As the world bitterly struggles with COVID-19, the origin of the pandemic has emerged as an inevitable question. The prevailing consensus links many of the earliest COVID-19 infections to a seafood market in Wuhan, China, where an enormous amount of wild animals were traded under loose regulations. Despite conspiracy theories, on April 21, the World Health Organization confirmed in a news briefing that “the virus is of animal origin.” Scientists and public health experts agree that a novel coronavirus rarely evolves into a fatal, human-to-human transmissible strain; such mutation requires frequent interactions between human beings and certain animals that carry the original virus.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s likely origin in a wet market can be understood from an economic perspective. After Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2013 remarks on “targeted poverty alleviation,” several local governments encouraged the growth of the “wildlife breeding and domestication” industry for communities to meet poverty reduction targets. As a result, snakes, bamboo rats, pangolin, and civets, now considered by researchers as suspected intermediate hosts of COVID-19, were all legally bred in China at a large scale. The rise of this 521 billion yuan ($73 billion) wildlife breeding and domestication industry, which employed at least 14 million people, many of them working under inadequate sanitary protection, sharply increased the likelihood of a fatal coronavirus strain transmitting from wildlife animals to human beings.
The Poverty Alleviation Program
Xi regards the massive poverty alleviation of hundreds of millions of Chinese people in the past four decades as a signature achievement of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since Xi took office, he has repeatedly requested that government officials and CCP cadres strengthen efforts to lift people in underdeveloped regions above the United Nations-defined poverty line. As early as 2013, Xi came up with the idea of “targeted poverty alleviation” during his visit to a rural prefecture in Hunan, kicking off a huge campaign across the country. Under political pressure to meet ambitious targets, some local leaders looked to the wildlife breeding and domestication industry as a possible means to lift people out of poverty.
The 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in China, which originated from animals traded in black markets, led to heightened attention to and regulation of wildlife trade. However, as memory of that disaster faded away and the political pressure to address poverty increased, governments at all levels loosened their regulations on wildlife animals and promulgated policies to attract poor, often rural, workers to the wildlife industry. There are several advantages associated with this industry that make it an attractive poverty alleviation program. First, there has always been a huge market demand in China for the flesh, fur, and other body parts of wild animals for food, clothing, or raw materials for traditional medicines. For example, the annual demand for pangolin scales, believed to contain swelling and promote hemostasis, reached 300 tons in 2016. Second, the industry has very low barriers for entry. Basic hunting and breeding skills are sufficient, and people living in the countryside usually have relevant experience. Third, wildlife breeding and domestication creates economic opportunities for communities that do not have many alternatives. In some cases, entire towns are devoted to the breeding of a particular wildlife animal, which in turn contributes nearly all the local tax revenue.
According to a 2017 report published by the Chinese Academy of Engineering, in 2016 there were 14.1 million people, roughly 1 percent of the entire Chinese population, working in the wildlife breeding and domestication industry, which had a market value of about 521 billion yuan ($73 billion). Eighty thousand civets, widely believed to be the intermediate host of SARS and one of the host suspects of COVID-19, were traded in 2016. Jiangxi province alone devoted more than 25 acres of land to around 200 farms for civet domestication.
Although the report boasts that the industry made significant contribution to China’s economic development and poverty reduction, it does admit that there were concerning shortcomings in the industry regulations, especially with regards to sanitary protection: “Under the decentralized business model of household domestication, the farmers usually lack good awareness of disease control.” Such warnings were seemingly ignored, and the fast-growing wildlife industry increased the risks of a novel coronavirus transmission from animals to human beings through frequent, repeated interactions.
The Post-Coronavirus Dilemma
After the breakout of COVID-19, the Chinese government began to impose severe restrictions on the wildlife industry. On January 26, several central government agencies swiftly banned all wildlife trade. On February 24, the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature, labeled eating wild animals a “corrupt custom” and issued resolutions to contain and punish such behavior. On April 8, the Ministry of Agriculture promulgated a new version of the National Animal Genetic Resources Directory, significantly reducing the number of animal species listed as food sources.
These new restrictions have caused controversy and fear among millions of Chinese households who rely on the wildlife business for a living. The frog breeding association, for example, publicly pitched the government to reconsider the decision to include frogs in the ban, but was immediately silenced and dismantled. Some private media also expressed concerns over the economic consequences of such arbitrary regulations, but Beijing has not issued a reply.
Due in part to the poverty alleviation effect, many previously underdeveloped regions of China now count on the wildlife industry for economic development. An abrupt ban could trigger a painful wave of rural unemployment, a sharp reduction in local tax revenue, and, politically alarming for many Party cadres, a failure to meet the poverty reduction targets. Future enforcement of the wildlife animal ban presents a dilemma for post-coronavirus China: firmly enforce the wildlife animal ban by relaxing poverty alleviation targets and seeing many households sink below the poverty line again, or tolerate the industry and risk spreading the next novel coronavirus.
Canghao Chen graduated from Harvard College with a BA in economics and plans to pursue an MA in economics at Columbia University. He is currently an intern with the Simon Chair in Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.