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Barking up the Wrong Tree

Vector Cartoon Dog Barking Up The Wrong Tree. Source: PinsToPin

All dog lovers like myself would agree that there exists no worse scenes than those taking place in summertime Yulin, where puppies were tortured, beaten, and even boiled and skinned alive to please local residents’ appetite. This year, Yulin’s annual dog meat festival consumed approximately 10,000 dogs, sparking more controversy than ever. Provocative descriptions of the event, along with graphic pictures of dogs turned into dinner, went viral on social media, and #StopYuLin2015 has in no time become a favorite hashtag of every American animal activist on Twitter, registering more than 1 million instances.

However, it is impossible to miss the voice of Western supremacy amidst the roaring international outcry. Labeling the event as “uncivilized” and “inhumane,” Americans decided to bring back the repugnancy test, declaring once again that non-Western customs are inferior and subject to Western values, likely a response to China’s growing political influence and economic power.

Despite being frequently associated with the entire country “China,” the notorious dog meat festival is actually an extremely provincial practice limited to a small town deep in the rural and impoverished Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. The festival by no means matches in scale the publicity that it gained. In fact, it never received much attention even within China until recent media campaigns in the West brought it into the spotlight. It is curious why, when Kim Kardashian flaunts mink coats and American hunters slaughter endangered wildlife in Africa for sport, an unpopular local custom in rural China suddenly turned into Western activists’ number one target. Why Yulin? Why now?

Even though on the individual level most #StopYuLin2015 protestors genuinely care about dogs, collectively it can hardly be described as a humanitarian effort, due to a lack of organized action. The protest is instead characterized by excessive anger and aimless online denunciations. It is thus reasonable to say that Yulin dog-meat festival is instead an occasion in which Westerners express their dissatisfaction with Chinese society and culture as a whole.  

As China rapidly transforms into one of the most influential actors on the world stage, increasing political, economic, and cultural interaction between China and other developed countries is inevitable. In the West, expanding news coverage of China, increasing business activities with Chinese corporations, and more frequent personal contact with Chinese nationals have all narrowed the distance between the two nations and  exposed tremendous cultural differences. For today’s Westerners, China is no longer the “mysterious East” isolated from their lives, but a constant political presence with enormous impacts on their own society.

Already reluctant to accept China’s rising international status, the West is particularly disheartened by the fact that a peer of theirs is now operating with a disparate set of cultural and political rules. Their frustration with China’s unique socialistic system has a severe impact on their subconscious ideology and makes them extra sensitive to controversies that concern China. As much as the West hopes to assimilate China politically, facing the reality that any political speech is deemed treason, spying, or defamation in China, there is not much that they can do. As a result, they began to extend their strategies from organized political opposition to a looser network of cultural criticism that targets ordinary citizens’ everyday practices. The acrimony and hostility that sprang from this irreconcilable clash of political cultures render Westerners ready to assault any minor aspect of the Chinese civil society.

There is no doubt that the West is overwhelmed by the new international arrangement that comes with the rise of China. The de facto increase of China’s voice and representation in the global community forces the West to treat China with respect despite a long-held tradition of condescension towards nations that do not imitate their behavior and values. As a result, #StopYuLin2015 is not only an instance where Western hubris comes to bear, but also a desperate endeavor to preserve Western ethnocentrism as the rule of the game in all mainstream societies. While they can be very forgiving about what happens in Zimbabwe, Venezuela, or other less politically significant regions, they will mercilessly attack any disagreeable feature belonging to a dissimilar country that is now on an equal footing with them.

In spite of the exceptional popularity of the hashtag protest, it brought little substantial result and at the same time exacerbated mutual hostility between China and the West. The failure of this movement should serve as a reminder for both sides that they have to start adjusting their relationship in light of their new international roles.

Firstly, China needs to realize that from now on, as a major world power, not only its government but the practices of its people will more frequently subject to strict international scrutiny. If China continues to resist all international influences, it will only damage its own image and further isolate itself from other developed countries.

Westerners, on the other hand, have to recognize the trend of multipolarity and release themselves from the illusion of Western hegemony. Antagonizing China and approaching cultural differences with bitterness and resentment is counterproductive to their goals. In this case, for example, even though most Chinese people find the festival distasteful and will never participate in it, they still strongly object to the hashtag protest because they consider it just another reckless Western assault on overall Chinese culture.  It is safe to say that until Westerners demonstrate more compassion for China and a genuine interest to work together with its people, it is unlikely that their endeavors will yield any tangible result.

As #StopYuLin2015 slowly fades out, it is more important to look beyond the incident and examine the bigger international context. Before both sides make an effort to ameliorate the current situation of mutual hostility, China will continue to exist as an outsider and Westerners’ protests will seem only like desperate efforts to resist the new balance of power.