COVID-19 and the wet market revolution in China

Taiyang Zhong and Jonathan Crush

Wet markets are a major source of fresh produce for urban consumers in China. Since the start of the COVID-19 epidemic they have also become an object of considerable controversy and misinformation. Some of the earliest reported cases of the coronavirus were found to have close contact with a “wet market” in the Chinese city of Wuhan. As a result, there has been a global surge of interest in wet markets, what they are, and what they sell. There have even been calls for China to close all wet markets in the country. However, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, where the virus was first identified is, as its name suggests, a wholesale market and not, strictly speaking, a wet market at all. Further complicating matters is the fact that in Chinese, there is no direct equivalent for the English term “wet market”. They are commonly called “nongmao shichang” in Chinese, which can be literally translated as “agricultural product market” in English. The “agricultural product market” is akin to farmer’s markets in the USA and Canada, or public markets in Toronto or Montreal, Canada. What, then, are nongmao shichang actually like? A typical “wet market” includes five zones: a vegetable zone, fruit zone, aquatic product zone, meat zone, and dry goods zone. That is to say, most of the area within a “wet market” is actually not “wet” at all.  Also, nongmao shichang have changed over time and a modern wet market is difficult to distinguish from the section of a supermarket selling the same goods. Look, for example, at the two photos below. What do they represent? Wet markets? Supermarkets? Both? Neither? The correct answer is that the photo on the left is taken in a wet market and the one on the right in a supermarket.
Most Chinese cities have a small number of wholesale food markets and a growing number of wet markets. In Nanjing, for example, there are over 300 wet markets located throughout the city (see Figure). A 2015 survey of food purchasing behaviour found that wet markets were the most important source of food purchase in terms of frequency of access. Over 90% of households had accessed food from wet markets in the previous year. Among these patrons, 75% visited wet markets at least five days a week, indicative of their easy accessibility throughout the city.
Location of Wet Markets and Supermarkets in Nanjing Source: Hungry Cities Partnership In the era of China’s planned economy prior to the 1970s, there were no “nongmao shichang”. They emerged spontaneously in the late 1970s and Chinese local governments immediately implemented plans for the regulation and upgrading of these agricultural product markets. No matter how they were upgraded, they retained the name “nongmao shichang”. There have been four general phases in the development of nongmao shichang. From the 1970s through to the early 1990s, they were informal open air markets, including roadside markets, without fixed stalls for vendors to sell food. The second phase of development lasted from the early-1990s to the early-2000s and was characterised by the emergence of shed markets. From the mid-1990s, the development of nongmao shichang was also included in urban plans. However, most local governments had tight fiscal budgets and nongmao shichang were moved into sheds with no walls. Food vendors had fixed stalls to sell food and payed stall rents.  From the early-2000s onwards, the third development phase saw the emergence of indoor nongmao shichang. Fiscal revenues of local governments increased due to public land leasing (land conveyance) and most shed markets were upgraded/rebuilt to become indoor markets. In this period, more and more cities also banned the sale of live poultry at wet markets.
The latest phase of complex market development started in the late 2000s. Some local governments have made efforts to upgrade nongmao shichang into “standard markets” (biaozhunhua caichang in Chinese). There are four meanings for the term “standard market”. One refers to the creation of an upgraded shopping environment that is almost like a supermarket (see photographs below). Second, besides the typical five zones of vegetable, fruit, aquatic product, meat and dry goods, biaozhunhua caichang commonly house a general store that sells goods such as beer, cigarettes, shampoo and stationery. Third, more and more marketplaces are equipped with a mini lab for rapid test of food safety. Fourth, biaozhunhua caichang are commonly found on the first or second floor of a complex where a neighborhood centre is located. There have been suggestions that nongmao shichang have lost their attraction for young people, although some have adapted to cater to youth tastes. For instance, a market in the centre of Nanjing City is attracting young people to visit it with a pizza shop that is also an internet celebrity shop. While nongmao shichang have undergone considerable change since the 1970s, what has not changed is that they are still operated by numerous independent food vendors rather than monopolized by big corporations. Most food vendors are non-local and most food stalls are operated by a couple who get up as early as 3:00 am to purchase and transport food from the city’s wholesale market to “nongmao shichang”.

Article by: Taiyang Zhong (Nanjing University), Jonathan Crush (Balsillie School of International Affairs)

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