Why We Shouldn’t Push for a Closure of China’s ‘Wet Markets’ 

We should focus instead on getting wild and exotic animals out of what are essentially the Eastern equivalent farmers markets.

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The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and I’m off to a so-called “wet market” in Shanghai.

Now that extensive measures during what the government called the “Special Period” have been lifted, life has sprung anew in one of the world’s most populous cities with the reopening of stores, restaurants, and markets coinciding with the flowering of cherry blossoms.

Shanghai market scene
The supposed “reopening” of these markets in China has been drawing some criticism in the West as they have been associated with the outbreak of the virus in the city of Wuhan in Hubei Province. All photos by Latoya Abulu

Masks however, are still the order of the day, with continued, colorful, state-run messages encouraging citizens to fight on (加油!, “jiāyóu!”) covering walls and giant screens across the city, along with temperature checks by security personnel at all points of entry. This includes “wet markets” that are all guarded by at least two officers.

Though they have probably already taken the temperature of hundreds of people bustling about this morning, the guard at the market I visit is on alert as he checks mine. Another asks me to write my name and phone number beside my temperature reading. Depending on the market, your phone gets scanned, making sure your COVID-19 Color QR code is green. We all have had to install a mini app on our phones that tracks our location and runs a continuous contagion threat assessment on us, changing colors depending on whether or not we have crossed paths with a contaminated person.

The supposed “reopening” of these markets in China has been drawing some criticism in the West as they have been associated with the outbreak of the virus in the city of Wuhan in Hubei Province. It is suspected that the virus traveled from a bat to a wild animal to humans via a Wuhan market where wildlife was sold for meat along with livestock. Though recent research has been casting doubts on this origin story, there have been many demands that such markets be shut down.

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Coupled with its name ‘wet’ that conjures images of the unhygienic conditions and stereotypes that Chinese people “eat anything with four legs,” much of the bad press these markets are getting, which tars all such markets with the same brush, misunderstands differences in provincial cuisine, Chinese history and and nuances on the ground, such as diet choices when access to other forms of protein are limited. It also adds fuel to the growing xenophobic attacks against the Chinese and Asians.

What the Western media are calling “wet markets” are basically the eastern equivalent of farmers’ markets with a congregation of stands and farm suppliers selling you the latest and freshest haul of produce and livestock — at reasonable prices.

dry goods stall
In addition to vegetables and meats, these markets also sell homemade food with little to no packaging.

“I think there is some misunderstanding around the term ‘wet market,’ says Dr. Richard Thomas, head of communications and senior global expert for the wildlife conservation group TRAFFIC. “It basically means a market selling fresh produce, which can be anything from vegetables and herbs to aquatic products to fresh meat and live animals.”

In addition to vegetables and meats, these markets also sell homemade food with little to no packaging, while passing down traditional food knowledge in a communal environment. In general, they usually facilitate healthier diets in a country with rising obesity and diabetes rates as it shifts to a Western and packaged palate. I’ve been buying most of my food supplies from markets like these ever since I arrived in this country last year.

I pass by the fruit and vegetable stands replete with mountains of durian, bok choy, and other colorful produce and head to my favorite tofu area that stocks several provincial varieties of the soybean product. The section is full of customers haggling over prices. In front of a booth with steam rising from towers of wooden baskets holding fresh dumplings, two kids sit at a makeshift desk, studying, while two adults who appear to be their parents rush about chopping vegetables, preparing dough, and attending to customers.

These markets are also an important source of income for food vendors and small-scale farmers and savings for the lower income sections of Chinese society. On any given morning, you will find grandparents with bags of greens for breakfast walking back home from the market.

Spicy fake-meat tofu in hand, I pass by the stands selling hats and phones, the stand offering a manicure, and the livestock section that makes China notorious for the variety of domesticated animals it consumes. You can buy anything here.

But not wildlife.

Yes, wild animals, especially non-protected species, have long been sold at select local markets in certain Chinese provinces, for either their meat or as pets. But the prevalence of wildlife in local markets, as well as the conditions under which they are kept, vary.

fish and meat stalls
Fish and meat stalls at a Shanghai market. Since the Chinese government’s January decision to temporarily ban the wild animal trade and consumption during the outbreak, you’d be hard-pressed to find any wild animals on sale at any of these markets right now.

And since the Chinese government’s January decision to temporarily ban the wild animal trade and consumption during the outbreak, you’d be hard-pressed to find any wild animals on sale at any of these markets right now.

“The reports about a reopening of wet markets appear confused — most wet markets are and remain open in China, with the ban imposed on wildlife sales within them,” Thomas says. “There are no reliable reports we’ve heard of the Wuhan wet market reopening however.”

China has had several wildlife protection laws in place since the 1980s, and has been enacting more such regulations as it bulks up its efforts to create an “ecological civilization.” But until now, consumption bans were placed only on protected species, and even those bans exempted use of wildlife in traditional medicine.

Now, the National People’s Congress’ Standing Committee, the country’s topmost law-making body, along with leading Chinese conservation organizations and legal societies are mulling over how the trade in wildlife products should be regulated in the long term.

