They’re in global headlines every day. They’ve been ferociously condemned by everybody from the UN’s biodiversity chief to Sir Paul McCartney, who branded them “medieval”. But what actually are China’s wet markets, and do they have anything to do with the deadly coronavirus outbreak?

While many experts think COVID-19 is likely to have originated in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, with which many early confirmed cases had contact, the first thing to note is that this isn’t a wet market in the strictest sense.

A staple of Chinese life

Wet markets are an everyday destination for many Chinese people. Broadly comparable to European farmers’ markets, they stock everything from fruit and veg to fresh meat, seafood to herbs and spices, all on open-air display. As places to stroll and chat with friends and neighbours, they form an important part of the tapestry of Chinese life – and constitute a safe and affordable source of food.

They are called “wet” to differentiate them from markets selling “dry” packaged goods such noodles. It may also to refer to stallholders’ tendency to hose down their produce to keep it cool, and the melting ice used to keep seafood fresh. Many incorporate food halls, as in a western mall. Although some wet markets stock live fish and poultry, many Chinese provinces, along with Hong Kong, have banned the sale of live poultry following avian flu outbreaks in the late 90s.

The real targets for health experts’ concern are China’s “wildlife markets”. Numerous infectious diseases, including HIV and Ebola, have their origins in close contact between humans and wild animals, and this looks set to be the case for COVID-19, which scientists have tentatively concluded originated in bats. Viruses spread easily if animals are kept in cramped, dirty conditions like market cages, and can easily spread to handlers or customers through bodily fluids.

An illustration showing the suspected transmission routes of Sars, Mers and COVID-19 to humans.
An illustration showing the suspected transmission routes of Sars, Mers and COVID-19 to humans.
Image: Firas A Rabi, Mazhar S Al Zoubi et al/MDPI.com

Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market had a section selling wild animals, including badgers, wolf pups, snakes, bamboo rats and porcupines. According to a menu posted on a Chinese equivalent to Yelp, one stall offered around 100 varieties of live animals ranging from foxes to peacocks to masked palm civets. (Civet cats are thought to have been instrumental in transferring Sars from bats to humans in the 2002-3 outbreak.) It therefore wasn’t a wet market in the strictest sense, but a wildlife market.

Demands by US officials, such as chief scientific consultant Dr Anthony Fauci, that wet markets be shut down miss the point that China was never in danger of banning them, because they are an essential source of food for many. The Beijing authorities have, however, acted to restrict the sales of wild animals. Huanan market itself was shuttered on 1 January, and at the end of January China placed a temporary ban on the sale of wild animals for consumption. There are worrying reports, however, that markets in southern China have begun to reopen, offering bats, lizards, scorpions and cats and dogs, among other animals.

Leading Chinese environmentalist Jinfeng Zhou, Secretary General of the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, has called for the ban to be made permanent, and said it fails to tackle the real sources of the problem in poor regulation and illegal trade. China does have a wildlife protection law, but the list of endangered species has not been updated since its introduction in 1988 and observers say in practice the law is not enforced. “If we don’t ban the trade these diseases will happen again,” Jinfeng said.

Cultural differences

There are signs that banning the trade in wild animals and the consumption of “bushmeat” may be trickier than it looks. Part of the problem is that wild animal products form an integral part of Chinese traditional medicine. Political economist Hu Xingdou, meanwhile, told the Bangkok Post that consuming wild animals had other sociological implications that many in the West may find baffling.

“While the West values freedom and other human rights, Chinese people view food as their primary need, because starving is a big threat and an unforgettable part of the national memory,” he said. “While feeding themselves is not a problem to many Chinese nowadays, eating novel food or meat, organs or parts from rare animals or plants has become a measure of identity to some people.”

Breeding and selling wild animals, meanwhile, was until recently promoted by the Chinese government as an essential of rural development and poverty alleviation. A 2017 report by the Chinese Academy of Engineering valued the wildlife-farming industry at 520 billion yuan (US$74 billion). The shutdown, following the outbreak, of tens of thousands of farms producing everything from ostriches to wild boar runs the risk of leaving scores of families destitute.

Chen Hong, a smallholder in Liuyang, Hunan, told the Guardian in February that she was concerned about compensation after the ban decimated business for her peacock farm, and had received no notification about what to do with her unsold stock.

A vendor washes down his stall in a wet market in Hong Kong, China, August 2019.
A vendor washes down his stall in a wet market in Hong Kong, China, August 2019.
Image: Reuters/Ann Wang

Outright bans, meanwhile, could force an industry underground that the government is already struggling to regulate. According to experts, much of the trade is now conducted through e-commerce, making it tough to keep tabs on, while experts have pointed out that it would theoretically be possible for wild animals to be sold at markets intended for those bred in captivity.

A rise in racial stereotypes

Public opinion among China’s neighbours is in favour of a clampdown. A survey by the World Wildlife Fund showed that 93% of 5,000 respondents in Hong Kong, Japan, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam supported government action to restrict unregulated markets.

But it’s important for concerns about China’s wildlife trade not to tip over into judgment or discrimination. Western media stories – not to mention some political leaders – have run the risk of propagating offensive stereotypes of Chinese people, in language reminiscent of the “Yellow Peril” hysteria that accompanied the first waves of Chinese immigration to the US. Asian people report being treated on the street as “walking pathogens”, while a Chinese travel blogger was forced to apologise after eating bat soup in a historic video that bore no relation to COVID-19.

It’s essential to remember that only a small proportion of Chinese people, many of them among the older generations, eat wild animals. Meanwhile, the use of wild animals for medicinal purposes – which draws most cultural criticism, especially from the West – is unlikely to be wiped out straight away by a simple blanket ban. Criminalizing the trade will force it where regulators cannot follow – and where unsafe practices are more likely to result in further deadly outbreaks.