Misguided Protesters Target NYC’s Chinatown Over Dog Meat Festival in China

Animal rights protesters gather in NYC's Chinatown to protest the Yulin Lychee and Dog Meat Festival, which opened today in Southern China. (Photo Credit: NY Daily News / Susan Watts)
Animal rights protesters gather in NYC’s Chinatown to protest the Yulin Lychee and Dog Meat Festival, which opened today in Southern China. (Photo Credit: NY Daily News / Susan Watts)

Since 2009, one festival in China has caused a stir in the animal rights community. The festival — the Yulin Lychee and Dog Meat Festival — was inaugurated that year, and immediately resurrected controversy over the ethics of consuming dog meat. Pictures of dogs crammed into tiny wire cages have shocked netizens for the last several years, along with reports that as many as 10,000 dogs are slaughtered annually at the festival.

The festival — which is not sanctioned by the local government — is intended to celebrate a centuries-old tradition in parts of China where dog meat is considered a delicacy. Government officials insist that the festival is attended by a small minority of local residents. This doesn’t stop outraged animal rights activists, however, from protesting the festival as outrageous and unethical.

The question of dog meat consumption is, I think, a weighty one. While I have never consumed dog meat, I can find nothing more (or less) unethical about eating canines than any other meat considered acceptable for consumption in the West. Animals are not by nature categorized as “food animals” or “companion animals” — this is a human conceit. Dogs are no smarter than pigs, which are routinely raised and slaughtered for food in America. Cuteness is subjective. Other animals that Americans typically consider to be cherished pets are traditionally eaten in other Western nations, such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and horses. Dogs slaughtered in Yulin are not treated less humanely than some livestock raised for consumption in America, where cows, pigs and chicken are routinely housed in deplorable and unsanitary conditions.

Let’s be real: for some activists, this really just boils down to an “ick” factor. Yet, cultural qualms about eating dog meat are just that — our qualms. Other cultures are equally as disgusted by how we view some animals — cow, for example — as totally acceptable all-American food sources. I may not be really up for eating dog, but I have little business telling someone else that they should abide by my disgust. It is culturally imperialist to assert that food sources I might find unappetizing has no business being on someone else’s plate.

Yet, animal rights activists rarely confront — or even acknowledge — how their actions blur the lines between a reasonable conversation about animal rights and historic anti-Asian stereotypes. This is not just a conversation about the ethical treatment of dogs. This is also a conversation about race, ethnicity, privilege, and stereotypes.

For centuries, anti-Asian stereotypes have included portrayals of Chinese as barbaric consumers of dirty and unimaginable food sources. The stereotype of the “Heathen Chinee” typically associated Chinese immigrants with the frequent eating of rat or dog as evidence of their cultural and moral inferiority to Whiteness, thereby co-opting a cultural culinary tradition to rationalize white supremacy. Meanwhile, we rarely consider how the development of traditions around “unconventional” meat sources is also as much about institutionalized poverty as it is about culinary interest. Itshould come as little surprise that the parts of China where canine meat is consumed are also predominantly rural areas where livestock may have been historically and seasonally scarce. In America, anti-Asian stereotypes about dog and rat meat were further reinforced by the fact that early East Asian immigrants to America were often trapped in indentured servitude and ghettoized to ethnic enclaves where more conventional food sources were simply inaccessible and unavailable. There is a certain economic privilege in moralizing about certain food sources, when the tradition may have its roots in systemic hunger and poverty.

Today’s animal rights activists ignore Asian Americans’ history of enduring stereotypes of the “Heathen Chinee” when they confuse the enjoyment of dog meat by some Chinese people as endemic to all Chinese people. Last Friday, roughly twenty misguided animal rights activists took to the streets of New York City’s Chinatown to protest the consumption of dog meat in Southern China. The animal rights activists claim they are interested in advocating that China ban dog meat festivals. Yet, to accomplish this, they spent a day harassing Chinese American restaurant owners and patrons, most of whom have zero connection with the Yulin dog meat festival, with a message of cultural intolerance and nativism.

Said one protester to the New York Daily News:

“That’s not how we roll in our country. If they … bring that tradition to our country, they’ll be investigated and will go to jail,” he said.

