In what has come as a surprise to pretty much nobody, jaded rocker Morrissey drew fresh allegations of racism at the weekend by claiming that the Chinese are a ‘subspecies’. His comments, made in an interview with Simon Armitage in The Guardian, came as he criticised China’s dubious animal rights record. Here’s what he said:
“Did you see the thing on the news about their treatment of animals and animal welfare? Absolutely horrific. You can’t help but feel that the Chinese are a subspecies.”
It’s not difficult to see what’s wrong with that statement. It’s perfectly principled to bring into question some of China’s practices with regard to animal welfare, as increasing numbers of Chinese have been doing (see here, here, here and here). But to tar a whole race with such a vile term as ‘subspecies’ because of the actions of some goes beyond the pale, and places Morrissey’s comments firmly in racism territory. There really is no defending these types of comments, which are the latest in a string of accusations of racism that have been made against the ageing rocker.
Those who would seek to defend his comments (some of whom can be found, predictably, on hate sites such as Stormfront and Mail Online) by citing some of the terrible cases of animal cruelty that occur in Chinese zoos and circuses entirely miss the relevance of a term like ‘subspecies’. This slur doesn’t just refer to Chinese zoo keepers, circus owners or even the government, but rather to the entire Chinese race. There really should be no place for this type of thinking in modern Britain, particularly from an individual in such a position of influence, and you shouldn’t need me to point out why. Morrissey would do well to consider the findings of a 2005 International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) poll which found that 90% of Chinese and Asians believed ‘we have a moral duty to minimise [animal] suffering’.
Context is crucial when commenting on China. Our position in the UK of being a small, fairly homogenous country equips us pretty poorly to understand some of the issues facing Modern China. The vastness and diversity of China really makes it incredibly difficult to fit it into our tidy conceptions of what constitutes a ‘country’. China is more comparable to the whole of Europe than it is to the UK or France or Spain. It’s composite regions and provinces have a fractured history or unification and division, and although Mandarin is acknowledged as the national language, regions each have their own diverse and mutually incomprehensible dialects. Add to this the fact that China is home to a staggering 20% of the entire planet’s population and you begin to see why sweeping generic statements about the Chinese are pretty much impossible to make.
China is also changing. Fast. If you drive out of Shanghai you can travel 50 miles east and 150 years back in time. It really is that radical. Whilst the trendy cosmopolitan types of Shanghai and Beijing splash their cash in trendy bars and bistros, some 740 million of their fellow countrymen in the rural areas scrape by on a shoestring, and the urban-rural income gap continues to widen. Animal rights are of course of critical importance, but unfortunately they remain something of a luxury which affluence affords. We should be wary of being too judgemental considering that the average annual salary across China stands at close to just 15% of the UK average.
We must also consider that public opinion doesn’t carry quite the same weight in China as it does in the UK. I know from first-hand experience that Chinese people harbour numerous concerns regarding animal welfare, and they hardly deserve to be branded as inherently inferior for an inability to have their concerns picked up on by their country’s political system. The likes of Morrissey probably think they are helping bring the issues into the public consciousness with controversial comments like these, but I believe that they are in fact somewhat counter-productive as they produce a siege mentality amongst the Chinese, who are after all the people his comments are trying to affect. Take some of the retaliatory comments that have been posted on Chinese message boards over the weekend (Chinese – English translations my own):
“English people are all beasts, how many Africans have you killed? Chinese people don’t argue with the English, just wait until the time comes when all the English beasts will be boiled.”
“So you English are superior? You don’t eat beef? You don’t eat fish? Are cows and fish not animals? And vegetables have life too. Does your vegetarian food not include vegetables? What about rice and bread? How do you think that’s made if not with seeds from living things? Get real and stop trying to be smart.”
“Why do foreign countries feel the need to keep criticising us?”
“English people are like pigs and dogs. A contemptible nation.”
These puerile, reactionary responses were pretty typical of most comments, and it’s a shame that idiotic insults like Morrissey’s simply spawn more of the same in return. But what do we expect when the man says things like ‘the Chinese are a subspecies’? Not only were his remarks blatantly racist and grossly unfair to most Chinese, they seem to have had the effect of alienating the very people who international animal rights campaigners must rely on to drive any shift in China’s animal welfare practices. However noble his intentions with regard to animal welfare, it seems Morrissey couldn’t have got it more wrong on this one.