Roughly 10,000 dogs were slaughtered this June for the annual Lychee and Dog Meat Festival in Yulin, China, despite rumors that the festival had been cancelled based on false news of a ban on dog meat. The festival began in the 1990s to celebrate the summer solstice, though the Chinese practice of eating dog meat predates written history due to the belief that the meat brings health and good luck.
Unsurprisingly, intensive online campaigns including various Change.org petitions and the tag #StopYulin have arisen in the U.S., attempting to force the Chinese government to ban the festival. In 2016, the most popular petition garnered over 11 million signatures. This summer, a Floridian group crowdsourced funding for a cargo plane to fly individual dogs to safety in the U.S.. Despite its participants’ positive intentions, Yulin activism is misguided, hypocritical and culturally insensitive.
It is surprising that the same widespread #StopYulin outrage is not directed toward factory farming practices in the U.S., where American consumers have more power to affect change. Roughly 10 billion land animals are killed for food each year in the U.S., making the 10,000 dogs killed annually in Yulin appear paltry.
It may be suggested that speciesism, or the treatment of some species as inherently more valuable than others, is the culprit at work here. While it can be easy to dismiss images of chickens on Tyson farms caked in their own fecal matter, there is something uniquely mesmerizing about seeing puppies cuddled up in a cage overseas.
That said, speciesism is not a fully sufficient explanation for the situation at hand. It fails to address the utter absense of mainstream activism directed towards the less overt, but more widespread, occurrence of canine euthanasia in shelters across America. According to the ASPCA, in the U.S. alone, approximately 1.5 million shelter animals are euthanized each year including 670,000 dogs, 80% of whom are completely healthy and could have been adopted had consumers not chosen pet store dogs instead. Given the lack of attention paid to the murder of dogs in America, the reasons behind selective outrage related to Yulin come more into focus. There exists a long and illustrious history of American portrayals of Asian countries as associated with backwardness and savagery. The indiscriminate killing of Chinese puppies plays perfectly into this discourse, creating a paradox in which American activists can be seen as politically correct or “woke” while simultaneously promoting worn-out and harmful stereotypes.
The excessive attention paid to Yulin, particularly through activists’ common refrain, “Culture is not an excuse!” exemplifies Western exceptionalism at its most hypocritical. Apparently, culture is an excuse for inflicting cruelty upon animals—that is, so long as it’s American culture, which is so intertwined with the consumption of meat that we commemorate Thanksgiving with turkey and Independence Day with BBQ.
While activists with Yulin tunnel vision continue on their crusades, American fast food chains continue to open up shop in Asian nations. China has already begun to adopt forms of factory farming modeled directly on the U.S.. At worst, some form of cultural imperialism appears to be taking place, and at best, it seems clear that the contemporary brand of social media-based activism may be more based upon vacuous virtue-signaling than achieving broader cultural understanding or alleviating suffering.
To further explore whether Yulin-esque activism is justified, a role-reversal may be useful. Imagine that millions of activists started a movement to secure a ban on Fourth of July BBQ, even purchasing planes to fly individual cows across the ocean to safety. In our current political climate, this would likely be labeled a war on “western values,” resulting in efforts at securitization marked by military buildup and crackdowns on immigration. To be clear, it is good that pictures of dogs in cages tug at people’s heartstrings. Now more than ever, as global meat consumption skyrockets, fostering compassion for animals is important. And it brings me unabashed joy to see that the prevalence of dog-eating has been on the decline in China. But before signing another petition, it may be wise to consider your reasons for doing so and the cultural implications of your activism