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.