This protest was a clusterfuck of compounding stereotypes. The activists invoked the “Heathen Chinee” stereotype with their assumption that the consumption of dog meat is widespread in China. The activists invoked the Perpetual Foreigner stereotype with their organizing of a protest targeting Chinese Americans about the goings-on in parts of Southern China. The activists reinforced a White-normative framework of what is, and what isn’t, considered “acceptably American”. The activists even implicitly reference the Model Minority stereotype with their bizarre assumption that the actions of White animal rights activists are needed to galvanize Chinese people to political action.

Never mind, of course, that animal rights are increasingly an important issue for Chinese citizens, amid rising dog ownership among China’s wealthy and middle class. Since the festival’s inception in 2009, it has faced profound public backlash within China as activists gather at the festival and purchase and save dogs destined for slaughter. A recent poll suggests that as many as two-thirds of Chinese people oppose animal cruelty and support animal products produced humanely.

Yet, last week’s animal rights protesters in New York City ignored the burgeoning Chinese animal rights movement, and in so doing erased their work. Instead, they assumed that the West’s moral superiority regarding the ethical treatment of animals is needed to save Chinese people from our own barbarism.

I get that activists angered about the Yulin festival wanted to do something about it. But they could have raised money or posted selfies supporting the work of Chinese animal rights groups. They could have written letters to the Chinese government, or even protested outside of New York City’s Chinese consulate where they could speak to the actual Chinese government. They didn’t need to confuse the difference between Chinese and Chinese American with their moral scolding. They didn’t need to trample over the work of Chinese animal rights activists by reinforcing the narrative of Eastern backwards-ness and Western enlightenment.

And they sure didn’t need to invoke the language of xenophobia with their “don’t bring this to our country” rhetoric. Chinese Americans are Americans. Most of us aren’t really down to eat dog; and oh, by the way, this is our country too.

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  • Uh, perhaps, but did you read where the author explains that dogs are (a) the only animal outside of humans that can recognize emotions in another species and (b) the other species whose emotions they can recognize happens to be us? Strange, the study investigators give dogs a whole lot more credit than you seem willing to. Take, for example, Dr. Kun Guo: “Our study shows that dogs have the ability to integrate two different sources of sensory information into a coherent perception of emotion in both humans and dogs. To do so requires a system of internal categorisation of emotional states. This cognitive ability has until now only been evidenced in primates and the capacity to do this across species only seen in humans.”

    Actually, you are overinterpreting the findings of this study. This study is, quite simply, not evidence of dog emotions as being similar to human emotions. It was entirely about social cognition and communication.

    Further, the investigators themselves speculate that multisensory stimulus gathering and integration may be a common form of empathic (i.e. communication of state-of-mind) between animals, and not something specific to dogs. They say as much in the final sentence of their report, which is: “our results may indicate a more widespread distribution of the ability to spontaneously integrate multimodal cues among nonhuman
    mammals, which may be key to understanding the evolution of social cognition.”

    You are overinterpreting the data by saying that this is evidence of a “special status” for dogs; and it’s not a conclusion that even the investigators themselves would cosign. Given that, your arguments about how it is not moral to raise dogs specifically for food are just that, an over- and mis-interpretation of cherrypicked science to confirm a preexisting bias.

    Surely you aren’t contending that dogs were domesticated as a livestock animal? Because if that’s your position, there isn’t a scintilla of evidence to support it. Moreover, you once again baldly claim that all dogs were consumed by primitive peoples once they were too old to be useful – where is your support for this? Egyptian cultures buried dogs with their dead. Google “ancient dog burial sites” while you’re at it.

    Uhhhh, I didn’t argue this. That’s strawman arguing.

    Also, you’ve cherrypicked dog history, which also includes evidence of dog consumption throughout the world. As I pointed out in my comment, what’s clear is that dog domestication was not cut-and-dry. In fact, I would argue it is naive to simply categorize domestication of animals as either “livestock” or “non-livestock”, since most animals likely carried out multiple functions throughout their domesticated lives. Dogs were likely domesticated and bred for non-livestock traits (hunting, guarding, etc), but that this did not protect them from consumption during times of food scarcity and/or when they were no longer able to carry out those tasks.

    Silly myths around the supposed medicinal and virility properties of dog meat don’t deserve my respect, and certainly those that endorse torturing the animal to make its meat more tender do not (barbaric!).

