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Should Chinese wet markets be closed down permanently?

Chinese 'wet' markets have, for at least the second time in two decades, become the focal points of an epidemic that has caused mass panic, economic downturns and led to over 165,000 deaths and counting.

Nearly 17 years back, the deadly SARS disease was ultimately traced to a Coronavirus that jumped from bats to Asian palm civets, a catlike creature prized as a delicacy in southern China, and then to humans involved in the wildlife trade there. According to officials and scientists, the new coronavirus (SARS CoV 2) also appears to have originated in bats and made the jump to another mammal, though which one is not yet clear. The final jump to humans is considered to have taken place at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale market, a Chinese wet market in Wuhan.

The market was closed soon after community spread of COVID was identified in China. When the government announced that it would be re-opening the market in April, 2020, it was faced with worldwide criticism. But is this criticism justified?

The case against closing wet markets

It is no surprise that Chinese 'wet' markets receive a lot of attention from the western media. In western media, “wet markets” are portrayed as emblems of Chinese otherness: chaotic versions of oriental bazaars, lawless areas where animals that should not be eaten are sold as food, and where what should not be mingled comes together (seafood and poultry, serpents and cattle). This fuels Sinophobia and anxieties of what anthropologists have long identified as “matter out of place”: a symbolic system of pollution through which proscriptions and prescriptions of what foods or foodstuffs may be combined is held up.

This image is highly flawed, not only because it relies on western sensitivities of what is eatable and what is not, and which portrays a modern form of Chinese food trade and consumption as “traditional”, but more practically, because it misrepresents the material and economic reality of these markets.

In reality, most seafood, live animal and wholesale markets in China contain far less exotic fare. An enormous variety of different kinds of market are confusingly lumped within the term “wet market”, a term that originated in Hong Kong and Singapore English to distinguish markets selling fresh meat and produce from “dry” markets selling packaged and durable goods such as textiles.

Today, several kinds of “wet markets” can be distinguished, with differences that are often crucial for accurately assessing the risks they pose for the emergence of viruses: scale (wholesale or retail), produce (live animals, only slaughtered meat and fresh vegetables, only live seafood; animals (domestic only or wild). Where markets do contain what many western media portray as “wild animals”, the majority of these are actually bred and farmed in captivity, such as mallard ducks, frogs, or snakes. Only a smaller proportion of animals are actually poached from the wild for sale.

Perhaps then, the first step must be to acknowledge that wet markets and wildlife markets aren’t synonymous, though they’re often used interchangeably. This semantic slippage is actually driving a lot of the confusion in the debate about whether to ban all wet markets. A permanent shutdown of “wet markets” would affect patterns of food consumption in ways that are unknowable but potentially harmful to public health. It would deprive Chinese consumers of a food sector that accounts for 30-59% of their food supplies.

What about wildlife markets?

Proponents of wildlife markets claim that criticizing such markets at the point of storage and sale of livestock undermines the interests of the producers of the livestock. During the post-Mao Chinese market reforms which began around 1978, industrial food production conglomerates – built integrated supply chains, often centered on slaughterhouses and processing facilities, and contracted livestock out to household-scale farmers. The consolidation which followed led to a drastic fall in prices and simultaneous increase in cost of inputs which subsequently drove small-scale Chinese farmers away from poultry and pork farming. These farmers found a niche in breeding locally-bred wild animals and selling them at wet markets for higher prices. The costs of input were lower because fewer animals were bred in each farm leading to fewer diseases and it reduced the need for illegal poaching. For these farmers, breeding wild animals became and remains a path toward a steady income in the struggle to live off the land in rural China.

Due to the large number of farmers, traders and consumers involved, the abolition of wildlife markets is also likely to lead to an explosion of an uncontrollable black market, as it did when such a ban was attempted in 2003, in response to SARS, as well as in 2013-14, in response to avian influenza H7N9. This would involve enormously greater risk to public and global health than the legal and regulated live animal markets in China today. And live poultry and animal markets have long served as a crucial “early warning” site for viral surveillance, including in the United States.

Is there a solution?


For instance, the issue of affected livelihoods might not be as profound as it appears. Peter Li, an associate professor of East Asian politics at the University of Houston-Downtown, said it would be possible to safeguard people’s income security while banning the sale of wildlife in Chinese wet markets. “People who work in the wildlife industry represent a small percentage of China’s enormous labor force. And the majority of people working in wildlife trade also do something else,” Li said, adding that traders who are negatively affected by a ban should be given financial subsidies to ease the transition to other kinds of work. “When people stop working in these markets, they should get some help from the government.” That could make a surge in illegal trade less likely.

One important consideration when banning wildlife markets is recognizing why people indulge in the purchase of these niche products. Game meats are widely considered to have medicinal properties among the Chinese. Therefore, a key strategy when banning wildlife markets must be to induce behavioral change among the consumers lest black markets open up again.

Li emphasized that Westerners shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that Chinese consumers must be allowed access to wildlife products because it’s part of their ancient culture. While there are classic Chinese texts extolling the healing properties of certain wildlife products, it’s not as though millions of people have been reading these texts and clamoring for such products of their own accord.

Instead, “the demand for wildlife products has been created by the industry for commercial purposes, for profit. Traditional Chinese medicine has been used,” Li said. “I have never seen a document by Chinese consumers telling the government, ‘Please, farm tigers!’ But I have seen documents by wildlife breeders telling the government, ‘Let us farm these animals so we can sell these products.’"

Pangolin scales - a wildlife product with supposed medicinal benefits

It is perhaps gainful that a campaign on Weibo, the social media platform, drew 45 million views with the hashtag #rejectgamemeat. “Eating game does not cure impotence or have healing powers,” Jin Sichen, a television presenter in Nanjing, a city in southeastern China, wrote on his Weibo page on Wednesday. “Game not only doesn’t cure disease, it can also make you, your family, friends and even more people sick." Mr. Jin added, “One must be mentally sick to eat game in order to show off and flaunt,”

In theory, it should be possible for China to permanently ban the sale of wildlife in wet markets without endangering many people’s food security, income security, and valued culinary culture by banning wet markets altogether.

But that would require the government to stop kowtowing to the wildlife farming industry, which has immense lobbying power, Li said.

For now, China is still banning sales of wildlife, with the exception of sales for medicinal purposes. What remains to be seen is whether, as in the case of the SARS outbreak, the government will lift this restriction after the world gets Covid-19 under control — or whether it will finally learn its lesson.