Chinese wet markets trace its origins and history to '70s when millions died of starvation under Mao Zedong

Decades of state-controlled rural production resulted in famine and food shortages due to the failure of the state's goal to liberalize and industrialize the agricultural economy


                            Chinese wet markets trace its origins and history to '70s when millions died of starvation under Mao Zedong
(Getty Images)

In late February the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, in effect the executive committee of the Chinese Communist Party, issued an order banning the country’s “wet markets,” including those in Wuhan, after reports that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has over 700,000 reported cases all over the world, with the United States leading the chart, could be linked to the markets. 

Eight laws - the details of which were never made public - were passed earlier this month pertaining to the ban, National Review reported. A statement from the Chinese government said that “it is necessary to strengthen market supervision, resolutely ban and severely crackdown on illegal wildlife markets and trade, and control major public health risks from the source.” 

However, on March 28, Daily Mail reported that the dank, narrow markets have come back to life after China enjoyed a brief period of no new coronavirus cases being reported in the country. “China celebrated its 'victory' over the coronavirus by reopening squalid meat markets of the type that started the pandemic three months ago, with no apparent attempt to raise hygiene standards to prevent a future outbreak,” reported the publication.

And this is not the first time that an infectious and deadly disease has been linked to the wet markets of China. The SARS outbreak in 2003, which killed nearly 800 people worldwide, was traced to a wet market in the southern Guangdong Province, prompting its temporary closure. But after the World Health Organization declared the SARS virus contained in July of that year, the Chinese government lifted the ban in August. 

A Chinese health worker checks the temperature of a woman entering a subway station during the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival on January 25, 2020 in Beijing, China. (Getty Images)

To understand why the "wet markets" of china refuse to go out of existence it is important to understand the history of these markets. 

First of all, a "wet market" traditionally refers to open-air sites selling fresh meat, seafood, and produce where meats often are butchered and trimmed right at the shops. They can be found in several places all over the world as they are not illegal. 

The wet markets in China, however, have been often criticized by health experts because they commingled traditional livestock with a wide variety of wild animals, including exotic animals like rats, civets, snakes, cats, pangolins, bats, and others. Some of these species might even be endangered. The circumstances in which customers huddle together in limited spaces to buy animal meat in these markets are quite unsanitary as blood, entrails, excrement, and other wastes from the species mix together creating the potential for the transmission of “zoonotic diseases” from animals to humans, including Ebola, HIV, bird flu, swine flu, and SARS.

China's keen interest in wildlife farming began in the 1970s after tens of millions of Chinese citizens died of starvation under Mao Zedong’s communist rule. Decades of state control of rural production resulted in famine and food shortages due to the failure of the state's goal to liberalize and industrialize the agricultural economy. As a result, farmers were encouraged to collect wild animals and breed them for their own consumption and commercial markets.

Residents shop in wet market as typhoon Hato hits Hong Kong on August 23, 2017 in Hong Kong. (Getty Images)

The practice received a boost under Zedong's successor, Deng Xiaoping, in the late 1970s when he lifted the existing state controls on rural farming. To acknowledge the fact that wild animals had become staples of rural farming, the government even passed laws that effectively protected “the lawful rights of those engaged in the development or utilization of wildlife resources.”

Soon small-time breeding of wild animals grew into a substantial industry and wild animals not only came to be used for consumption but as key ingredients in tonics and alternative medicines. After China modernized and scaled up livestock production, the consumption of wilds species became restricted to culinary adventure-seekers.

Although there seems to be no plan in place to permanently close down the wet markets of China, and there are reports of some of them being reopened despite the coronavirus pandemic still going on across the world, it might all come down to the mere question of demand with regards to putting an end to the supply chain of these wild animal meats.

Aili Kang, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asia program, told Mother Jones that COVID-19 might be the eye-opener that Chinese people needed to stay away from the consumption of wild animals. “Chinese people don’t want to touch any wild animal food at the moment, so the traders have no market,” she said.

In a February 2020 online survey of almost 100,000 Chinese residents done by the Peking University Center for Nature Society, it was found that nearly 97 percent are against eating wild animals and about 79 percent are against using wildlife products. The percentage of people refusing to consume wild animal meat was up from 50 percent recorded in 2014. 

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