat banquets earlier in the week. "I actually don't eat dog meat, but they insult our Yulin people in such a way," one resident told a local newspaper, reacting to the negative public scrutiny heaped upon the town. "This year I surely to have join the dog meat festival."

— Elena Liu reported from Beijing