    And again, you reveal your culturally imperialist disdain for non-Western myths. There are a variety of traditional and herbal treatments that have not been validated by Western medicine. That 1) does not automatically mean that the medicinal value is absent (there are entire branches of research currently devoted to examining naturopathic treatments for potential medicinal value; while unlikely to be found for dogmeat, we cannot entirely exclude the possibility at the moment); and 2) simply does not erase the cultural value of such practices. Your profound disdain for unfamiliar cultures is, at this point, offensive, foolmeonce.

    As I’ve repeatedly said, your brash dismissal of unfamiliar cultural histories and heritages is the same mentality that motivated cultural erasure of Asians, Native people, and Black folk throughout history. The broad characterization of non-Western practices as “barbaric” motivated slavery and genocide. That you simply cannot see the racial hubris here suggests to me that further conversation is unproductive.

    You find it unethical to stress an animal prior to butchery. As do I. As do many animal rights activists in Asia. But, the difference between me and Chinese animal rights activists vs you is that you deny the possibility of a responsible dogmeat industry. This suggests that your problem here isn’t the treatment of animals prior to butchery, but rather that you find dogs an invalid meat source in the first place.

    That’s not about wanting to create a more ethical and responsible meat industry in Asia. It’s about wanting to export your cultural values on what is “icky” vs. “non-icky” cuisine onto other people, regardless of people’s own distinctive cultural histories, or regional cuisines. That’s the same mentality that tried to civilize Native children, rationalized chattel slavery as a “taming” of the wild Black barbarian, and which motivated religious conversion of Black, Brown, Red, and Yellow peoples. What you advocate asserts your moral superiority over other people. It offers no possibility of (ethically practiced) diversity in moral values with regard to meat sources. You would simply erase a the histories of unfamiliar peoples, simply because they conflict with YOUR beliefs.

    With all due respect, if you cannot see the racial issues here, then I think the animal rights movement (at least as represented by the rhetoric presented here) has a serious race problem they (and you?) need to overcome before any further productive conversation is possible.

    ***

    What’s most ironic is that if you were to not ground your argument in cultural imperialism, you’d have a sympathetic audience in me. M

    My issue isn’t really about dogmeat. I offer that there is a middleground that can be reached with regard to ethical dog farming for meat, but that it certainly doesn’t currently exist in Yulin, where vendors have been documented to violate the industry’s own regulations, such as they are. I don’t defend this industry as its currently practiced in Yulin. I’ve certainly never eaten dog myself.

    My issue here is entirely how Western or White animal rights activists are completely insensitive with regard to issues of race, colonialism, and imperialism when they present arguments about the ethical treatment of animals. When they do so, they reframe the debate so that more value is placed in animals than in non-White people (as a whole), which is patently offensive to our humanity. We, like White/Western people, have the right to cultural and political agency (and to evolve our own ethical outlook on animal rights in a way that references and respects cultural heritages), but when issues of racism and imperialism are simply swept under the rug by overly-enthusiastic White/Western animal rights activists, the world’s people of colour are denied those rights.

    We are literally told that our histories and heritages are less important than animals.

    Thank you very much for modeling exactly the kind of problematic racial insensitivity of some aspects of the White/Western animal rights movement that turns off otherwise receptive people of colour, and that this post was entirely about.

    I’m not sure there’s much more to say here.

  • foolmeonce

    Thank you for the engaging in this discussion with me. Regardless of where your readers come out on this issue, I appreciate the opportunity you’ve allowed me to share my perspective.
    I’ll end by stating that I do not have a “profound disdain for unfamiliar cultures” (if you knew more about me, you’d realize this) — I merely did my best here to lay out the objective scientific and practical reasons why I believe dog meat is a cultural relic that has no place in modern society, given the impossibility of humanely “farming” these creatures for food. Know that I am sensitive to your points about Western imperialism on this and other issues, and only ask you to trust that I am sincere when I insist that neither anti-Asian racial bias nor any notion of western superiority informs my views on this subject.
    Cheers,

  • pennyroyal

    this is ‘virtue signaling’ –like expressing pride or superiority that ‘we’ don’t do this. Misguided and a harmful thing to do restauranteurs. A form of Scapegoating. It’s in Southeast Asia, not here.
    If you want to get bent out of shape about something, get angry at the race war the alt-right/ white supremacists tried to start in Charlottesville during their “Summer of Hate”.

  • Brian Sams

    Give the addresses of all those lesbians who are protesting. That way all the Hindus can protest outside their houses for eating beef.