Image credit: Wuhan New Coronavirus by 正道 Ben/Flickr; Licence CC0 1.0.

Written by Peter J. Li.

Overshadowed for decades by China’s coastal cities, Wuhan – a mega city in the heart of the country – had long cried for global attention. It has finally found itself in the global spotlight, but not for the reasons it would have hoped. COVID-19, a coronavirus that emanated from the city’s wildlife wet market, has paralysed this city of 11 million.

Unlike the 2003 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) coronavirus that hit 25 of China’s provincial regions, the Wuhan coronavirus has spread throughout the entire Chinese mainland. The death toll has risen. More patients are fighting for their lives in intensive care units (ICUs). Confirmed and suspected cases have reached a staggering number. Like SARS, the COVID-19 has also been traced to wild animals sold for human consumption. It is no coincidence that the first recorded group of patients of both epidemics were workers in the wildlife wet markets.

The consumption of wild animal species has never been part of China’s mainstream food culture

In the last 17 years I have often encountered the same question: ‘Why are the Chinese so fond of eating wild animal species?’ Indeed, China’s population does consume a lot of wild animals. A popular cliché is that the Chinese will eat anything with wings except the airplane, anything with legs except the table, and anything that swims except the submarine. But the reality is somewhat different. In fact, the consumption of wild animal species has never been part of China’s mainstream food culture.

Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market, where COVID-19 originated, had a section for selling wild animals. This part of the market was filthy, smelly and chaotic. Cages of animals which had either been caught in the wild or bred in captivity – many of them lethargic, sick, and dying with open wounds caused during their capture and transport – were stacked one on top of another. The animals inside the lower cages were soaked in the blood, excrement and urine of the animals incarcerated above. Carcasses of slaughtered animals were strewn on the ground, allowing blood to flow indiscriminately. Suffering was everywhere. Traders were left to their own devices and could not care less about the animals. The market was like an ‘independent kingdom’ beyond the reach of the laws of the People’s Republic of China.

Wuhan’s wildlife wet market is not atypical. In China, the wildlife business sector enjoys many privileges and disproportionate influence. The Chinese authorities enacted a special national law in 1989, the Wildlife Protection Law (WPL), which was for the protection of this business interest rather than wildlife. To the consternation of critics, the WPL that was revised in 2016 remains a law which defends the wildlife business interest.

Wildlife is still designated as a ‘resource’ to allow for its uninterrupted use for human benefit. In effect, the revised law has actually rolled back the limited gains made by the country’s conservation efforts. By including a so-called ‘captive-bred offspring’ concept (Article 25), the revised WPL has prepared the ground for re-opening the tiger and rhino trade, suspended by the Chinese government in 1993. Today, China holds more than 5,000 captive-bred tigers. It is also experimenting with rhino breeding with the aim of utilising their horns for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) purposes.

China’s wildlife has experienced an unprecedented crisis of survival since the Wildlife Protection Law was first adopted 30 years ago. The population of Yunnan snubbed-nose monkeys, a ‘national treasure’ like pandas, has fallen to 3,000 individuals in the wild. The number of Chinese white dolphins has also gone down, to some 4,000 individuals. And China’s Yangtze alligators are now rarely seen in the wild.

A 2016 study by Chinese environmental groups confirmed that 116 (67 per cent) of the 174 species under study had seen their population drop precipitously. In China, 256 wildlife species including Chinese pangolins, Chinese sturgeons and others are more endangered than the giant pandas. Asiatic bears in China’s Changbaishan region have seen a 93 per cent fall in numbers since the WPL came into effect.

Meanwhile, wildlife farming for commercial purposes has boomed. Starting with the capture and sale of frogs, turtles and loaches, China’s wildlife farming has evolved into a gigantic business interest. In 2016, the industry produced 520.6 billion yuan (USD 81.3 billion) in revenue. The part of wildlife farming that supplied the exotic food market accounted for 24 per cent (125 billion yuan or USD 19.5 billion) of the total output.

Captive breeding for TCM was smaller in scale but still generated revenue of 5 billion yuan (USD 700 million). There are also breeding operations for the pet markets, circuses and for laboratories. For too long, the wildlife business sector has controlled public discourse on wildlife. According to its narrative, wildlife farming contributes to conservation, public health and poverty reduction. Sadly, there is no shortage of officials willing to echo these bogus claims of the industry.

Captive breeding is not conservation. Wildlife farming has created a new problem in the form of cruelty on the breeding farms. For example, bear farming in China cages over 10,000 bears for bile extraction from an open wound cut in their stomachs. Bear farm owners have claimed that bear bile is life-saving and therefore irreplaceable. And bear farming did not save bears in the wild. Traditionally, bear bile was rare in TCM prescriptions, whereas today nobody will die without bear bile. Nation-wide, bear farms are generating revenue of 1 billion yuan. However, it is neither conservation nor public health that motivates the farm owners; they are after the profits.

It is time for China to end all forms of wildlife farming and wildlife wet markets. Captive breeding can only be allowed at a level needed for conserving the wild population or for other strictly conservational purposes. The unproven aphrodisiac, bodybuilding and disease-fighting properties of exotic meats which the traders insist on are entirely unsupported claims of the industry. Wildlife wet markets are not only hellholes of cruelty but also hotbeds of disease.

China’s national legislature decided on 23 February 2020 to impose a comprehensive ban on wildlife trade and consumption as food. It is important that this ban should be written into the Wildlife Protection Law when it is next revised. Banning the trade forever is achievable. Between 2006 and 2010, China closed down thousands of polluting plants and suffered a loss of 186.9 billion yuan in revenue. In 2013, China endured another 114.8 billion yuan loss for implementing the atmospheric pollution prevention and control plan. If China was able to absorb the total cost of 302 billion yuan for its environmental clean-up, it has no reason not to shut down this trade for the exotic markets that produced revenue of 148 billion yuan in 2018.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 is a wake-up call. President Xi Jinping acknowledged that this was the worst public health crisis since the founding of China’s Communist state in 1949. China has come to a crossroads in regard to ending the hijacking of the country’s national interest by the wildlife business sector. If the wildlife business interest is allowed to continue to hold public safety hostage, then the outbreak of future zoonotic diseases of mass destruction (DMD) like SARS and the COVID-19 is unavoidable.

Peter J. Li is Associate Professor of East Asian Politics at the University of Houston-Downtown. He is also a China Policy Adviser to the Humane Society International. He is the author of the book chapter Explaining China’s Wildlife Crisis Cultural Tradition or Politics of Development in Ignoring Nature No More (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

*Articles published by The Asia Dialogue represent the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of The Asia Dialogue or affiliated institutions.


  1. Surely in 2020, we should be protecting animals nationally and advocating on their behalf. Now Coronavirus has been spread world wide as a result of China’s foul menu I cannot see any attempts to for government input to influence change in what they eat?.

    1. China should compensate all non-Chinese (especially the Italians) who have been damaged by this plague caused by the Chinese wet markets.

    2. let’s hope china will implement the 23rd feb 2020 comprehensive ban on wildlife trade and consumption as food. It is important that this ban should be written into the Wildlife Protection Law when it is next revised. banning wildlife trade forever is achievable!!!

    3. Please remember that wildlife is not part of the mainstream Chinese culture. There are some in the elite, powerful circles who eat them more even though the practice started because of extreme poverty.

  2. Why not start rewriting the Wildlife Protection Law Immediately? What excuse can there be for delay?

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