About the author: Abdourahamane Ly is a Guinean animal activist, known as @fulanivegan on Instagram who has studied and lived in China for 13 years. Currently based in Rwanda, he is an intersectional African Vegan who is dedicated to anti-speciesism, anti-racism, and climate justice activism.
Some background information
When I was 19, I moved to China to start my Bachelor’s degree and ended up staying there for 13 years. I come from Guinea Conakry, a country in West Africa, and grew up in a strict Muslim household. Meat consumption was considered an extremely important part of our culture. Being from the Fulani ethnic group, who are traditionally nomadic herdsmen, I had never heard of veganism or vegetarianism. This changed once I arrived in China. I met many vegetarians and vegans whose reasons for adopting a vegan diet ranged from Buddhism and health to concern for animal welfare and animal rights. I learned that a number of traditions in China involve some elements of vegetarianism. And while much of my inspiration for becoming vegan came from philosophers like Peter Singer, my initial introduction to ethical vegetarianism came from living in China.
However, the more active I had become in vegan activism outside China, the more I have noticed people have a big misconception of both China in general, but particularly Chinese people and non-human animals. China’s mistreatment of non-human animals dominates much of the animal rights activism online and is often accompanied by racist narratives.
Why the misconception?
Like the rest of society, the vegan movement has a race issue. This year, white veganism has been exposed for what it is: problematic at best, racist at worst. Vegan organizations have failed to advocate for Black lives and promoted harmful rhetoric that dismisses non-white vegans and their realities. The most obvious example of this was Anonymous for the Voiceless’ (AV) dismissal of Black Lives Matter and their careless response to criticism.
But this year we have seen another race problem within the vegan movement. Anti-China hate is not uncommon to see on animal rights pages. This year, I have watched this become worse, with Covid 19 providing a perfect opportunity for racists to demonize Chinese people further by arguing they are responsible for the worldwide pandemic due to their weird eating habits and “bat eating tendencies”. This is despite the fact that we have seen a number of viruses emerge from factory farms in the West that have put entire populations at risk.
While political critique is valid and important, demonizing an entire population is not.
The Ebola outbreak that started in Guinea in 2014 and quickly killed up to 11,000 people in West Africa, was started after a young child consumed a bat. And yet I have never been called a “bat eater”. Instead of focusing on how humans’ intrusion into natural habitats is putting us at risk of more of these pandemics, people are using it as an excuse to racially attack Chinese people or anyone that looks remotely Chinese. Even white non-vegans post pictures of dogs with the hashtags #IHateChina and shocking captions saying Chinese people have no humanity. Not once noticing the racism or the hypocrisy.
The fixation with the Yulin dog meat festival and not factory farms or horse meat eating within Europe often stems from Sinophobia (anti-Chinese sentiment) and not concern for animal rights.
While political critique is valid and important, demonizing an entire population is not. When discussing China, people are often unable to separate political debates from racist dehumanizing ideology. The reason why most people assume China is so much worse than other countries when talking about animal cruelty is often based in racism and sinophobia and has no basis in reality. The only difference between Chinese and American or European animal cruelty is that it is out in the open in China. Western animal abuse is hidden behind factory farms’ walls and kept out of the public’s view by prosecuting anyone that dares reveal the footage.
Some reasons why people are vegan in China
- Buddhist beliefs: China has a long history of Buddhism. Vegetarianism is an important tenant of Buddhism and is rooted is ideas surrounding Karmic retribution, protection of life, and compassion for living things. This tradition means most Chinese people have an understanding of what veganism is. Reactions from Chinese people when I tell them I am vegan often range from “you are such a good person” to “you must be very healthy”. This is compared to when I tell my West African friends *stares in confusion*. With Europe and America reactions ranging from “you will die of a protein deficiency” to *extreme hostility*.
- Concern for health and environment: A growing middle class in China has become much more aware of the negative impacts that excessive meat consumption can have on your health and the environment. A number of food quality scandals have increased people’s awareness around food quality and there is some skepticism around the “naturalness” of western meat production methods that have been adopted in China on a large scale. A new type of vegetarianism has been linked with a way in which Chinese people can “grapple” with problems such as climate change and food safety issues in China.
- Animal liberation: the political climate can mean people are less free to speak up about certain issues and has often been considered the reason why China has no overall animal cruelty laws for domestic animals. But, despite this, China’s animal rights groups are some of the most active interest groups in the country. They have been fighting a difficult fight for a long time and have succeeded on many fronts including preventing the introduction of American rodeos and Spanish Bullfighting into China. Activists have also been successful in changing the animal testing laws and banning the sale of dog meat.
Despite the term “vegan” being coined by Donald Watson in 1944, China has a long history of ethical vegetarianism. Even prior to the introduction of Buddhism, ancient texts written between 1046 – 256 BCE discussed the importance of eating vegetarian diets on certain days. Vegetarianism became more popular during the Song dynasty but was radically transformed with the introduction of Buddhism.
There is a common misconception that it is impossible to eat vegan in China. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The long history of Buddhism in the country means there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan Buddhist restaurant options, particularly in major cities. Not only that but there has been an increasing rise in plant-based restaurants and products aimed at wealthy, health-conscious consumers. Chinese cuisine is not reliant on dairy, making the leap to a completely plant-based diet very accessible after giving up meat. Soy milk, tofu, bamboo shoots, cabbage along with street snacks such as sweet potato and corn, are all staples in China.
Top vegan restaurants to try in Shanghai:
The government is taking steps to tackle meat consumption on a number of fronts. Meat was once considered a luxury in China, but the rapid economic development has resulted in far higher meat consumption. They adapted dietary guidelines in order to reach the goal of reducing meat consumption by 50%. Adverts featuring Chinese celebrities can be seen around major cities, encouraging citizens to reduce their meat consumption and help the environment.
However, China, like most countries, is still heavily investing in the meat industry in order to feed rising demand. But unlike many countries, including the United States, the government has recognized that animal agriculture is causing big problems environmentally and are implementing policies to tackle this.
Up to 62% of the population are willing to make the switch to buying plant-based alternatives.
There has also been big investment in plant-based meats, and up to 62% of the population are willing to make the switch to buying plant-based alternatives. Beyond Meat is trying to cash in on the Chinese market, by launching a major new production facility and entering into deals with the likes of Starbucks to roll out their products across China.
2020 resulted in the government taking further action to tackle wildlife crime by making the consumption of wildlife illegal. They also responded to the widespread public opinion that dogs are companion animals and not food by making the sale of their meat illegal. These victories for animal rights activists in China have been a long time coming and represent the overwhelming opinions of Chinese people, particularly the young.
China has more vegans than the entire population of Australia, but despite the growing number of vegans, meat consumption is also on the rise. This represents a similar trend across the world.
So how can we make veganism more accessible to people around the world, not just white communities? In order to make the vegan movement more accessible to POC, we must let go of harmful narratives about certain people and animal rights. China has a much longer history of compassion for non-human animals than Europeans, and it is time people acknowledged it.
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