A German online retail company nearly sparked a diplomatic incident after refusing to stop selling t-shirts that have been deemed “racist” by some angry shoppers.
Spreadshirt is an online marketplace that lets users create their own t-shirt designs, which they can then sell on the website.
Recently, two user-generated designs with rather provocative messages were featured on the platform. One read: “Save a dog, eat a Chinese” and the other one: “Save a shark, eat a Chinese.”
It is unclear whether the creators behind the t-shirts intended to raise awareness about animal rights or whether they were simply making a joke.
In any case, the t-shirts were brought to the attention of the Spreadshirt team, which decided based on their “open platform principle” to keep the two designs in question.
The reactions from Asian netizens was swift.
“If you think that’s a good design and should be kept, I would like to know the idea/thinking behind this design. It can’t be based on a racist joke that “all Chinese eat dog” right? Or your designers are just really like this joke? Another way of thinking, if we replace “Chinese” with any other race, would you still think it’s appropriate?” said a user named Hanyu Zhao.
These type of comments echoed the sentiments of many shoppers who felt that under the pretense of “making jokes” and “being creative” the company was allowing users to perpetuate negative stereotypes about Asians.
The Chinese embassy in Germany also weighed in on the issue by condemning the retailer’s decision to keep the items.
Officials released a brief statement on Thursday calling on the company to stop the t-shirts with “slogans insulting Chinese” and issue a formal apology.
The embassy argued that rather than sounding apologetic, Spreadshirt’s statement only “defended its indulgence in insult and discrimination” according to Chinese state media the Global Times.
Other people defended the German retailer’s decision to uphold their users’ right to free speech.
“[Social-justice warriors] with humour bipass, how pathetic. Of all things to get upset about. What upsets me is the way Chinese treat dogs, kill dogs, defin sharks and cage brears for bils (sic),” wrote someone on Facebook.
While dog meat is still consumed in certain parts of China (the country holds an annual dog meat festival in the town of Yulin), dog-eating is not part of mainstream Chinese culinary culture, according to Humane Society International. In fact, a 2016 poll revealed that nearly 70% of the population have never tried it.
Shark fins, however, have long been considered a luxury item and are a popular delicacy at weddings.
But fins too are increasingly being taken off menus, due to changing public attitudes towards shark fishing. According to a Wild Aid report, sales of shark fin have been steadily declining in China since 2012.