The government’s current stance on wildlife consumption is a reversal from what it promoted back in the 1970s, during the last days of the Cultural Revolution when millions of Chinese citizens were dying of starvation. At the time, the government actively encouraged the trade and use of “wildlife resources” and normalized wildlife consumption in order to increase subsistence farmers’ food base and income as part of its wider poverty alleviation efforts (which eventually helped lift 850 million people out of poverty). Wildlife farming has been part of a wider wildlife industry in China that includes conservation breeding, fur and leather industries, and tourism.

But in recent years, there been a growing shift in public sentiment around wildlife consumption in China, with more people coming out against it even though eating wild and exotic meat has become a sort of status symbol among certain sections of the country’s rising middle class. And now, with the current Covid-19 outbreak and its connections with wildlife, there has been an explosion in the volume of anger, even disgust, being expressed at the practice by many.

On the Chinese social media platform Weibo, the hashtag #支持禁绝野味市场, which translates to “support the banning of wild game markets,” went viral in February, with millions of memes and ferocious comments directed at people who eat wild game.

“All wild game makes us sick. Why don’t those who eat it just eat themselves? Savages,” said one popular Weibo post before listing diseases that emanate from human contract with wild animals.

Latest polls show 97 percent of Chinese citizens are now strongly against wildlife consumption and a hotline has been created to encourage the public to immediately report when they see and suspect wildlife being traded and consumed. The market for wild meat has decidedly shrunken.

This doesn’t mean that the Chinese public’s anger has been directed at wet markets, though surveillance and renovations to ensure hygienic standards at these markets has increased. (At in least big cities across the country where the use of surveillance technology is widespread.) The reality is that the wildlife trade for consumption isn’t limited to the meat stands in local markets. Wild meat can also be procured from grocery stores, farms and online. Other wildlife products can be found in pharmacies.

China’s wildlife farming industry is extensive. Though the Chinese government has shut down over 20,000 farms breeding and trading wildlife since the COVID-19 outbreak and warned that violators would be severely punished, law enforcement agencies in the country’s rural areas are under-staffed. Conservation groups, therefore, are concerned that the trade will simply resume over time or slip into the unregulated black market.

China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), a leading Chinese conservation group that has been in the forefront of efforts to crack down on illegal wildlife farms. The foundation believes that in order to tackle illegal trade and consumption, China needs to amend its Wildlife Protection Law. It recommends adding the term “ensure public health security” and “maintaining ecological safety” to the legislation, and wildlife classification being in line with the CITES and CBD.

“We advocate to prohibit using endangered wildlife in traditional medicine, and urge policymakers to introduce and enforce regulations and legislation so as to conserve biodiversity and habitat for securing a healthy ecosystem for the earth,” says the foundation’s spokesperson Cyan Wang.

“Moreover, governments around the globe should encourage sustainable livelihoods as a long-term mechanism to solve the problem,” she says. “In Guangxi Province, China, for instance, local departments provide subsidies for poverty-stricken farmers to raise bamboo rats to alleviate poverty … The subsidy could play a more positive effect if being used to advocate the conservation of indigenous food and agriculture genetic resources, like hogs.”

Some conservationists, however, raise concerns that the ban on wildlife trade doesn’t eliminate the use of wildlife for non-food uses such as in Chinese traditional medicine, zoos, the pet industry, and laboratory research, though it does call for heavy monitoring and quarantine measures. Some amphibians and turtles, which the government classifies as aquatic species, are also exempt from the ban.

“This creates a potential loophole for traffickers who may exploit nonfood exemptions to sell or trade live wildlife,” the Wildlife Conservation Society said in a statement. For instance, the trafficking of pangolins, whose use the country banned in 2007, still continues because traditional Chinese medicine uses the mammals’ scales to supposedly cure skin diseases and heal wounds.

Though consensus on use of wildlife in traditional Chinese medicine has not been reached by all conservation and wildlife experts, especially in China, immediate bans are not seen as feasible since it may push the trade deeper underground. In general, conservationists recommend the creation of more stringent licensing bodies, certified clinics and possible use of microchip tracking, while gradually developing alternatives to slowly eliminate the use of wildlife products.

The bottom line is if we are to avoid further outbreaks of diseases like Covid-19, we need to work to stop wildlife trafficking and wildlife markets, while stemming the trade and use of wild animals through a robust legislative framework targeting specific risks from contact with wildlife.

Exceptions should probably be made for in regions of the world where wild meat is the only source of protein, though even in these places, careful steps towards risk management and health controls need to be taken. As the Center for International Forestry Research points out, millions of people in remote rural areas as well as Indigenous communities across the world, rely on wild meat and fish as their sole source of dietary protein, fat, and micronutrients. It recommends, “in areas where there is no alternative source of protein the consumption of wild meat should be allowed to continue.”

Closing down wet markets in China isn’t going to help prevent the spread of further zoonotic diseases. Instead, it will deprive tens of millions of Chinese access to fresh and affordable food. The focus should be on keeping wildlife out of these markets and continuing to increase their hygienic standards.

“Thirteen kuai”, says the teller behind another counter as she hands me my bag of handmade noodles. Hands now full of bags of food at the best price, I pass by the meat section on my way out — no wildlife in sight.

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